Recently, the phenomenon of fake open-access peer reviewed journals has been put under the spotlight, with blogs, a New York Times article and even a special issue in Nature covering this issue.
I just wanted to cover anecdotally my own experience with these journals here.
It all started with a post the Everything List in June 2002 where I wondered why we weren’t ants, given that ants outnumber humans many times over. For those in the know, this type of argument is known as Anthropic Reasoning, which has developed a notoriety as being the sort of argument that seems too good to be true, yet not obviously wrong. The gist of the argument in this case is that we reason from the fact that we’re conscious beings, and that there are many, many more ants than use humans, to wonder why it is we’re human beings rather than ants. The conclusion is that perhaps ants are not conscious, although the cynic might point out that ants are just too busy getting on with their lives to bother wasting time with anthropic thoughts.
I initially published this idea in my wildly speculative book Theory of Nothing, where I made an effort to quantify the extent of the problem, and head off a few retorts, such as “Why are we not Chinese”. Flushed with the success of getting the book out, I thought of extracting a couple of sections of original research, and writing them up as peer-reviewed articles. Maybe the reviewers might spot some obvious flaw that eluded me, and that would be the end of it. Alternatively, if they couldn’t find a flaw, then hopefully the argument could be taken seriously enough by the scholarly community to debate its strengths and weaknesses. We might even learn something about the tricky nature of consciousness.
The first section I tackled was the anthropic ants argument. I recall starting to write this on holidays, which would have been in January 2007, although the earliest evidence of submitting to a journal was to “Mind” on 27th February 2008. I can’t quite recall why the delay – perhaps I was allowing the paper to “brew”, but possibly I submitted it to a journal without any email trace. At the same time, I uploaded the article to arXiv.org, and it generated the delightful response Slandering Ants Anthropomorphically.
The article was rejected on editorial grounds – the editors thought it wasn’t interesting enough for their readers. Fair enough – editors are ultimately responsible for the boundaries of what their journal covers, even though according to their mission statement, my paper should have been on topic. Then a gap of nearly a year follows without any trace in my email record. I suspect I submitted it to another journal, from which I received not one sceric of email in response. Then I submitted it to Australian Journal of Philosophy. The paper was reviewed, and the referee had some excellent constructive criticism, which I duly incorporated into the paper. However, the paper was ultimately rejected because it did not deal with the historical controversies of anthropic reasoning. I did not want to add a review of historical controversies because a) mostly I don’t understand the contra points, b) it would significantly lengthen the paper, and only serve to muddy the argument. Instead, I took pains to clarify what my assumptions were, and the approach I was taking, and only make a passing nod at the literature critical of anthropic reasoning.
Next I tried the journal Erkenntnis. I did not hear anything from the editors for nearly 12 months, in spite of several email pings I made to them over the time. So I then submitted the journal to Philosophical Quarterly, who made an editorial decision that the paper was off topic.
In the meantime, the editor of Ekenntnis actually contacted me, stating that he’d had difficulties in getting referees to return reviews, although he had had one review returned. Finally, in June 2011, Ekenntnis notified me that they were rejecting the paper based on the reviewers comments – which to me seemed mostly along the lines of not dealing with generic philosophical problems in anthropic reasoning. It has become increasingly clear that anthopic reasoning has become one of those topics that’s “too hot a potato to handle”.
Having pretty much covered the gamut of appropriate traditional journals, it was time to try some of the newer open-access journals. Having had a long time association with an open-access peer reviewed journal, Complexity International, that is now, unfortunately, no longer accepting submissions, I had a favourable impression of the open access model. I submitted the manuscript to Open Philosophy Journal, which was produced by the Bentham group. If I had known about perhaps I shouldn’t have bothered. After a year, I didn’t hear anything from them, so I then submitted to Open Philosophy Journal. Quite quickly, a review came in. Clearly, the reviewer didn’t have a handle on the paper, yet after my response to the editor, the journal accepted the paper, nearly five years to the day of when I first submitted the article to a peer reviewed journal. I should have been suspicious. Only later, did I discover this publisher (Scientific Research Publishing) is listed on John Bealle’s excellent list of predatory publishers, and now realise that I have been SCAMMED!
There is little benefit in paying to have my paper put online by someone who may very well not be around next year. My article is available (in unrefereed form) through arXiv.org. Even though this paper has been through peer review, and has even been improved as a result, in the end, it may as well not have been. My idea may well be truly profound, or it may be utter horseshit. But it doesn’t look like I will find out through peer review. I don’t think I’ll bother with the other section (The “How Soon until Doom” appendix of my book). Some topics are just not suitable for the peer review process.