Magazine article Information Today

Information Hijacking

Magazine article Information Today

Information Hijacking

Article excerpt

It seems that the U.S. and U.K. were dragged into a war in Iraq by gossamer strands of intelligence of dubious quality and from suspect sources. That the spin doctors were so skillfully able to twist these strands into a web of fear surprises no one. However, the subsequent human suffering and the realization that these nations are now locked into spending a billion dollars a week in an attempt to keep the lid on the simmering cauldron of violence that's partly of their own making has shocked most of us into being very wary of such blatant information manipulation.

The hijacking of information for alternative purposes is clearly nothing new. Recent evidence suggests that the three kings of biblical fame were probably not of royal extraction and possibly not even men. But thankfully, the patriarchal storytellers of 2,000 years ago realized that the description "personages with leanings towards astronomy" doesn't lend itself well to carols.

And scholarly publishing is certainly not immune to manipulation. For many decades, the tobacco industry successfully claimed that smoking is really rather good for you--and backed this up with relevant peer-reviewed research published in prestigious journals. Thankfully, however, charlatans are the exception. Traditional peer review with quality control by trusted editors continues to ensure that we can have confidence in what we read (mostly) in the scholarly publications of note.

But is all this about to change? Discussions abound about the alternatives to the traditional peer-review and publishing models. In addition, the steady migration of print to electronic format means that every stage in the information chain becomes vulnerable to new forms of information hijacking.

I asked Stevan Harnad, professor of cognitive science at the U.K.'s Southampton University, for his views. He is recognized as one of the world's leading advocates of open access, open archiving, and open citation linking.

Q: Alternatives to traditional peer review and traditional publishing models are supported by many in the industry but are clearly open to abuse. Or not?

A: I am not an advocate of alternatives to traditional peer review, and we need to be clear that the open access movement is about freeing access to peer-reviewed articles, not about freeing those articles from peer review.

There are 24,000 peer-reviewed journals publishing 2.5 million articles a year based on formal peer review, mediated by a qualified, answerable editor. It can be open access before peer review (as preprints) and after (as refereed postprints), but the peer review and the peer-reviewed journal label are exactly as they were in the paper era.

Confusing alternatives to peer review with the open access movement is like asking me about the possible consequences of my ceasing to beat my wife--when I do not and have never beaten my wife. Indeed, I am not even married.

Q: You place great faith in the traditional peer-review process in spite of cold fusion having had to suffer a cold shower and the homeopathic memory of water now just being a bad memory.

A: All human judgment, even expert judgment, is human, hence [it] occasionally errs. The fact that doctors sometimes make mistakes does not imply that we should rely on quacks instead. Besides, cold fusion was stopped in its tracks before peer review--good evidence for the fact that open commentary is a useful supplement to peer review but not that it is a viable substitute for it.

Q: The gold standard is set by good peer review with quality editorial control. But for lower-quality journals, peer review simply adds unjustified credibility to mediocre material, surely?

A: Agreed. And the whole research community knows this. And it was as true in paper days as online and for toll access as well as open access. The hierarchy of peer-reviewed journals grades down from the highest quality ones at the top, with the most rigorous peer review and usually the highest rejection rates and impact factors (for their respective fields) all the way down to a virtual vanity press at the bottom. …

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