Academic publishing
The real dirty secret of academic publishing
Letter to the editor - Nature 432, 897 (2004) - original
Sir I cannot in all honesty share in the anxiety surrounding publication of a dubious paper on 'intelligent design' regarded by most scientists as a version of creationism in a journal with an impact factor of less than one. Your News story "Peer-reviewed paper defends theory of intelligent design" (Nature 431, 114; 2004) suggests that getting an intelligent-design paper into a peer-reviewed journal is a huge achievement for creationism. I am more surprised it took so long to get one in.

The paper in question presents no new arguments and is unremarkable in any way except in that it has been published. It appeared in a journal that, until this particular editorial decision, enjoyed much-deserved obscurity. Proponents of intelligent design would have us believe that this publication is a testament to the scientific legitimacy of their theory although the editor has since left and the journal has disowned the paper as "inappropriate" (see Nature, 431, 237; 2004).

In my opinion it is yet another testament to the rampant proliferation of scientific publications, resulting in a flood of inconsequential papers appearing in those thousands of journals that exist on the fringes of scientific publication.

The editors and reviewers of many low-impact journals cannot provide the quality reviewing process one gets with Nature, Science, Cell and a few (very few indeed) other established magazines, but any of them can affix the stamp of legitimacy to their outpourings by formally following the 'peer-review' protocol.

Let's admit it and this is the real dirty secret of academic publishing one can publish just about anything if one goes far enough down the list of impact factors. There are papers all around us containing problems glaring enough to fail their authors in undergraduate midterm exams. The only reason they are not in the spotlight is because they do not deal with the theory of intelligent design.

Vladimir Svetlov
Department of Microbiology, Ohio State University, 484 W 12th Avenue, Columbus, Ohio 43210, USA

Reflection:

Low impact factors often reflect small target audiences (not necessarily poor reviewing). Reviewing itself is notoriously erratic. Even the best journals occasionally publish duds. (Follow up correspondence)