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Predatory practices pose problems for new publishing models

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New developments in technology and business are frequently followed by attempts to abuse the system. Librarian Jeffrey Beall from University of Colorado Denver, USA, uses his blog to track and report on journals and publishers that abuse open access

How did you become interested in so-called predatory journals and publishers?
I’ve been an academic librarian since 1990 and have always been interested in scholarly publishing, the organisation of knowledge, book reviewing, and the sciences. In 2009, like most academics whose email addresses are available on the internet, I started to receive spam email solicitations from publishers that immediately seemed questionable to me. The emails contained prominent grammatical errors and seemed otherwise unprofessional. I’ve done a lot of scholarly writing and I was keenly interested in exploring new venues for my research and writing. However, these publishers immediately struck me as strange, and I began to track them.

What do you see as the biggest risks and challenges with such scholarly practices?
Honest scholars bear the greatest risks. Predatory publishers aim to get money from them any way they can. Many researchers – especially those just starting their careers – are still unaware of predatory journals, so they are being victimised by them. Predatory publishers are very skilled at tricking people into thinking they are legitimate, but eventually the honest scholars realise they’ve been fooled. A dilemma occurs when honest scholars publish good research in very poor journals. It is next to impossible to withdraw the work and get it accepted in a better venue. Another unfortunate scenario involves a predatory publisher quickly accepting a paper and then surprising the author with an unexpected invoice.

There is a risk is to science itself too. Much junk science is being published, a practice that is damaging to the cumulative nature of research. I recently documented an article in a journal published by a firm called Science Publishing Group that claimed Einstein’s famous equation, e=mc2, is wrong, and that the equation really should be e=1/22mc2. The article also claimed to confirm the discovery of the nature of dark energy by a collaborator of the author, writing in another journal. Both assertions are false, yet they were published in what appears to be a legitimate journal distributed by what appears to be a legitimate scholarly publisher. Or, to use a phrase coined by Nicoli Nattrass, they were published ‘bearing the imprimatur of science.’ Yet the article is a clear example of pseudo-science.

Given that such articles are published open access and available to everyone, how will the lay public, lacking scientific expertise, be able to differentiate the authentic science from the fake? I pose this question especially in the context of the open-access movement’s goal of making research freely available ‘to everyone,’ including the taxpayers who supported it. The scholarly record is becoming increasingly polluted with junk science, yet few are raising any alarms.

How much do you see open-access publishing as a factor in dubious publishing practices?
Open access removes the voice of the reader, the consumer of scholarly research. The subscription model provides a valuable, community validation function, because when readers or subscribers are unhappy with a journal because of low research quality, poor editorial standards, and the like, they cancel their subscription. Then, when enough subscribers cancel, the journal becomes unprofitable and shuts down. Publishers of successful subscription journals are constantly trying to keep the readers happy so they will maintain their subscriptions. They do this in many ways, including publishing only top-quality research, innovating, and always trying to meet the needs of the readers and the subscribers.

Gold open-access journals aim to please the authors, their customers. We now have many hundreds of gold OA publishers, all competing for the authors’ money. To increase the proportion of acceptable articles, many journals have introduced ‘peer review lite,’ accepting works that are methodologically sound but lacking in novelty or importance. Thus we have a profusion of ‘warehouse journals’ that publish many thousands of articles of meagre quality, importance, and impact. The authors get the publications they need for their CVs, but the readers are left with an increasing number of papers to filter through.

Predatory publishers represent the extreme of these weaknesses in the gold open-access model. They exploit the model for their own profit and aim to earn as much money from authors as they can, with readers almost completely left out of the equation. I also think that – over the long term – many of the predatory publishers will prove to be ephemeral. Many are one-man operations, seeking only immediate income. They are not sustainable and will cease to exist sooner or later.

What effect does the changing geography of scholarship have on predatory practices?
The geographical location of a publisher’s headquarters is not a criterion for determining whether the publisher is predatory. Deceit and lack of transparency, however, are indeed predatory criteria. I think we have more ‘British’ journals published outside of the UK than we do within it. If publishers lie about their true locations or they don’t reveal them, I think it’s likely that they are lying about other things and withholding other important information.

What are your thoughts on the trends towards open access more generally?
I love free food, free beer, and free scholarly articles. Who doesn’t? However, I do get emails from scholars around the world complaining about the article processing charges. They bemoan the fact they have no grant funding and can’t afford the fees, and no waivers are available to them. Yes, there are platinum journals that are open access and charge no fees to publish, but these free-to-publish OA journals have become rather competitive.

Recently I’ve observed that there are many emerging businesses aimed at scholarly authors. There are editing and proofreading services, illustration services, peer-review services, and I have even found a company that offers a cover-letter writing service (for the letter that accompanies an article submission). Authors who use these services will have a competitive advantage over those who don’t. Money on the author side will increasingly play a role in determining what science gets published in the top journals and what is relegated to the others. The role of merit is decreasing.

What are your predictions for the future of predatory publishers and journals?
At this point, I see no end to predatory publishers. They are growing in number and here to stay. In addition, more scholarly publishing-related scams are emerging.

In my blog, I’ve documented what I call misleading metrics, companies that formulate and sell bogus impact factors to predatory publishers. These publishers then use the numbers to fool potential authors into thinking their journals have legitimate impact factors, a strategy that increases article submissions and therefore revenue.

I’ve also documented journal hijackings, in which unknown perpetrators create a bogus website for a legitimate journal, send out massive amounts of spam, and accept all papers submitted, pocketing the APCs. OA-enabled corruption, apparently, has no end.

Further information

Scholarly Open Access blog - scholarlyoa.com