Predatory publishers, peerless reviews and those who fight against the destruction of the scientific approach.
The landscape of scholarly communication falls into two main categories: a paid access business model, where journals require readers to pay for access to an article or a subscription to the entire journal itself; or open access journals, which charge authors to publish but make content available free of charge and without restrictions to readers. The rise in popularity of open access journals has resulted in more than 50 per cent of new research now being made available free online. Legitimate open access journals such as PLOS and BioMed Central have been essential in allowing greater access to science, a higher volume of published work, improved education and a greater scope for scientists to publish negative results.
There’s a downside, though. The shift to open access has catalysed a significant increase in the number of journals that are predatory in nature, with unethical practices that undermine science and the scientific process.
Predatory journals can have deceptive names, lie about their credibility, publish fake content, charge hefty fees for publication, fail to engage in a rigorous peer review process and send a plethora of spam requests to authors and reviewers. Many of these predatory journals publish research that supports a particular political, religious, or social agenda using questionable science that normally would not pass through peer review. I’ve seen predatory journals publish pseudoscientific therapies for financial gain, papers denying man-made climate change (or climate change entirely), or even claiming a newly discovered drug is efficacious, with the hope to attract investors and sell the drug over the internet without government approval.
For example, several articles have been published in predatory journals promoting an unapproved anti-cancer drug called GcMA after it was retracted from the Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Journal after serious concerns were raised at many levels during development. The Anti Cancer Fund has also spoken out about this drug, as well as the irregularities and flaws of the research. Despite this, the drug is available for purchase online in 2.2ml vials for 660 euros, and claims the efficacy has been “peer reviewed and published by some of the worlds [sic] top scientific journals.”
As the world gets to grip with fake news, we’ve landed our own scientific variety.
But not all researchers that publish in predatory journals do so with dubious intentions; many are simply fooled by scam tactics designed to earn as much money as possible. These predatory journals are not amateur scam tactics swindling a few dollars. To put things into perspective, a study released by BMC Medicine estimated the size of the market to be in the value of 74 million USD, taking into consideration the number of articles and average article processing charges for 2014.
It could be easily assumed that the researchers that are most commonly caught out are inexperienced, and at the start of their careers. This is not the case – many seasoned academics have found themselves lured by predatory publishers using colourful language and claiming to be “leading journals” in their field. In turn, the researchers that forward a manuscript are left embarrassed, out of pocket and find themselves unable to submit their paper in any other legitimate, peer reviewed journal because it has already been published. Many researchers are left extremely disheartened as their manuscript – full of data that may have taken years to collect – is now being held hostage.
In an effort to combat some of the damage that predatory publishers cause, Jeffrey Beall, an academic librarian and researcher at the University of Colorado, coined the term “predatory publisher” and started a blog to chronicle “potential, possible, or probable” predatory publishers in 2009. Beall’s list shows the number of predatory open access publishers has risen exponentially over the years, from 18 in 2011 to 1155 as of January 2017. Meanwhile, the number of hijacked journals — where counterfeit websites are created, stealing a legitimate journal’s identity and soliciting article submissions using the author-pay model — has increased from 30 in 2015 to 115 in 2017. With these figures in mind, it’s likely that the size of the market has increased above the 74 million USD first reported in the 2014 BMJ study.
To make matters worse, as of January 2017 Beall’s site was forced to shut down. It was unclear exactly why the site disappeared. At least one friend of Beall’s (also the vice-president of business development for Cabell’s International, a publishing services company), suggested that he was forced to shut down due to “threats and politics”. This was recently confirmed by Beall with an opinion piece in Biomedia Medica detailing the aggressive strategies used by predatory publisher operations to discredit and denounce his work. He believes these strategies were driven by money, competition, greed and the need to remove any obstacle in the way of increased revenue
What is clear is that Beall’s list will long remain a valuable resource for many researchers. (The list is still archived by the Internet Wayback Machine, an independent service.)
In the five months since Beall’s blog was shut down, scholarly services firm Cabell’s International has announced it will launch its own list of predatory journals on June 15 2017, although this index of untrustworthy titles will only be available to paying subscribers. As such, it’s unclear what the impact will be or how many academics and institutes will sign up once the list is released.
What is clear is that researchers need to stand up and fight for the continued dissemination of legitimate evidence-based and peer reviewed research that promotes transparency, discourse and ethical practices. The reality is that these predatory journals and publishers rely on revenue generated from authors. As such, universities and institutes need to provide training, mentorship and tools for researchers to learn how these fake publishers operate and how to best avoid them, to ensure their research is submitted and published in high quality academic journals.
Diana Lucia is a Neurocience PhD student at the University of Queensland, Australia. She is also a science communicator with her interest and experience stretching across several areas: neuroscience, promoting scientific inquiry and STEM education, advocating for women in science and examining the important issues of science in society. You can find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.