Soapbox Science

Predators in the publishing jungle

Ian WOOLEY (22-3-2010) _MG_0193

Ian Woolley is an infectious diseases physician who trained in Australia and the United States and who works at Monash Medical Centre in Melbourne. He is also Adjunct Senior Lecturer in the Departments of Medicine and Infectious Diseases at Monash University. In 2012/2013 he completed a sabbatical with the Manson Unit of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) UK during which he helped MSF respond to an outbreak of hepatitis E in South Sudanese refugee camps. 

In April 2013, I decided to count the number of unsolicited emails I received from journals that asked me to read them, write for them, review articles or be an editor for them; or some combination of the above. I counted nearly three dozen in that month alone; all were from journals that were open access in nature in some form. Like most people, I lack the time or knowledge to assess the merit of these journals and to decide whether or not they are bona fide. And until recently, perhaps naively, I hadn’t realised that this might even be necessary.

The analysis of my inbox had been prompted by an email from my boss containing a line and a link to a website: Beall’s list of predatory publishers 2013. The email felt a little like a warning since the site cautioned: “we recommend researchers, scientists and academics avoid doing business with these journals”; and if you do, “tenure and promotion committees should give extra scrutiny to articles published in these journals, for many of them include instances of author misconduct.” At the time, I was sitting in London, on a sabbatical with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), away from my usual work at a teaching hospital in Melbourne, Australia. However, I had recently updated my CV for use on the hospital’s website and sent it to my boss.  Over the previous few years I had agreed to review for, and be on the editorial board of, a number of obscure journals in infectious diseases pro bono. Reviewing is almost always financially unrewarding work, but when the papers come from resource-poor parts of the globe and there is a lot of room for constructive advice it can feel useful; and after all, the whole system of peer review works on goodwill, doesn’t it? 

The phrase “predatory publishing” doesn’t project a lot of goodwill, either as a characteristic of the publisher or of the person who is classifying them. Jeffrey Beall is an academic librarian at the University of Colorado who publishes a blog “Scholarly Open Access”, recently featured in a much debated article in the New York Times and a wide-ranging report in Nature. Titles of recent posts include “The onslaught of questionable open access journal continues unabated”, “new open access publisher launches with 66 journal titles” and “another society journal hijacked”. He clearly feels passionately about these issues. The first edition of his criteria for determining predatory open access publishers was uploaded in August 2012, and a new version in December; his decisions are made partly on the basis of colleagues who have “shared information”. The criteria themselves are a little hard for me to follow, and it is unclear how many have to be met to qualify as predatory. Some of the criteria refer to downright dishonest activities such as “the journal falsely claims to have an impact factor”, or “have concocted editorial boards (made up names)”. However, other criteria appear to be a bit more subjective such as “insufficient board members”, “operate in a Western country chiefly for the purpose of functioning as a vanity press for scholars in a developing country”, “do minimal or no copyediting”. Many of these criteria might not be obvious to a researcher who receives an invitation from a journal they are not familiar with – and the easy response to these requests would be to simply say no or to follow Beall’s judgement. This year’s list includes more than 225 publishers (“evidence of the rapid growth in the numbers of predatory journals and publishers”) and 125 individual journals are also listed.

So next time I get a request from a journal I don’t recognize that is open-access I should go to Beall’s list? There are a large number of supporting comments on the blog post that include, “This list is going to be very useful to me as a member of hiring committees, especially since the predators have started to imitate the names of serious journals.”  But there are also criticisms raised: “Did you alone read and evaluate each one of these 370 journals? Is this an individual stand alone work?” And, “I do not believe totally on your list. There are some 370 journal, which you verified and inquired. Strange!!! I checked some of them, they are doing good providing good research without subscription charges and they are open access. Is your post more to stop open access and help publishers who charge hefty amount even to read the research?” Beall replies, “perhaps we have different definitions of good research”.

The comments on the blog post also include significant discussion of cultural imperialism, the gold open-access model and how to improve it, all of which is worth reading but which doesn’t completely answer the question of what defines a predatory publisher. The problem for someone like me is that this may become the definitive list, whether Beall is right or wrong about an individual journal, with the consequent negative implications if promotion committees don’t replicate his exhaustive work themselves. There have been other attempts to provide guides to assessing whether journals are worth publishing in, but the issues remain the same: when is it worth donating time to a peer reviewed journal? When is it not worth the time? And when is it wrong because of the particular business model of a journal?

As well as the gold open-access model, there are a number of hybrid models, which give the option of paying to publish or not. Costs also vary, though cost is not a clear indicator of whether a publisher is predatory or not – open access can mean anything between $0 and $5000 of funding transferred. There is an Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, which holds regular meetings. Surely I will be able to work out which publishers are OK because they will be members? The list of members includes a range varying from Hindawi, publisher of BMRI Infectious Diseases, to the publishers of BMC Infectious Diseases (BioMed Central). In the meantime the open-access models, generally models made with the idea of being profitable whether they are from predatory publishers or not, continue to evolve and propagate, somewhat to the confusion of simple clinicians and others who might be potential authors, reviewers or editorial board members.

So what of the invites I received in April this year? Some might have been camouflaged as more famous journals (like Science PG), some offer their own hook like a new article widget (Infection and Drug Resistance), or apparently more direct routes (“article based publishing”) as models evolve that are not clearly phylogenetically defined. Today I received an email from a journal that had recently published one of our papers (a highly respectable journal) offering 1. “a Webshop Group deal to your institution save $$$”, 2. Article offprints, 3. An eye catching colour poster of the journal in which your article was published, 4. An attractive colour poster celebrating your article, 5. The opportunity to create your own book. This publisher is not on Beall’s list and publishes some of the most respected journals in medicine.

Predation involves the consumption or partial consumption of one creature by another. Predator-prey relationships demonstrate aspects of evolutionary change over sometimes short periods. Who is being consumed here and for what? We are the prey and the product is money, often public money filtered through grants and other sources. Beall has suggested that scientific literacy must now include the ability to detect publishing fraud. “It’s a jungle out there” and we have to be careful.

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