A recent story in the Chronicle of Higher Education covers a phenomenon all of us have suspected, mainly because we’ve seen it via our editorial boards and editorial advisors — the proliferation of open access (OA) publishers with new names, unknown pedigrees, big promises, and fulsome editorial boards, which often spam our editors and advisors with offers to join the parade.
The article, entitled “‘Predatory’ Online Journals Lure Scholars Who Are Eager to Publish,” isn’t quite focused enough in its headline. It’s not online journals that are the problem. The model that is potentially predatory is author-pays OA, and those who are preying on unsuspecting academics are new and often sketchy publishers who seem to provide little more than the appearance of expediency and a whiff of rigor.
Problems outlined among the predatory journals include:
- Articles published without complete author approval.
- Articles published before payment terms were either understood or completed.
- Articles published with payment terms incomplete but then negotiated, forcing authors into an uncomfortable position.
- An editorial process that created more problems than it solved, with errors introduced during proof-reading, and authors “tearing their hair out” because of it.
- Papers published without peer-review.
Proving the maxim “sometimes even a blind squirrel finds a nut,” at least one of the journals described in this article published a useful report. However, such events seem to be aberrations, and not the result of careful peer-review, editorial, or quality control practices, much less brand-building and audience affinity.
The definition of “predatory open access publishers” offered by Jeffrey Beall, who is quoted in the Chronicle article:
. . . are those that unprofessionally exploit the author-pays model of open-access publishing (Gold OA) for their own profit. Typically, these publishers spam professional email lists, broadly soliciting article submissions for the clear purpose of gaining additional income. Operating essentially as vanity presses, these publishers typically have a low article acceptance threshold, with a false-front or non-existent peer review process. Unlike professional publishing operations, whether subscription-based or ethically-sound open access, these predatory publishers add little value to scholarship, pay little attention to digital preservation, and operate using fly-by-night, unsustainable business models.
Every business model has its logical extremes. As Sherlock Holmes once said:
From a drop of water, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other.
From an author-pays model, you can infer some people will take it too far — just as from a reader-pays model, you can infer high prices and consolidation (and, from a sponsored content model, you can infer Elsevier’s fake journals scandal). The questions will revolve about how far is too far, who determines these things, and how do we sort out disagreements.
Just as extremes are indicative of the weaknesses inherent to each model, they are not indictments. However, I do believe that the weaknesses of the subscription model and the advertising/sponsorship model are fairly well-known and monitored. We’re just now learning of the natural weaknesses of the author-pays model, and they are hard to monitor, partly because author-pays OA gets a bit of a free pass these days.
Until we understand and take stances relative to the extremes of all models, including author-pays OA, we won’t be doing all we can to improve and protect the scholarly record.