Last week, Nature News & Comment ran a piece with the headline “Open-access website gets tough.” In it, author Richard Van Noorden reported that the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) is cleaning house: deleting all entries from its list and “asking all of the journals in its directory to reapply on the basis of stricter criteria.” This development seems clearly to come as the result of growing concern about “predatory” journals—publications that present themselves to potential authors as rigorous and high-quality scholarly open access (OA) journals but actually do little more than collect processing fees up front and then publish whatever is submitted, often without any peer review or even meaningful editorial oversight. Because there is great worldwide demand for the opportunity to place articles in peer-reviewed journals, and because setting up a fake “journal” is both cheap and relatively simple, the appearance and growth of such scams are hardly surprising. And while the DOAJ is a highly reputable resource, the law of large numbers would lead us to expect that at least some of these fake and dubious journals would find their way into that directory.
And so they have. In the Nature article, DOAJ founder Lars Bjørnshauge is quoted as saying that he expects “about 10% of journals [in the existing directory] will not be able to pass the reapplication.” This seems like a reasonable estimate, given that the DOAJ currently lists just under 10,000 journals and a recent study by Walt Crawford found that 904 of the titles tagged by Beall’s List as “potential, possible, or probable” predatory journals have entries in the current version of the DOAJ.
In order to establish each journal’s OA bona fides and to keep the scam artists out, the DOAJ’s new application form asks over 50 questions, including the following:
- In what country is the publishing company legally registered?
- How many research and review articles did the journal publish in the last calendar year?
- What is the average number of weeks between submission and publication?
- Which article identifiers does the journal use (DOI, Handles, ARK, etc.)?
- Does the journal impose article processing and/or article submission charges?
- Does the journal have a deposit policy registered with Sherpa/Romeo, OAKlist, Dulcinea, or other similar registry?
According to the application form, access embargoes of any length will disqualify a journal from inclusion; journals that put any content at all behind a pay wall (i.e. hybrid journals) are also excluded. Otherwise, little information is provided about how the various criteria will be weighted, and it appears that the decisions will be substantially subjective. At the head of the form is the following (slightly confusing and almost chiastic) notice: “All the information provided will help our Editorial Team with their assessment, to help them make an informed decision based on the information that you provide.” DOAJ has been recruiting volunteers–most of them librarians–to help with the review process.
In addition to inclusion in the directory, the DOAJ will also provide a DOAJ Seal to identify journals that meet a set of specific criteria related to “the openness, indexability and discoverability of the journal” (though the Seal explicitly has no bearing on “the scholarly quality of the papers published in the journal”).
The DOAJ’s response to the Nature piece has been rather defensive. Two days after it ran, the DOAJ blog published a response titled “Proactive Not Reactive,” pointing out that the “process of drafting new, tougher criteria started way before the so-called ‘Science sting’ which found problems in the peer review process of many of the questionable open access journals deliberately selected for the study.” A couple of days after that, when the DOAJ revamp was mentioned on the LIBLICENSE listserv and Scholarly Kitchen Chef Joe Esposito called attention to “the role of Jeffrey Beall in initiating a process that began this reformation,” the DOAJ’s Bjørnshauge reacted quickly and aggressively. “Beall did not initiate this process!” he said, pointing out that the DOAJ began reviewing its inclusion criteria in December of 2012—though it’s worth pointing out that by that point, Beall’s List had been exposing the problem of predatory publishers for a year. In fact, when the DOAJ initiative was announced in December of 2012, the announcement explicitly acknowledged that one of its goals was to “address the issue of publishers not living up to reasonable standards both in terms of content and of business behavior.” If Beall is not to get credit for bringing the scale and growth of that problem to light, I’m not sure who should.
At first, all of this touchiness struck me as entirely unnecessary. “Look,” I wanted to say to Bjørnshauge, “you’re doing the right thing. Everyone thinks you’re doing the right thing. We all approve of this housecleaning operation. Accept the praise and carry on with the good work.”
The more I think about it, though, the more I recognize the awkwardness that the DOAJ’s initiative creates for the OA community. Over the past few years, whenever anyone has brought up any kind of problem with an OA initiative or model, that community has consistently responded with a panoply of variations on the message “Move along, there’s nothing to see here.” But the DOAJ’s housecleaning plan implies, by its existence, that housecleaning at the DOAJ is needed—or, in other words, that predatory OA publishing is a real problem that deserves serious attention. So the message we are now getting is, “Beall is wrong to say we have a problem with predatory OA publishers and Bohannon is wrong to say we have a problem with lax or nonexistent peer review among OA journals, and besides, we’re going to help fix those problems by tightening the inclusion criteria at the DOAJ.”
What will be interesting to see—and hopefully the DOAJ will allow us to see it—is the acceptance/rejection ratio that emerges from the new application process and the tighter standards. Of course, the sample of publishers that apply for inclusion will be self-selected, meaning that many of the least scrupulous publishers will simply decide not to try. But since the DOAJ is not offering any specifics about how its new criteria will be weighted, it’s likely that at least some scam artists will take the gamble. And unless the DOAJ plans to make public the names of rejected journals, the downside of applying is nonexistent; if you’re rejected but can remain anonymous, you’re no worse off than you were before.
Let’s not lose sight of the bottom line, though: the revision and tightening of acceptance standards is a welcome and praiseworthy initiative on DOAJ’s part, and there is every reason to believe that this process will make an already valuable tool even better. Kudos to Bjørnshauge and his team for undertaking what promises to be a significant—and necessary—project.