In an earlier posting, I suggested that the term “predatory publishing” has perhaps become too vague and subjective to be useful, and I suggested “bad faith” as a possible replacement term. But in light of the subsequent discussion in the comments section of that posting and after continuing to think about the issue, I’d like to suggest another alternative to “predatory,” one that offers more precision and usefulness: “deceptive.” Deception, it seems to me, is the common thread that binds all of the behaviors that are most commonly cited as “predatory” in journal publishing, and I think it’s the most meaningful and appropriate criterion for placing a publisher on a blacklist. Furthermore, “deception” is (unlike “predation”) a concept with a fairly clear and unambiguous meaning in this context.
One note up front: this posting will focus on deceptive journal publishing. Deceptive monograph publishing seems to me much less of an issue, and I won’t address it here. At the other end of the importance spectrum, my colleague Phill Jones has also recently brought up the issue of predatory conferences, which I believe is very important–enough so that I think it merits a separate discussion.
Varieties of Deceptive Publishing
It seems to me that deceptive scholarly publishing currently has four major manifestations:
Phony Journals. These are journals that falsely claim to offer to the reading public documents based on legitimate and dispassionate scientific or scholarly inquiry. Such journals may be made available on either a toll-access or an open-access basis. One notable example from a few years ago was the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, which was published by Elsevier and presented to the world as a journal of objective scholarship, but was later revealed as a promotional sock-puppet for a pharmaceutical company—one such journal among several, as it turned out. Truly phony journals of this sort, though egregious, seem to be relatively rare.
Pseudo-scholarly Journals. These are journals that falsely claim to offer authors real and meaningful editorial services (usually including peer review) and/or credible impact credentialing (usually in the form of an Impact Factor), and thereby also falsely claim to offer readers rigorously vetted scientific or scholarly content. In this case, the content may or may not be legitimate scholarship—but the journal itself is only pretending to provide the traditional services of peer review and editorial oversight. This is perhaps the largest category of deceptive publisher, and also one of the more controversial ones, since the line between dishonesty and simple ineptitude or organic mediocrity can be fuzzy. For this reason, it makes sense to exercise caution in ascribing deceptive intent to these journals; however, in many cases (such as those that falsely claim to have an Impact Factor, that lie about their peer-review processes, or that falsely claim editorial board members), deceptive intent can be quite clear.
False-flag Journals. These are scam operators that set up websites designed to trick the unwary into believing that they are submitting their work to legitimate existing journals—sometimes by “hijacking” the exact title of the real journal, and sometimes by concocting a new title that varies from the legitimate one only very slightly.
Masqueraders. This looks like a variety of hijacking, except that there is no actual hijackee. In these cases, journals adopt titles designed to imply affiliation with a legitimate- and prestigious-sounding scholarly or scientific organization that does not actually exist. For example, a Masquerader journal might call itself the American Medical Society Journal or Journal of the Royal Society of Physicians.
(Are there other significant manifestations of deceptive publishing in the scholcomm space? Please comment.)
Why a Blacklist?
The prospect of setting up a blacklist raises a number of difficult and important questions. Here are some of them, followed by my suggested answers:
Does it make more sense to talk about deceptive publishers or deceptive journals?
Focusing on the journal at the title level is probably the best general approach, since not every such journal is part of a suite of titles put forward by a publishing organization. However, it’s also worthwhile to take note of publishers that have a pattern of putting out deceptive journals.
When we talk about “predatory” publishers, why do they seem always to be open access publishers?
There are two reasons, I believe: first, because this kind of scam simply works best on an author-pays basis, and author-pays models are, for obvious reasons, far more prevalent in the open access world than in the toll-access world. The second reason, I believe, is because Jeffrey Beall is the only person who has yet taken the initiative to create and manage a predatory-publishing blacklist, and Beall himself is a vocal opponent of the open access movement, which he has publicly characterized as “really (being) about anti-corporatism” and accused of wanting to “deny the freedom of the press” to those it disagrees with, of “sacrific(ing) the academic futures of young scholars” on the altar of free access, and of “foster(ing) the creation of numerous predatory publishers.” There have indeed been deceptive and arguably “predatory” toll-access journals, and the only reason I can think of for their exclusion from Beall’s list is his specific opposition to the OA movement. As important and useful as his list has been, a more credible and useful blacklist would, I think, have to include deceptive toll-access journals—and would have to be more transparently managed. (See further discussion of both points below.)
What’s the difference between either an inept publisher or a legitimate publisher of low-quality content, and a truly predatory or deceptive publisher?
The difference lies in the intent to deceive. Deceivers are doing more than just running their journals badly or failing to attract high-quality content. In some cases they are lying about who they are and what they’re doing; in others, they are promising to do or provide something in return for payment, and then, once payment is received, not doing or providing what they promised. Some focus their deceptive practices on authors, some on readers, and some on both.
What about toll-access publishers that engage in predatory pricing?
While I think it’s worth calling out publishers who, in our view, engage in unfair or unethical leveraging of their monopoly power in the marketplace, this seems to me like a very different problem from that of essentially deceptive publishing. It’s also an issue that is clouded by the fact that raising prices is not, in itself, necessarily unethical (unlike deception, which is).
Is it actually helpful to identify and call out these publishers? Why do we need blacklists? Can’t we just have whitelists (like the Directory of Open Access Journals)?
Whitelists are good and important, but they serve a very different purpose. For example, a publisher’s absence from a whitelist doesn’t necessarily signal to us that the publisher should be avoided. It may be that the publisher is completely legitimate, but has not yet come to the attention of the whitelist’s owners, or that it is basically honest but doesn’t quite rise to whatever threshold of quality or integrity the whitelist has set for inclusion, or that it is still in process of being considered for inclusion. The function of a blacklist is also important, but it’s very different. Among other things, it acts as a check on the whitelist—consider, for example, the fact that just over 900 questionable journals were included in the Directory of Open Access Journals (currently the most reputable and well-known OA whitelist on the scene) until its recent housecleaning and criteria-tightening. If Walt Crawford hadn’t done the hard work of identifying those titles (work that, let’s remember, was made possible by Beall’s list), at what point, if ever, would they have been discovered and subjected to critical examination?
Is anyone really fooled by these predatory publishers? Wouldn’t any idiot recognize their phoniness immediately?
Apparently not, in light of the DOAJ’s recent experience. Furthermore, it’s not just about whether authors are being fooled; it’s also about whether predatory publishers help authors to fool others. Consider this hypothetical but realistic scenario, for example: an author is coming up for tenure review, and needs a few more peer-reviewed, high-impact journal publications on his list in order to be given serious consideration. This situation creates for the candidate an incentive to go with a deceptive or predatory pseudo-scholarly journal in the full knowledge that it is not legitimate, gambling that his tenure committee will not go to the trouble of researching the legitimacy of every journal on his publication list. Remember that even if a deceptive journal has a transparently phony-looking website, it may still yield a citation that looks, to the busy reader, perfectly legitimate and natural nestled among other equally legitimate-looking citations on a CV. A well-researched, fairly managed, and transparently maintained blacklist could make every tenure or hiring committee’s work quite a bit easier.
Nor is the danger posed by deceptive publishers limited to the academic sphere. Journals that have the appearance of scholarly and scientific rigor but that in fact will publish whatever an author is willing to pay them to publish poses risks to the general population by giving the appearance of scientific support to dangerous, crackpot pseudoscience. (Does this really happen? Yes. Oh yes, it certainly does.)
How to Do It Right?
So assuming that blacklists actually are desirable, how should a blacklist be run? What would a well-researched, fairly managed, and transparently maintained blacklist look like? Obviously, there are serious issues of fairness and accuracy here—if you’re going to publicly accuse a publisher of presenting its products and services deceptively, you need to be able to back up your assertions and you need to be able to demonstrate that the criteria by which you’re making your judgments are reasonable and are being applied consistently. To that end:
- Criteria for inclusion must be clear and public.
- Those criteria must be applied consistently to all publishers, regardless of business model.
- The specific reasons for a publisher’s or journal’s inclusion must be provided as part of its entry.
- There must be an appeal process, and the steps required for appeal and removal must be clear and public.
- Appeals must be addressed promptly, and when denied, the reasons for denial should be clear and public.
- When a journal is removed from the list, the fact of its removal and the reasons for it should be clear and public.
- When a journal has been added to the blacklist erroneously, the error should be publicly acknowledged and the list owner should take responsibility for the error.
Are there roadblocks to the creation of such a blacklist? Yes, many. For one thing, it would be costly; the research required to set it up and (especially) to keep it running in a fair and transparent manner would be considerable.
For another thing, the politics of running such a list are and would continue to be fraught. The publishers designated as “deceptive” will, in some cases at least, get upset. Sometimes their objections will be well-founded and the list owner will have to back up and apologize. Furthermore, there are some in the scholarly communications world who, for whatever reasons, don’t want deceptive publishing to be discussed. Sometimes these commenters become publicly abusive, so whoever owns and operates the blacklist will have to have patience and a thick skin.
The owner of a blacklist will also need to have a relatively high tolerance for legal risk. If managed correctly, a list like this should create little if any risk to its owner of being found guilty or liable of wrongdoing in a court of law — but it will entail a relatively high risk of being sued (as Beall has learned from experience). Those who make their living by scam and deceit will often run for the shadows when light is shone on them — but not always. Sometimes they try to shoot out the light.
Would the benefit be worth the cost? I suspect so. The big question is whether there exists an entity willing to invest what it would take both to undertake this important project and to maintain it consistently, fairly, and transparently.