Offering “author services” is the name of the game right now. Publishers and service providers are keen to make publishing an easier process for authors. At the same time, the global research community, some under enormous pressure to publish in English-language journals, are being referred to and turning to service vendors to help them with language editing, authoring tools, pre-submission peer review, etc. The reputable vendors aren’t the only ones to see this wave of services coupled with a very large customer pool with the means to pay.
We can no longer discuss “predatory” publishing without also addressing author services providers that are taking advantage of researchers. I wrote about a cottage industry of deceit some time ago and even more evidence has been piling on—paper mills, bought authorship, guarantees to get papers in top journals, and compromised reviews have been discovered with a slew of retractions.
Donald Samulack, President, U.S. Operations, Cactus Communications and Editage, is proposing a coalition to address the issue. At the recent ISMTE Meeting in Baltimore, accompanied by Hazel Newton (Springer Nature), Josh Dahl (Thomson Reuters), Gordon MacPherson (IEEE), and Jeffrey Beall, Don presented the proposal for a Coalition for Responsible Publication Resources. The site includes his vision as well as videos from the ISMTE sessions where this was discussed.
I asked Don a few questions about why he thinks this Coalition is needed, how it might work, and about challenges that need to be faced. I am very much looking forward to your questions and suggestions in the comments section.
The idea of a Coalition for Responsible Publication Resources is, in a way, defining an author services industry as perhaps separate from, though closely linked to, the publishing industry. How big is the author services market?
In the publishing industry it is natural to think of author services as related to publishing. However, there is a much larger context for “academic services” as soon as you start to consider medical communication, language translation, artwork preparation, data curation, video production, educational services, and even the freelance community. For example, the pharmaceutical community interacts with publishing scholars and vendors in a variety of ways that the traditional publishing community does not: continuing medical education, reporting on clinical trials, regulatory submissions to government bodies, medical information services, etc. Therefore, when I think of the author services market, globally, I think of all potential points of contact that academic authors may interact with in their scholarly quest to be productive and seek supportive services for their academic endeavors.
All of these points of contact (collectively grouped as “author services”) have the potential to influence an author regarding how to derive a scholarly output appropriately, what are the various international guidelines and standards of practice, what is ethical academic conduct, and in some cases, where the service influences the quality of output (such as in the case of language translation), to act as a proxy for the author and ensure the scholarly integrity of the document.
Authors do not only learn of standards and guidelines of appropriate conduct from what they hear and what they read, they learn from what behaviors they see in their environment and experience through active engagement with providers of services or resources.
One way to look at the author services market is to consider it to include all points of contact and influence for an author, whereby the integrity of authorship, the integrity of the output, and the integrity of the literature as a whole is at stake. If you consider the author services market in this context, globally, it is huge.
A tweet out of the ALPSP meeting last week mentioned that there are over 7 million graduates per year in China. The Chinese government has been very upfront about their commitment to research and to publish high quality papers and proceedings. It would seem that there is exponential room for growth of the author services market, yes?
Yes, absolutely, but your question actually has three sides to it (growth in papers, author services, and the potential for breaches of ethical conduct). First, yes, there is likely no end in sight for the swell of papers coming out of China. But more importantly, in an Asian culture where one readily seeks supportive services from others to meet one’s academic or personal goals, and with the academic pressure Chinese scholars face, most certainly the author services industry in China will continue to experience unprecedented growth – and it isn’t only in China; it is in Latin America, the Middle East, and increasingly India. I’ve often talked openly about the tsunami of papers coming forward out of Asia, but with this swell of papers also comes a parallel swell of author services, and the huge potential for an increase in unethical conduct.
Many have written about the fact that with globalization the world has become flat, however I’ve often said “the world is so flat that, like a map on a piece of parchment, it is starting to curl.” The West has flattened the world through global commercialization. The “curl effect of globalization” brings back to the West the commercial and cultural practices of the East (the good, the bad, and the ugly).
So while we may focus on and worry about China, the “curl effect of globalization” includes all of Asia, Latin America, and will eventually also include Africa. We are only now experiencing the first swell of the tsunami.
At various conferences over the years, you have talked about your concerns with questionable services being offered–paper mills, shoddy editing services, agencies promising to help authors get published, etc. There has been debate recently here at The Scholarly Kitchen and other places about whether the so-called “predatory” publishers are really that big of a problem. In that context, how big a problem is the “predatory” author services market?
In my opinion, it is a good thing that Jeffrey Beall brought industry awareness to “predatory publishing.” If it wasn’t for the visceral affect that the term “predatory” brings to the table, perhaps as an industry we would not have paid attention. I certainly have been using the term “predatory author services” deliberately, over the past year, for exactly the reason that the term “predatory” carries emotion with it, and attention to it.
Whether the term predatory or other descriptors like deceptive, unscrupulous, or despicable should be used, there are certain unethical publishing practices that are not simply deceptive, they are truly predatory, because they target a specific author community that is either unaware, or culturally predisposed to be scammed.
Unfortunately, the term predatory has, until recently, only been interpreted in a narrow sense related to publishing. In fact, predatory practices can now be found in every aspect along the axis of publication, from the solicitation of papers and editorial board membership, pre-submission author services, Impact Factor look-alike companies, hijacked journals, hijacked author services, promises of peer review, and peer reviewer fraud itself. Many of these unethical practices stem from a human condition of greed in commerce – where there is a buck to be made, there is someone who is willing to devise a scam to optimize that revenue stream. While this has been going on for centuries, and is prevalent in many cultures, the publishing industry is built on “trust” (a topic that you have written about previously in The Scholarly Kitchen). This cornerstone of trust is now being eroded by the challenges brought forward through the curl effect of globalization.
So how big is the problem of predatory practices? I suggest that it is as deep and wide-spread as the challenges related to the clash of cultures and mechanisms of commerce, between West and East. We see English language challenges leading to plagiarism, and publication pressures leading to peer reviewer fraud, data fabrication, and other forms of publication fraud; some of it by the individual, and some of it by unscrupulous, if not predatory, practices of companies. The truly scary thing is that some of the practices that lead to these outcomes are deeply rooted in the human condition; including corrupt behavior.
The problem is pervasive, and it is not going away any time soon. In fact, I predict that it is a problem that will continue to transform and expand in the coming years. For those naysayers who say that there is no evidence of people getting hurt, I say look again – money and reputation is essentially being extorted from unsuspecting authors who are caught up in scams, and careers are being hurt by those unknowingly publishing in falsely represented journals, or who find their names hijacked on mastheads of obscure questionable journals.
At the ISMTE meeting, you proposed forming this coalition that would verify vendor services but also audit the services on an annual basis. Some examples of activities that you think a reputable vendor might be engaged in are memberships in certain societies, training with certain certifications of staff, etc. Some of these activities are very US-based. How do you build common qualifications for author services without excluding reputable services based in other countries?
Good question. Let me clarify that the Coalition is made up of its membership, and membership is achieved through disclosure of basic business structure and practices in a very transparent way using a standardized audit. An individual or an entity can earn status as a Member once their business structure and practices are deemed by a Coalition committee to meet expected norms, guidelines, and standards of practice.
It is not expected that every individual or entity will meet every criterion; the audit is meant as a standardized template for disclosure. What is important is that the individual or entity goes on record in a public way to disclose that they are structured as ABC, doing business as XYZ, and abide by stated principles and practices defined by international guidelines and recognized bodies. In different countries and academic domains, these disclosed criteria will be different (the audit will allow for open-ended disclosures and the audit criteria will evolve over time as the Coalition learns and adjusts). What is important is that an individual or entity is transparent about who they are, what they do, and how they act, in a verifiable way.
The fine print of the call-to-action slides I presented at the ISMTE meeting was solely meant to be familiar to and resonate with the audience to whom I was presenting. Given the limited space of a single slide infographic, such terms as ICMJE, ISMTE, COPE, ISMPP, GPP3, ISO, CMPP, BELS, etc. were chosen because they were intended to resonate with the Western audience of managing and technical editors I was presented to; I will apologize right now, and state that I had intended to include ORCID in the infographic, but forgot – I apologize to ORCID and I will not repeat the mistake (of course, there were many other organizations that were also not mentioned).
Equally, if I were filling out the audit as an individual or entity, I could disclose that I am a recognized vendor by WHO, or UNESCO, and that I abide by the Declaration of Helsinki as it relates to the participation of humans in clinical trials – the country and scholarly sector specific nature of the disclosures do not matter, as long as they are valid. Transparency, discoverability, and accountability are intended to be the goals of the Coalition audit.
What is important – especially in a strategy to identify irresponsible practices – is that there is a transparent disclosure of the structure and fabric of the business, and how it relates to assurances for the author that the author is interacting with a responsible resource: a Member of the Coalition for Responsible Publication Resources.
This idea for a coalition centers around author services and not really on publishers or journals. That said, publishers are basically turning themselves into providers of author services either by developing their own services or partnering with companies like yours. Do you think that this credentialing that you are proposing will be extended to publishers?
It is unfortunate that the industry call-to-action was presented in a session that headlined as “predatory author services,” but quite honestly, this was probably the only way such a call-to-action would have been included in any conference agenda with enough time allotted to be able to articulate the concept.
While “responsible author services” are one goal, “responsible author resources” are the ultimate goal. As mentioned earlier, the Coalition is to include all individuals, entities, and resources that an author interacts with, and that includes publishers. The Coalition is meant to be voluntary, inclusive, and global, and membership is not meant to be costly. As a non-profit, the financial model of the Coalition would be based on a very large number of low-cost membership fees, and where possible, industry grants.
While it is mentioned in the call-to-action presentation that the “common purpose” is to help preserve the integrity of the scholarly literature by ensuring transparency, discoverability, and accountability of responsible scholarly services to industry norms, guidelines, and best practices, so that academic authors can make informed decisions at point-of-service when seeking publication support and when publishing their scholarly works, the mission and structure of the Coalition has yet to be fully defined.
So I’d like to emphasize that indeed, since the start, the concept of the Coalition was to include publishers, journals, scholarly societies, pharmaceutical companies, educational resources, and any individual or entity that authors interact with. Remember that the goal of the Coalition is to develop various means to provide assurances for the author that the author is interacting with a responsible publication resource, no matter what form it is in.
Assuming that predatory author services is a big problem, couldn’t you just work with COPE to build new guidelines around best practices and call it a day?
The idea of the Coalition is not to derive another set of best practices or guidelines. It is intended as a cross-industry attempt through coordinated strategies, tools, and efforts, to influence author and vendor behavior at “point-of-service.” One goal of the Coalition should be to provide the author a means of identifying whether or not they are interacting with a person, entity, or resource that has a history of acting responsibly, has the author’s best interests at heart, and has as the integrity of the scholarly literature as a goal; irrespective of whether the author knows that publication guidelines exist.
Unfortunately, it is no longer sufficient that we have the right guidelines in place, or that we enforce those guidelines, or whether or not an author knows what the guidelines are. The pervasiveness of fraud may soon extend beyond our ability to readily detect it (for example, selective data theft from open data sources by paper mills), and we cannot rely on education, guidelines, and guideline enforcement alone to prevent it.
The choice to undertake inappropriate actions to commit or facilitate publication fraud is a human condition. Because we may not be able to change that human condition, we need to take steps to protect the author who innocently succumbs to what international guidelines determine to be unethical behavior. I believe that an innocent individual succumbs to inappropriate behavior through lack of understanding of guidelines (an educational need), or the inability to identify others who do not follow guidelines (an unmet need). It is the latter, where I believe the role of the Coalition comes into play. An interactive Coalition badge at point of service, much like the marks of the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval”, “Better Business Bureau”, and “Verisign” (all registered trademarks), can become a recognized mark of an individual or entity that is providing responsible publication services.
All author behavior and the ability to influence author decisions needs to be addressed prior to publication – before a physical episode of suspected fraud has taken place.
Neither COPE, nor any other organization that I know of is structured to take on this task, and there is currently no industry body that oversees the activities of the vendor community; it needs to be a cross-industry initiative. Could COPE take on this task? Sure they could – any organization could. Is it in their vision and mission? I’m not so sure. When I originally approached COPE last winter to hopefully schedule the call-to-action session in the COPE North American Seminar 2015 prior to the ISMTE Annual North American Conference, I was informed by a COPE representative that the role for COPE was to advise Editors, and that the topic of company self-regulation may not be one for a COPE audience; to be fair, very little information or awareness of the pending Coalition initiative were publicly available at the time of these early conversations, and the final topic of the COPE meeting was not conducive to discussion of issues the concept of the Coalition is trying to address. Whether the described framework of COPE activities holds true today, or in the future, I invite COPE to join the Coalition so that we can work as a team; each Member with its own strengths and strategies to enact change.
The concept of the Coalition is that it is a “body of bodies” with a common purpose. While each body has a role to play within its own mandates, collectively as a Coalition there is a concerted approach (greater than a sum of its parts) to intervene and change author behavior at the point of engagement. The interactive badge I have proposed may be a Coalition-wide approach, but this does not take away from the importance of any other initiatives undertaken by other members inside or outside the Coalition.
There have been growing concerns with any “blacklist” and/or “white list” approach to calling out services. How do you see a coalition as a better solution?
The Coalition approach (and especially the use of an interactive badge as the Coalition mark), is in essentially a “white list” approach, but with added guidance to the engaging author at “point-of-service” – this is the differentiating factor. If we can train the author to look for the Coalition badge at point-of-service, then we are helping the author determine that they are interacting with responsible resources at the point of engagement. These responsible resources will also be cataloged and searchable on the Coalition website.
So how does the concept of the audit and interactive badge work?
The Coalition website would host a process, including an electronic submission form that represents the audit questionnaire (transparency of criteria). An individual or entity, by completing the form makes a declaration to the Coalition about who they are, how they operate, what services they provide, and what professional standards they adhere to or abide by (transparency of business practices). The completion of a minimum set of criteria in the audit (yet to be defined, but likely the simple disclosure of business structure and intent) would prompt the Coalition to issue a web-dynamic badge that links to the Coalition server and states “Provisional Member,” before the actual determination of membership takes place (benefit of the doubt; unless the individual or entity is known to have a history of irresponsible behavior). The individual or company would be prompted to place this web-dynamic badge at points-of-service, as per their discretion.
Once this stage of membership is achieved, a designated industry-matched Committee within the Coalition would review the audit and either approve or reject membership in the Coalition, based upon not only the declarations in the audit, but taking into consideration a body of knowledge about the individual or entity from other sources (including past feedback from the form on the Coalition server, linked to from the interactive badge).
Upon approval of membership a new badge is issued stating “Member,” and it is at this time, and on the anniversary of this event (upon submission of an updated audit), that membership fees would be due. This badge would link to a summary of the audit disclosures and a feedback form. Once a Member, the badge would not change, but the summary of the audit disclosures would be updated behind the badge, from year to year, or at any time of change or failure to update the audit annually. The author, or any individual, could challenge any aspect of the audit disclosure, or report irregular activities of the Member, by giving feedback through the electronic form behind the badge, or by visiting the Coalition website to offer feedback (landscape feedback and industry self-regulation).
All feedback would be presented to the Member with a request for qualification; providing an opportunity for reconciliation of a minor breach of conduct. Any serious discrepancies of information with respect to the audit, or inappropriate behavior with respect to internationally recognized norms, standards, or guidelines of practice would led to informing the Member of discontinuation of membership, and clear identification of retracted membership status in the summary of the audit behind the badge (likely forcing the individual or entity to want to remove the badge; an alternative technology strategy could involve controlling the visible placement of the badge in a designated frame on the individual or entity’s website, allowing it to be pulled from sight in a situation of non-compliance – each strategy has pros and cons, and roll-out may require a combination of strategies; not intended to be a topic of discussion at this time).
The end result is an interactive membership badge issued and controlled by the Coalition at the online point-of-service where the author interacts with the individual or entity for services or resources related to publication. The author can be trained to look for the badge and click on it to ensure the authenticity of the badge, as well as to review the transparency of criteria that defines the responsible nature of the business they are engaging with (in itself an educational strategy).
An individual or entity that is not acting responsibly at the time of membership application, or over time, would not be able to sustain membership status and would be at a commercial disadvantage once mainstream identification of the Coalition mark becomes a standard practice.
What challenges do you see ahead for your proposal?
The first and major challenge is to change the industry “conversation.” We need to stop thinking about “predatory publishing” as being an issue of Open Access, and accept the fact that the issue of publication fraud is much larger than the identification of predatory publishers. We have become too fixated and myopic in the vision of what the problem is. Issues of irresponsible behavior or fraud related to the act of publication, or within author services supporting publication, are problems stemming from the human condition, cultural differences, and greed – nothing more, nothing less. It does not fall under a single label, and so we need to think differently, and act differently.
The second is that this issue is too vast for individuals or individual bodies to take on by themselves; it is cross-industry and global in nature. Every industry association, oversight-body, and entity needs to somehow coordinate their efforts, while maintaining proficiency at what they do. Editage and Cactus Communications (the company I work for) has been 500% supportive from day one of my efforts to bring attention to the Coalition vision. In addition, other individuals such as Hazel Newton (Nature), Josh Dahl (Thomson Reuters), Gordon MacPherson (IEEE), and Jeffrey Beall have been instrumental in helping me bring forward the vision of the Coalition and call-to-action.
Nothing happens by itself. It is now time for others in industry to step up to the plate. I have initiated an open call-to-action through the website and its “Feedback” form. I ask that everyone use the form to comment, seek further information, and/or offer support. Currently, there is an open call for industry alignment and support in the form of development grants.
The next stage (currently underway), is the further development of the Coalition website and the technology behind the badge. The final stage, once a critical mass of industry alignment is achieved, is the formal incorporation of the Coalition as a non-profit entity, so that there is a legally defined membership-issuing body in place. We can only get from where we are now, to where we need to be with industry alignment and support. Once a critical mass is achieved, I believe that the Coalition model will be self-sustaining and change the way we think about problems related to the integrity of the scholarly literature.
In my opinion, we’ve got to stop talking about it, and do something about it. The concept of the Coalition and the interactive badge as a mark of membership in the Coalition is my contribution to the conversation, and I am committed to bringing this concept and structure forward to fruition. I thank you and The Scholarly Kitchen for bringing attention to these efforts, and I encourage those in industry who share a common vision and who are interested in financially supporting the launch of such an initiative to contact me so that we can coordinate efforts.