[Note from Joe Esposito: Not long ago Jeffrey Beall took a swipe at the Scholarly Kitchen. The consternation of my fellow Chefs was evident in the discussion that followed: What’s he getting at? What motivates him? Why is he doing this? Rather than speculate, I thought it would be a good idea to allow Beall to speak in his own voice. The interview below was conducted via email. Beall reviewed all final questions and responses.]
Esposito: What first drew your interest to open access (OA) publishing and caused you to study it?
Beall: I first became interested in questionable journals and publishers in 2008, when, as an assistant professor on tenure track, I began to receive ungrammatical spam emails from fishy-looking gold open access publishers, publishers I had never heard of before. I used to print them out and keep the printouts in a blue folder. I eventually drew up a short list of the suspicious publishers (this was really before mega-journals had appeared) and quietly published the list on an old blog I had.
Esposito: At what point did you come up with the term “predatory” to describe the fishy-looking publishers?
Beall: In 2010. I first used the term in this article published in a journal called The Charleston Advisor.
Esposito: In that paper you write:
“These publishers are predatory because their mission is not to promote, preserve, and make available scholarship; instead, their mission is to exploit the author-pays, Open-Access model for their own profit.”
Your formulation seems to leave open the possibility of Gold open access publication that is not exploitative. Is that indeed your point of view?
Beall: Correct, in theory, there’s nothing really wrong with the gold open access model, and there are numerous examples of it working well. While the model does have a built-in conflict of interest (more papers accepted leads to more revenue), it’s the exploitation of the model for gratuitous profit that is of concern, and not so much the model itself. There are many hundreds of OA journals and publishers that are not on my lists.
Esposito: Could you provide some examples of Gold OA journals that subscribe to good principles for publishing? That is, what are some journals that are not predatory, in your view?
Beall: The particular niche I’ve carved out involves identifying predatory or otherwise low-quality or deceptive scholarly journals. Although I receive many requests to identify good or high-quality journals, I choose to leave this identification to others, especially those in the particular fields the journals represent.
Esposito: You have been criticized for supporting a blacklist instead of working toward a whitelist. Do you have any views of the relative merits of blacklists and whitelists?
Beall: I’ve had lots of conversations about the strengths and weaknesses of journal whitelists and blacklists, and every one has been interesting. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. There are examples where whitelists have been shown to be monumental failures. For example, the Bohannon sting in Science two years ago found that 45% of a sample of publishers included in DOAJ accepted a bogus paper submitted for publication. I know that DOAJ has tried to make improvements, but in fact, in my opinion, it’s never really recovered from this telling, major failure.
Because you’re not an academic yourself, you may not realize or understand the amount of spam that researchers receive today. They are bombarded with spam emails from predatory publishers, many of whom are easily able to defeat spam filters. For those needing to eliminate questionable or low-quality journals or publishers from consideration, a blacklist has great value as a time-saving device. You can quickly check whether a journal’s publisher is on the list, and if it is, you can immediately remove it from consideration, saving valuable time. My lists are used by governments and universities and colleges around the world and are found especially valuable in developing countries, where predatory publishers especially target researchers.
Esposito: Have you codified the criteria for evaluation of a journal before putting it onto your list? If you have, are the criteria publicly available?
Beall: Yes, the criteria, currently in the 3rd edition, are available here.
Esposito: The current version of that document was posted a year ago, yet you are often criticized for not being transparent about your practices. Have your practices changed over the years? Have you been listening to your critics and modifying your practices where you saw a reason to?
Beall: My work has benefited from the help, assistance, and guidance of many valuable mentors over the years. I’ve gotten tremendous support, much of it given quietly, and I am very grateful for it. I receive emails almost daily thanking me for my work.
The criteria document, now in its third edition, reflects changes in scholarly open access publishing and the evaluation and criticism of it.
In most cases, the evaluation of predatory publishers and journals is easy and obvious, and there is no disagreement. For example, if an open access journal promises a one-week peer review and falsely claims to have an impact factor, few will disagree that it should be flagged.
Your repeated references to unnamed critics are fallacious. You’re begging the question of whether they or their arguments are credible. Predatory journals and publishers are hurting science and corrupting scholarly communication.
Esposito: You criticized DOAJ for including publishers you termed predatory. Subsequently DOAJ changed its guidelines for inclusion, but there was never any acknowledgment of your role in this. What is your view of DOAJ as it is currently constituted? Do you think DOAJ has been listening to you and learning, but failing to make an acknowledgment?
Beall: I don’t think DOAJ made any decisions or changed their policies based on anything I said or did. I think they tightened up their inclusion criteria as a result of the Bohannon sting and not because of me. For information on whether DOAJ has been listening, I would refer you to them. But in point of fact, I have not been speaking to DOAJ — we have no dialog.
DOAJ has been victimized by predatory publishers. The idea of creating a directory of open access journals is a good one. Predatory publishers are experts at appearing like legitimate publishers, and many have been fooled or misled by them (victimized by them, essentially), including the compilers of directories or other similar databases.
Esposito: If you could change any one thing in scholarly communications — say, by announcing a policy that everybody would adhere to — what would that one thing be? You are welcome to offer more than one idea.
Beall: Easy: we need to end the system of payments from authors. Author-financed scholarly publishing is corrupting scholarly communication.
Esposito: I want to be sure I understand you on this point. To an earlier question you replied that although you focus on identifying OA publishers of little or no merit, you believed that there are useful OA venues. But your response just now seems to suggest that all Gold OA is a bad thing. Can you clarify your position?
Beall: I stand by both statements. I know some would love to catch me in a contradiction and declare victory, but some things are ambiguous, and at universities we specialize in dealing with ambiguities and uncertainties.
You brought up the concept of self-contradiction, so I am reminded that in late 2013 you authored a mean and hurtful blog post in The Scholarly Kitchen entitled “Parting Company with Jeffrey Beall.” Why are you communicating with me now after so firmly declaring an intention to end contact with me?
Esposito: Gold OA now captures about 3 percent of total revenues for journals. It is growing. Do you see it reaching a plateau at some point or even declining, or will the growth continue?
Beall: I’m sorry — I am not really qualified to answer this question. I would refer you to someone at STM or Outsell. I am focused on helping researchers avoid being victimized by bogus and corrupt open access publishers and journals and not on making industry forecasts.
What’s the source for that statistic, anyway? Does it include all the revenue earned by the thousands of journals on my lists, including all those based in South Asia and West Africa? I suspect not. Most research on OA journals excludes the journals on my lists and instead exclusively uses DOAJ as a source of titles to study, so most studies on OA don’t tell the whole story.
Esposito: As Gold OA does not involve the curatorial activity of a library, what changes has the advent of OA brought about in a library’s operations?
Beall: Actually, this is a key question. I think I’ve read your comments about scholarly open access publishing disintermediating academic libraries, and I agree. No longer stewards of physical collections, academic librarians have to find new ways to add value to information in the college and university context.
One of the ways that we’re doing this is by helping faculty, students, and post-docs navigate the entire research process, from initial literature review to final publication of the research results in a journal or monograph.
As you know, there are many corrupt and low-quality businesses appearing, firms offering services to researchers at different places along the research cycle, with predatory publishers among the most salient of these. The particular niche I’ve carved out is to help researchers avoid being victimized by such publishers, and many librarians have assisted me in this, and I am grateful for their help. Other academic libraries provide the same service using different methods.
As the role of consumer switches from libraries to researchers, academic librarians have the opportunity to share valuable skills and information with university researchers.
Esposito: What policies can be implemented on an institutional level to identify and marginalize, and perhaps to eliminate, predatory publishers?
Beall: Sir, I am not a specialist in higher education policy, so I cannot provide a complete answer to this question. All I know is that there are predatory publishers and journals that are victimizing researchers, and I am doing all I can to get the word out and help researchers avoid being hurt by them.
I do know that there are academic departments, colleges, and universities — and even a few governments — that find my lists valuable and use them for evaluation purposes, i.e., as a component of their policies. Many individuals use them as well.
Esposito: What didn’t I ask you that you would like to comment on?
Beall: Here are two things that I think are important that I don’t think we’ve discussed:
- Predatory journals and the threat to the integrity of science.
South African researcher Nicoli Nattrass writes about the concept she calls the “imprimatur of science,” namely, the process through which a scientific journal grants science’s seal of approval to the articles it publishes. This means that scholarly publishers are expected to enforce demarcation and only allow vetted science to be published. An easy example is astrology; no legitimate journal would publish articles purporting a scientific basis to astrology, for it’s a pseudo-science.
However, the line isn’t always so clear, but it’s still the role of journals to enforce the line and not allow pseudo-science to be published bearing the “imprimatur of science.”
But, as you surely know, predatory and low-quality journals are granting the imprimatur of science to basically any idea for which the author is willing to write an article and pay the author fees. This is polluting the scientific record with junk science, and demarcation has essentially failed. I believe this will worsen in time and the notion of what constitutes valid science and what isn’t will become increasingly vague. Moreover, journalists will report on bogus science, covering it as authentic science to their readers and viewers (cf. the recent Johannes Bohannon chocolate study), and scholarly indexes, such as Google Scholar, will include the junk science among the works they index, ruining the cumulative nature of research.
2. I think that the scholarly publishing industry has failed science and scientists by allowing the predatory publishers to proliferate so much, but the open access movement also shares the blame for this.
There are organizations that represent the interests of publishers, and there are organizations that represent the interests of journal editors, but there are none that represent the interests of scholarly authors, those who now increasingly are the consumers of scholarly publishing services (and this relates to the disintermediation of academic libraries, formerly the chief consumers of scholarly content, content that is now largely given away for free). There is no “consumers union” for scholarly authors, yet they are, collectively, chiefly the ones paying for scholarly publishing-related services.
I’ve tried to help with this by advising authors on which journals and publishers they should avoid, but more work in this area is needed. An organization may be needed.
I have been observing recently that the number of people who make their living through scholarly open access publishing is increasing, perhaps reaching a tipping point, so that more individuals in the scholarly publishing industry earn their living through payments from authors than payments from academic libraries. This means that more individuals are more ardently demanding OA because their livelihoods depend on it. Their salaries inform their ideology, and they’re vocal and powerful. Thus, if subscriptions to scholarly journals collapse, we will see increased scholarly publishing chaos, amid calls for even more payments from authors.
In the scholarly open access segment of the scholarly publishing industry, we are seeing that the most prosperous publishers are the larger ones, those able to offshore their production work. Hindawi (in Egypt) and MDPI (with most of its work done in China) are two examples. I think the industry will continue to select for publishers like these, meaning many production-related jobs in North America and Europe will move to South Asia and East Asia. So the future of the scholarly publishing industry looks very much like the textile industry, with most production moved to low-wage countries.