Are we thinking about predatory publishing the wrong way? Our image of predatory publishers is that they are scammers, acting deceptively and fooling unsuspecting researchers into paying money to publish in what they think is a peer reviewed journal that adheres to widely adopted industry practices, only to provide no peer review whatsoever. While that certainly does happen (hopefully less and less as awareness of this phenomenon grows and tools to prevent it are adopted), there is more to the picture here. It is increasingly clear that there are authors who knowingly choose to publish with these sorts of outlets, with a full understanding of the journals’ poor practices and lack of anything resembling peer review. This is a deliberate choice being made, and given some incentive structures, one that actually makes sense.
We know that the work of some researchers is simply no good. It doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, is poorly designed, or in the worst cases, is meant to prop up absurd conspiracy theories or hairbrained hypotheses. For this sort of “researcher,” the choice to publish in a journal that does no review is a necessary one. No legitimate journal will have them.
But these are not the only patrons of such journals. We must then ask the question, why would a different class of researchers, those doing legitimate research (of varying quality), also choose to publish in predatory journals?
A recent study showed that researchers from many of India’s highest regarded institutions regularly publish in predatory journals. An explanation of why this may be happening can be found from a few other sources. A 2015 study in BMC Medicine showed that 75% of authors in predatory journals are from Asia and Africa. A 2014 article in Current Sociology asserts that in Nigeria for example, criteria such as impact factor are generally ignored in the evaluation of a faculty publication record for appointment and promotion decisions, while all that matters is whether the papers are in journals published outside of Nigeria. Career advancement, in this instance, is based on publishing an article in an international journal — not a journal with an Impact Factor, not a journal indexed in Medline or Web of Science, not a journal in the DOAJ.
We know that in every other area of academia, that researchers are usually very busy people, pressed for time, who really want to do research rather than jump through administrative hoops and meet publisher requirements. There is a clear pattern of taking the path of least resistance to getting done what needs to get done, and this seems no different. A requirement has been set, and predatory publishers provide the easiest and fastest route to getting it done. Different incentives lead to different, but rational behavior.
These researchers have the choice between submitting to a legitimate journal and going through a lengthy and rigorous peer review process with the potential for rejection, or paying (at most) a few hundred dollars and having their articles immediately published, no questions asked. Since both actions count exactly the same toward furthering their careers, the answer seems fairly obvious. What we are seeing for some researchers, then, is an informed choice to minimize efforts and maximize advancement in a system with a lack of oversight in evaluation.
So while predatory publishers do indeed act in a dishonest and deceptive manner, they are at the same time serving a market need, namely the desire by some authors to fool those in charge of evaluating their performance. Bypassing editorial scrutiny provides an advantage to these authors due to poorly designed and unmonitored incentives set by their institutions.
We must then ask the question, why would a different class of researchers, those doing legitimate research (of varying quality), also choose to publish in predatory journals?
While many are quick to point the finger at open access (OA) as the root cause of predatory publishing, this seems off base. OA business models provide a mechanism for predatory publishing. It would not be possible to publish a subscription journal with no peer review and no adherence to industry practices as librarians would not subscribe to such a publication (or would cancel it immediately once such practices came to light). And while OA is an enabler of predatory practices, like so many of the woes of academia that are pinned on publishers (e.g., over-reliance on the Impact Factor), this is yet another case where the true root of the problem is the academic career and funding system, and as usual, its lack of effort put to true evaluation and oversight.
To their credit, some academic systems are beginning to catch on. After the India study cited above, the University Grants Commission came out with a white list of 38,653 approved journals which will be recognized for academic credit. Publishing elsewhere will not be counted toward advancement. This is certainly a step forward, but suffers from the same problems that plague all white lists, and has already been shown to be imperfect. Still, better imperfect than non-existent.
So when we think of predatory publishing, we can’t just think of authors as the victims. In some cases, it is clear that they are willing conspirators. The real victims are the OA movement (which gets unfairly tarnished by the poor practices of these publishers), honest researchers (as legitimate research is seen as less trustworthy due to the flood of unreviewed and questionable material masquerading as the real thing), and the general public (whose confidence in science is undermined).
The solution here must come from academic institutions. Take away the incentive for these publishing behaviors and predatory publishers will lose the market niche they serve. This means a serious effort at academic oversight and true evaluation of research quality and outputs, something that at least so far, has been difficult to institute.