Let’s start with a disclosure and a disclaimer:
Disclosure: about a year and a half ago, when Cabell’s was in the early stages of planning for the creation of this product, I did a few hours of paid consulting work for them and later contributed to a Cabell’s-organized conference panel discussion on the topic of predatory publishing. I’ve had no further involvement in the project, and I have no ongoing financial relationship with Cabell’s and no financial interest in the company.
Disclaimer: I’ve been writing about the problem of deceptive/predatory publishing, and arguing with those who minimize or dismiss its significance, for several years now, including here in the Kitchen (for example, here and here). I’m not going to relitigate those arguments in this posting; gluttons for punishment are welcome to read my earlier posts and the lovely commenting threads that ensued. The present post is written from the assumption that deceptive/predatory publishing is a genuine problem, and that the effort to pay attention to it is a worthwhile one.
And now, on to the review. But first, a little background for those new to the topic.
What Is Predatory Publishing?
There currently exists a thriving black-market economy of publishing scams — typically referred to as “predatory journals” — that are designed to look like genuine scholarly publishing programs. In most cases, these scams take the form of offering aspiring authors publication in “journals” that are created not to publish rigorously vetted science and scholarship, but rather to publish whatever the author submits in return for the payment of an article processing charge (APC). The author is either duped into believing that his work has been accepted by a legitimate scholarly journal, or (more likely) willingly takes advantage of guaranteed publication in a scam publication that hides behind a pretense of scholarly rigor, in the hope that his complicity in the fraud won’t be detected by his colleagues. Just as the customer of a diploma mill willingly accepts a fake PhD in return for payment (hoping that no one will notice that the “PhD” he claims is from a sham institution), so the customer of a predatory journal places his article in a fake journal with a real-sounding name, thus beefing up his CV while hoping that no one will investigate the publishing venue(s) of his paper(s).
The purpose of a predatory-journal blacklist is to identify and call attention to such scam operations, in order to make it harder for them to fool authors and harder for unscrupulous authors to deceive their colleagues by publishing in them.
How Does a Blacklist Work?
The concept is simple: the list manager seeks out information about journals that are engaging in deceptive and fraudulent practices, and then publicly exposes them. Among the most egregious of such practices are:
- Falsely claiming to provide peer review and meaningful editorial oversight of submissions
- Lying about affiliations with prestigious scholarly/scientific organizations
- Claiming affiliation with a non-existent organization
- Naming reputable scholars to editorial boards without their permission (and refusing to remove them)
- Falsely claiming to have a high Journal Impact Factor
- Hiding information about APCs until after the author has completed submission
- Falsely claiming to be included in prestigious indexes
Unfortunately, while calling out fraud is relatively simple in concept, it is complicated in practice by a number of factors — among them, the fact that what appears to be fraud may, in some cases, actually only be incompetence or inexperience. This means that anyone who undertakes to create and maintain a blacklist has to be very careful to discriminate between marketplace actions undertaken in genuine bad faith and those that simply reflect incapacity or ignorance. (Hold onto that thought, because we’ll be coming back to it.)
Are There Any Blacklists?
Up until this year, there was really only one functioning blacklist: the (in)famous Beall’s List, which was the product of Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver. (It was shut down, apparently under fire, in early 2017, but its last iteration has been archived.) Beall’s List was brave and valuable, but significantly flawed in ways that have been amply documented elsewhere. Even with its flaws, however, its shutdown left a significant hole in the scholarly communications ecosystem.
Into that gap has stepped Cabell’s International, the well-regarded publisher of a longstanding journal directory. Whereas Beall (a single individual with a full-time day job) had struggled to manage his blacklist consistently and transparently, Cabell’s is in a position to assign dedicated staff to the maintenance of its list, and therefore to make it more robust, consistent, and careful. Cabell’s has also made its blacklist a commercial product, which means that it should generate its own revenue stream. Since Beall is also an avowed enemy of the open access (OA) movement, and since the journals that engage in this kind of predation are almost invariably provided on an OA basis, there was good reason to question his objectivity. Cabell’s seems to have no such agenda.
The Cabell’s Blacklist: A Big Step in the Right Direction…
The Cabell’s Blacklist product was introduced at the 2017 SSP meeting just a couple of months ago, and access is now available for purchase. Pricing is set institutionally, and thus requires a custom quote. I requested and was given temporary access to the list for the purposes of this review.
My overall assessment of the Cabell’s Blacklist is that it is a welcome development, and that it still needs quite a bit of work. To begin with the positives:
- The criteria for inclusion in the blacklist are clearly set out and publicly available.
- For each entry, date of last review is indicated, and an email hyperlink is provided that allows readers to contribute information about a journal.
- Each entry includes a link to Cabell’s appeal policy. Appeals are allowed once per journal per year, and instructions are included in the policy text.
- Wisely, ratings are given at the journal level, not the publisher level; thus, for example, the Open Science journal Advances in Biomedical Sciences is listed as having 5 violations of Cabell’s criteria, while the same publisher’s International Journal of Public Health Research has 6.
- For each entry, specifics of the violations are conveniently listed under criterion categories: thus, Acta Rheumatologica is dinged for violations in the categories of “Integrity” ( “The publisher hides or obscures relationships with for-profit partner companies”), “Website” (“Does not identify a physical address for the publisher or gives a fake address”) and “Business Practices” (“Emails from journals received by researchers who are clearly not in the field the journal covers”).
…That Still Needs Some Work
So what are the problems? The most serious is that, as currently configured, Cabell’s Blacklist perpetuates the common problem of conflating low-quality journal publishing with deceptive or predatory publishing. In this case, the conflation happens because many of the blacklisting criteria Cabell’s applies are really quality criteria (“poor grammar and/or spelling,” “does not have a clearly stated peer review policy,” “no policy for digital preservation,” etc.) that can easily end up gathering fundamentally honest but less-competently-run journals into the same net as those journals that are actively trying to perpetrate a scam. Predatory and incompetent journals do often evince some of the same traits, but these traits don’t always indicate predatory intent. (However, the Cabell’s staff assures me that there is a behind-the-scenes scoring rubric that assigns different weights to different violations, and is designed to prevent merely new or low-quality journals from being tagged as predators and included in the blacklist.)
Among the less serious concerns:
- Some of the criteria are a bit unclear. For example, under the category of “Integrity,” one of the criteria is “Insufficient resources to preventing and eliminating author misconduct that results in repeated cases of plagiarism, self-plagiarism, image manipulation, etc.”
- A link is provided that, when clicked, downloads to the user’s computer a spreadsheet listing “journals under review for the blacklist.” This is good, but the list provides no information about why the listed journals are under suspicion.
- Other alleged violations seem difficult to prove, and in fact appear largely to be inferential – for example, “Operate in a Western country chiefly for the purpose of functioning as a vanity press for scholars in a developing country.”
- In at least one case, a more serious violation was missed while less-serious ones were listed. In the course of my research for this review, I contacted a member of the editorial board of the OMICS title Journal of Bioequivalence & Biolavailability. This board member reported having resigned from the board months ago, but said that OMICS “never took me off the list.” Cabell’s dings this journal for other offenses (including claiming affiliation with the apparently nonexistent Association of Contract Research Organizations), but didn’t catch this very serious one. Of course, no blacklist will be perfect — but this particular criterion seems much more important, and much more indicative of predatory intent, than, say, “No policies for digital preservation.”
It’s worth noting that on the scale of predatory or deceptive practices, many of these violations of scholarly-communication norms are, while troubling and perhaps annoying, not especially egregious. This is precisely why a blacklist needs to be transparent about the reasons for a journal or publisher’s inclusion — so that the reader can decide for him- or herself how worrisome the journal’s behavior really is. This transparency is one of the most important positive aspects of the Cabell’s product.
On a functional level, Cabell’s Blacklist has a few glitches as well, which should be fixable. A couple are actual coding problems: first, as of this writing it’s not possible to log in using the Safari browser. (Cabell’s reports that a fix is in process.) Second: at several points in my exploration of this product, the Advanced Search function simply stopped working — when I entered a search criterion and hit <search>, the search window disappeared and I was taken back to the Blacklist home page. When I attempted a simple search from the home page, or returned to Advanced Search to try again, I got the same results. Only by logging out of the database entirely and logging back in was I able to recommence searching. Again, this is clearly some kind of coding problem that should be relatively easy to fix.
Three Suggestions for Improvement
First: it might be wise for Cabell’s to consider “tiering” its violation categories: some of these criteria raise suspicion but are more suggestive than indicative of predatory intent, while others are more smoking-gun. Distinguishing between suggestive and dispositive criteria would make Cabell’s Blacklist more useful.
Second: the advanced search function needs to be much more advanced. Right now it allows the user to search by publisher, journal title, country, or ISSN, but I would have liked to search by criteria — how many journals make false claims about their impact factors, for example? (In the Advanced Search window, one also has the option of toggling “Open Access” on or off. I’m not entirely sure what this does; I tried several searches twice, once in each setting, and never got different results based on the position of the “Open Access” toggle.)
Third: Cabell’s should put a very high priority on repairing the coding glitches that currently make it unnecessarily difficult to use the blacklist. It doesn’t matter how good the content is if you can’t access it consistently.
Overall, Cabell’s Blacklist is a welcome new product, but one that will need significant improvement before it is able to realize its full potential as a tool for helping maintaining the integrity of the scholarly-communication ecosystem.