Earlier this year, David Moher, Larissa Shamseer, Kelly Cobey, and colleagues caused a bit of a stir when they published an article in Nature showing that, contrary to some (many?) expectations, it’s not just authors from low-income countries who publish in so-called “predatory” journals. In fact, their analysis of nearly 2,000 biomedical articles from more than 200 predatory journals found that “more than half of the corresponding authors hailed from high- and upper-middle-income countries as defined by the World Bank.”
A just-published follow-up article in Nature Human Behaviour focuses on what constitutes a predatory, or in Moher et al’s words, illegitimate journal, and, critically, on what can be done to help authors avoid publishing in them.
In this interview, Kelly Cobey and Larissa Shamseer (both of the Centre for Journalology, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute) share their thoughts on what is meant by the term “illegitimate journal”, why these publications are proving so successful at attracting authors, and the community actions needed to stop their spread.
One of the problems with predatory publishers is defining what that term means and, therefore, which publishers are genuinely predatory rather than, say, well-intentioned but unable to follow what we consider to be best practices. What’s your definition and why?
The term ‘predatory journal’ was coined by Jeffrey Beall to describe publishing entities masquerading as typical journals but failing to uphold expected best practice standards. He chose “predatory” to reflect the intentionally deceptive nature of these journals. For instance, these entities may claim to use peer review, but based on several ‘stings’ we know they do not; they may claim to be open access but don’t seem to follow the tenets of open access publishing laid out in the Bethesda Statement (i.e., appropriate copyright for re-use and derivatives, published in a suitable electronic format, or deposited in repositories). Further, they are known to use aggressive tactics and trickery to solicit manuscripts from authors.
In a study published earlier this year, we described some unique, evidence-based features of journals once listed on Beall’s lists of predatory journals distinguishing them from traditional open access and hybrid/subscription journals. It is possible that some of the characteristics we identified may be common to journals that are from lower income countries, or are low resourced (e.g., low article processing charges, spelling/grammar errors). In our view the term ‘predatory journal’ does not appropriately describe these types of journals. However, any journal not meeting best practice standards, whether due to intentionally deceptive practices, low resourcing, or lack of knowledge, or otherwise, in our view are nonetheless a poor entity to ‘publish’ in. The term ‘illegitimate journals’ may better reflect the range of journals that fail to meet expected best practice standards.
You describe predatory journals as “contaminating” all domains of science. What do you mean by that?
The problem of predatory journals has crept into many areas of science and is not limited to biomedicine (our discipline). Scientific publishing isn’t perfect. Issues with the reporting quality and reproducibility of the published literature have received growing attention. In biomedicine, problems such as publication bias and selective outcome reporting can mean that the evidence-base informing treatment decisions is biased in favor of interventions that may not actually be effective or safe. Predatory journals introduce a further concern relevant to reproducibility. If content is not vetted (e.g., via peer review, use of plagiarism detection software, enforcing ethical standards) it may result in the publication of very low quality, poorly reported, and, sometimes, fraudulent research. If their content is able to be found by readers, it may be mistaken as trustworthy and used to inform future research or decisions. Perhaps more problematic is that real research, potentially containing negative or null results may appear only in predatory journals (for lack of a better option) and these journals remain unindexed and as such, not consistently identifiable.
We also have to look at the system of incentives and rewards for researchers to publish. We exist in a system of ‘publish or perish’ where publications are the standard we are measured by. The more, the better. Quantity seems to be valued over quality, leaving room for researchers to publish just about anything, anywhere, and put it on their CV for future consideration tenure/promotion and grant committees. For researchers with less nefarious intents, they may simply not be attuned to the fact that publishing is a for-profit business rather than a scientifically-minded endeavor. One assumption may be that publication (in any venue) infers quality when in fact, that is not the case.
Earlier this year, you demonstrated that corresponding and senior authors of papers published in predatory journals are just as likely to come from upper-middle and high income countries as from low income countries. Why are so many researchers choosing to publish in these sorts of journals?
The running narrative had been that predatory journals were mainly a problem affecting lower income countries. The fact that this is not the case really demonstrates the universality of the problem – researchers across the globe lack training and knowledge on how to select an appropriate (and legitimate) venue to publish their work in. One of us, Kelly Cobey, is the publications officer at the Ottawa Hospital and has consulted with researchers who have inadvertently submitted their work to illegitimate/predatory journals. The experience can be very stressful for those involved. The motivations for selecting a predatory journal, over another journal, need to be examined in more details. It is possible that some researchers are being duped, but that others are consciously using these illegitimate outlets to accrue publications quickly and without barriers.
In your latest paper you call for “stronger decisive action” to stop the spread of predatory journals. What specific actions are you recommending each group of stakeholders to take?
We identify a number of key stakeholders who we note need to work concertedly to address the problem of predatory journals. A complete explanation of consequences of predatory publishing and actions each stakeholder can take is listed in our recent article in Nature Human Behaviour. Examples of key changes these stakeholders can make include:
- Researchers: Self-educate on the characteristics of predatory journals as well as on how to choose a journal.
- Academic institutions and libraries: provide support, policies, and education to guide researchers on the risks of predatory journals and how to avoid them.
- Funders: Perform audits of where funded research is published and develop guidance and policies discouraging publication in predatory journals.
- Legitimate journals: Increase transparency in publishing practices so that they are publicly auditable (e.g., open peer review), endorse and adhere to transparency initiatives (such as study registration and reporting guidelines), and if open access, register with the Directory of Open Access Journals.
- Regulatory bodies: adopt policies that tie regulatory approval to dissemination plans, including specific plans for publication in legitimate journals.
- Patients and the public: Before participating in research, seek assurance that the resulting publication will not be published in a predatory journal; become an advocate for best publication practices by participating in institutional ethics boards.
How are you hoping to make your proposals a reality? Who are you working with and what are the main challenges?
For these recommendations to be effective, there needs to be a standard and agreed on definition of what constitutes a “predatory journal”. The definition and agreement must come from all stakeholders, not just one group in isolation. Our hope is to raise funds to be able to bring together a group of leaders from each stakeholder group for an in person meeting to gain consensus on this issue before proceeding with further activities to address the problem. It will be important to evaluate and track the success of any interventions generated to address the problem.
What’s next — are you planning to continue your research in this area or will you be turning your attention to other topics in future?
At our Centre for Journalology at the Ottawa Hospital, we have multiple research projects on the go. In addition to our work on predatory journals, other main areas we carry out research in include: evaluating incentives and rewards in academia, developing and implementing reporting guidelines, and developing core competencies for biomedical editors.
Pertaining to predatory publishing, we aren’t done yet! Now that we have helped to identify to scale of the problem we would like to actively contribute solutions. While we’ve received little external funding for our work, we have manage to keep going, thanks in large part to the generous support from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. Research evaluating publication best practices and meta science more generally tends to be difficult to acquire funding for as it often falls outside of agencies remits. At present, we are wrapping up an evaluation of funder policies regarding journal publication, i.e., whether current funding policies address where funded research should be published. We hope to carry out similar audits of other stakeholder practices in the future.