If you don’t want *predatory publishing to tarnish the open access (OA) movement, you basically have two choices: an easy but ineffective one, and a difficult but more effective one.
The easy but ineffective strategy is to deny that predatory publishing is a real issue and try to stop people talking about it.
The difficult but (at least potentially) effective strategy is to do something about the problem of predatory publishing.
If you want to adopt the first strategy, you have lots of tools available to you. There’s always simple denial, which can take multiple forms: try the argument that predatory publishing has nothing to do with OA (and therefore isn’t a problem that the OA community has any need to address), or that predatory publishers aren’t really predatory but are merely “innovators,” purveyors of “new wave” journals** with lower acceptance standards and faster turnaround times, or that only an idiot would be fooled by them and therefore what’s the big deal? Unfortunately, none of these arguments is particularly convincing, given that these journals are invariably OA publications, that they don’t do anything especially innovative (selling fake scholarly credentials has a long and ugly history, after all), and that they demonstrably attract lots of authors, a significant number of whom don’t seem to be idiots.
So if you want, you can be more subtle — arguing that predatory publishing is real and bothersome, but that it’s not a very big problem and anyway it’s getting better. Or you can avoid addressing the merits of the question altogether, and try to change the subject — “whataboutism” being a favorite method, as is dropping dark hints about the motivations of those who insist on talking about it. (If all else fails, you can imply that your interlocutor is a racist, but this should generally be considered a last-ditch strategy.)
If none of those approaches sounds attractive, then it might worth trying the second one: doing something about the problem. And the first step in that endeavor is to try to discern its contours: how big is the problem of predatory publishing, really, and how widespread are its effects?
Sting operations are often fun, but they do little to help us understand the real scope of the problem.
Up until now, it’s been relatively easy to underplay the significance of predatory publishers and journals, because there hasn’t been much in the way of systematic investigation of them. Sure, there was Beall’s List, but it’s now long gone and it was always an imperfect window on the phenomenon due to its inconsistency and — yes — the unapologetic anti-OA bias of Beall himself. There have also been periodic sting operations, which are often lots of fun and have certainly made it clear that fraudulent publishing is a real phenomenon that has the potential to do real harm, but at the same time these have never given us any real idea of the scope of the problem.
The first solid indication of how widespread this problem really is came with last year’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) action against one of the largest and most profitable of the alleged predators, the prolific journal publisher and conference organizer OMICS, which publishes 785 titles generating over $50M in annual revenues. The FTC alleges that OMICS makes false promises of peer review in return for article processing charges (APCs), assesses those charges without disclosing them up front (then refuses to let authors withdraw their papers from submission), and lies about both the membership of its editorial boards and the names of presenters at the many conferences it sponsors — all classic examples of predatory publishing practices.
Now comes a small flood of even more alarming reports, emerging from studies being conducted as part of a larger global effort under the umbrella of the International Coalition of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and involving a total of 18 partner organizations including Indian Express, Le Monde, the New Yorker, and Suddeutsche Zeitung. (This effort was also discussed recently in a Scholarly Kitchen posting by Kent Anderson.) I’m going to focus on two of these studies: the first is part of an investigative series by the Indian Express, alerting us to upcoming findings from their analysis of “175,000 articles published by five of the world’s largest pseudo-scientific platforms”; the second was undertaken by two German public broadcasting companies and focuses on publications by German academics.
The Indian Express series (which begins with this piece) is particularly valuable in that it is the result of a truly large-scale investigation, during which the newspaper’s reporters “visited hundreds of… websites, crisscrossed the country from Ghaziabad to Mandur and Hyderabad, and interviewed owners, experts, and ‘editors’” of the journals in question. The findings were somewhat startling, even to someone already familiar with this phenomenon. For one thing, it casts the flagrancy of the predatory-publishing industry into sharp relief — noting, for example, that none of the “editors” who responded to the investigators’ questionnaire had been given a single article to edit.
OMICS features prominently in this series, and in an interview in which he was asked about the FTC action and his company’s business practices, CEO Srinubabu Gedela responds to the charges either by sort of weakly denying them, or by changing the subject, while at the same time explaining that the FTC is made up of “illiterates” who “don’t know what peer review is” and “don’t know the definition of [a] journal.” One academic who was unknowingly named as an editor of an OMICS journal filed a police report against OMICS after being notified of that fact by Indian Express. Authors of articles in journals published by OMICS and by World Academy of Science, Engineering, and Technology (WASET, another prominent publisher of questionable journals) who were contacted by the investigators told stories of being assessed unanticipated article processing charges (APCs) after their papers were accepted, or of papers that were published in OMICS journals without their permission after they were presented at conferences; in several cases they simply professed ignorance of the journals’ and publishers’ reputations, claiming never to have paid a fee to publish with them.
One research team found that over 5,000 German scientists had published in predatory journals.
One very important aspect of this series of articles is that it does readers the great service of providing specific examples of questionable publishers, indicating their areas of disciplinary focus, the number of journals each of them publishes, the price range of their APCs, and some of the reasons for their inclusion in the study. And then — crucially — the reporters gave each publisher the chance to respond. Those responses vary from vague to defiant, but only rarely do they directly deny the charges.
The Indian government has taken notice of this study, responding that it has directed all universities in the country to review their lists of officially-recognized scholarly and scientific journals, and saying that “we will end this menace of predatory journals.”
Findings from the study of academic publishing in Germany are equally grim. Here’s the first paragraph from an initial report published on the website of German public broadcaster NDR:
More than 5,000 German scientists have published papers in pseudo-scientific journals, according to reporting undertaken by German public broadcasters NDR and WDR together with the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin and additional national and international media outlets. Reporters found that researchers from German universities, institutes and federal agencies have frequently published articles, many of them supported with public funding, in worthless online scientific journals belonging to pseudo-scientific publishers, so-called predatory publishers, that fail to uphold basic standards of quality control. Globally, it is a problem involving fully 400,000 scientists, the reporting has found.
That raw number is startling enough — giving lie to the idea that no reasonable person could be fooled by these journals — but more concerning still is the finding that “the number of such publications put out by the five most important publishing houses has tripled globally since 2013… and in Germany it has quintupled.”
That being said, here it is important to raise again a very important point: there is a fundamental difference between low-quality journals that accept papers relatively unselectively and provide lackluster editorial review but are doing business in a basically honest way, and those whose business model is fundamentally predicated on lying about the services they provide in return for charges levied on authors: saying, for example, that they provide peer review when they do not, saying that people are editors when they are not, falsely claiming institutional affiliations or inclusion in prestigious indexes, etc. “Failing to uphold basic standards of quality control” is not necessarily a predatory publishing practice; explicitly offering rigorous peer review to authors in return for money, taking the money, and then providing no such service — that is a predatory publishing practice.
Given that the ICIJ investigation is being conducted by more than a dozen globally-distributed media organizations including the New Yorker, Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung and the Korean Newstapa, it’s reasonable to expect many more unsettling statistics and much more discussion of this issue in the near future. And when the dust has settled, it’s going to be much harder to dismiss the problem of predatory publishing as a non-issue. As one Nobel laureate who was interviewed by NDR observed, the credibility of science is at stake.
* I am on the record as believing that the word “predatory” is unhelpfully vague in this context and should be replaced by some other term, such as “deceptive” or “fraudulent.” I still feel that way. Unfortunately, however, “predatory” seems to have stuck, and is now both widely used and generally understood to mean the particular kind of fraudulent or deceptive publishing under discussion here. So I’ve decided, albeit reluctantly, to use the term accordingly in this piece.
**Update (30 August): In a private communication to me, David Wojick has clarified that he does, in fact, believe that predatory publishers exist and that predatory publishing is a real problem.