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.

crocodile

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 ExpressLe 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.

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is Associate Dean for Collections and Scholarly Communication in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah. He speaks and writes regularly on issues related to libraries, scholarly communication, and higher education, and has served as president of NASIG and of the Society for Scholarly Publishing.

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Discussion

57 Thoughts on "Denialism on the Rocks: It Just Got a Lot Harder to Pretend that Predatory Publishing Doesn’t Matter"

I’ve seen many calls recently “to do something” but nobody seems to be very forthcoming about the type of solution they think would work. Beall gets frequently mentioned, but nobody seems satisfied with white/black list approaches.

So, at the risk of spoiling the next big SK piece, what does a solution to this problem look like to you, Rick?

Great question, Paul. I’m actually in the process of organizing a summit group of scholcomm stakeholders that will work on an answer to it. If Hindawi is interested in participating, please shoot me an email at rick.anderson[at]utah.edu.

I’m worried about the conflation of “predatory” with “pseudoscientific” in the language of the German report. These strike me as two completely separate issues. Let’s not forget that even Elsevier, a reputable, non-predatory publisher (well, not predatory in the manner under discussion here) has several journals that can conclusively be dismissed as pseudoscientific. I’m thinking of Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, and Homeopathy, but I’m sure there are more out there.

By comparison, a perfectly respectable piece of scientific research could be published in a predatory journal simply due to the authors’ lack of awareness of the finer points of predatory publishing. Calling these journals “pseudoscientific” is to conflate two very important, but very different, issues.

I agree, and this is a point that I find myself making over and over again (including in the penultimate paragraph of this piece): while it’s true that one of the problems caused by predatory publishing is that it puts more bad science and scholarship into the ecosystem (by lowering the barriers that are meant to keep bad scholarship out), it is not true that pseudoscience is a unique problem to predatory publishing. And it’s also true that predatory publishing is a problem even when the scholarship it generates is legitimate.

I was recently shocked to find that Elsevier publishes Homeopathy and indexes it in Scopus and CiteScore. Doesn’t Scopus have an advisory board and is supposed to have some sort of quality vetting for indexing Scopus? I stumbled onto searching for the water with memory affair, cold fusion, and other science flops, pseudo-science or fraud. Elsevier apparently just publishes it on behalf “The Faculty of Homeopathy/Advocating for Medical Homeopathy”. That “faculty” has a very legitimate looking website, with advises that they “ensure the highest standards in homeopathic education and practice” with links for students, credentialing. With Elsevier’s expert publishing help, the articles in Homeopathy look like science articles. https://www.journals.elsevier.com/homeopathy.
So for the Denialism theme, I’d suggest some of the mainstream publishers could take a look at their own house in addition to just the “predatory publishers.”

I am from india a researcher, it is importent post and I agree on change on word from predatory to fraudulent because I had a bad experience and caught in this fraud of publication from a journal where, after sending for review the editor in chief of one of the journal send a invoice of 1000 USD with in week of submission. I wrote him asking for review comments from reviwers. On that week I recived a a mail saying that your “paper is rejected” without any comments or justification for rejection. But one of the interesting thing is the particular journal indexed in scopus by details about reviwers. My paper was then published in a good journal later. So we have to be very careful and vigilant.
So there is more fraud than predatory journal.
By Sulochana
India

A faculty member in another university said that his department sent the articles of the faculty member out for an independent review for promotion/tenure decisions. This was well before OA and this current concern was even on the radar.

Thus, since it takes two to tango and many who publish either in predatory or “weakly” curated academic journals are not naive or innocent, several questions come to mind:
a) Are the institutions aware as to what they credence for promotion/tenure decisions and on what basis
b) What drives the authors to publish or even “present” at conferences
c) Given the ability to search, are these articles cited or does the community just nod
d) It is well known, that in many institutions, for students and faculty to advance, publication is required.

I would contend that these wolves in the scholarly publishing ‘hen house’ have accomplices.
The academic publishing industry is only too happy to cheer on the melee.

Hi, Tom —

To answer your questions as best I can:

a) Yes.
b) I’m not sure why you put “present” in scare quotes, but one of the primary things that drives authors to publish and/or present their work is that publication and presentation of scholarly work are core functions of scholarship. You don’t just do the research: you also get its legitimacy certified by third parties, and then make your work known so that others can build on it.
c) Some published articles get cited a lot, and some not at all. Most fall somewhere in the middle.
d) That is indeed well known.

As for the “melee” you reference, I’m not sure what that is.

Hi Rick

I agree that academics do research and then communicate their findings. That is THE well worn path in the post secondary industry. Unfortunately, the publication, itself, has become the default and that path has become throttled by both the publishers and the method for evaluation, the peer review system. Like a highway bottleneck, there eventually become routes around. OA, a re-invention of the old method of distribution that was used by many scholarly associations, created a possibility.

As your article and others have noted, both quality materials and others have found one such path, what is now called predatory publications. But it’s not only the authors who are culpable, but also those who, like drug addicts, have created the demand, not for the intrinsic quality but the articles as articles, often not questioning the legitimacy of the content. As noted in these exchanges, there are “legitimate” journals with articles where quality control is also weak.

The drug industry is a paradigmatic example. One can not stop the source if the demand is what drives the industry- not just the academics. The metaphor has a high congruency.

One option is for the legitimate journal publishers to invest in building a pathway which will cause the bypass to be problematic.

Unfortunately, the publication, itself, has become the default and that path has become throttled by both the publishers and the method for evaluation, the peer review system.

Of course, the bottleneck serves a purpose: peer review slows things down by imposing a quality gate. No one believes that it functions perfectly (what does?), but it does serve an important function, and it’s one that is valued by authors–which is why they keep submitting their papers to peer-reviewed journals (and insisting that their colleagues do the same if they want their tenure votes). It’s important to remember that it’s authors themselves, not the administrators of their host institutions, who decide what does and doesn’t count for tenure and promotion. RPT requirements are formulated and imposed on authors entirely by themselves and each other.

One option is for the legitimate journal publishers to invest in building a pathway which will cause the bypass to be problematic.

What do you think such a pathway might look like?

Hi Rick

Yes, academics, through peer review, and similar criteria do set, in part, the token to get on that publication highway. Unfortunately, as well documented, in many professions from licensing those who braid hair to medical professions, these controls are less than eleemosynary as are other such methods as simple as zoning restrictions in the real estate industry. Academia is no different when one looks at, for example, economics, today, or the history of science. The best discussion of such controlling is The Captured Economy by Lindsey and Telas.

One might address the issue by:
a) Drop the Impact Factor and add post publication reviews such as that of Amazon, for both the article and the publisher

b) Given the rapid search capabilities, expand what Research Gate and others are doing, provide searchable databases or underwrite providers of these which can then add the results of “a”

c) one could add a subscription service so that those who are using publications for more than collegial exchange can create their own, updatable depository for review and analysis

For a-c include any and all journals, including Predatory. Very quickly both the producers of articles and publishers of materials will be open to public review.

There are some variances of the above, including the idea that a particular journal is the only gatekeeper as knowledge crosses disciplinary boundaries and seeks other venues than that controlled by certain scholarly communities (open for discussion)

Tom, I’m not 100% certain I’m following the thread of your argument here, but I don’t think anyone has suggested that peer review is an eleemosynary undertaking. Authors engage with it because they believe (rightly or wrongly) that it serves its intended purposes; scholars serve as peer reviewers because they see it as a professional duty.

As for your suggestions regarding a “pathway which will cause the bypass to be problematic” – I have to confess that I don’t really understand what it is you’re proposing that publishers do.

Hi Rick

You are right, and as Lisa’s subsequent post on Elsevier notes, publishers don’t know what to do. Perhaps capitulate to the coming disruption is one alternative.

Regarding reviewers, one can continue to say that this is not eleemosynary, but as Maxwell noted, this unpaid process is what attracted him to the profitability of the academic journal. It is the publishers who are like Peter Pan telling the audience to repeat, “I do believe in fairies”, telling the academics that doing the job of editing and peer review is noble collegiality.

I am not sure I agree with your view that “that it’s authors themselves, not the administrators of their host institutions, who decide what does and doesn’t count for tenure and promotion”. It is the Dean’s councils who make those decisions. Ironically many administrators who are now presidents, vice presidents, dean’s ……, have used the services of predatory journals to inflate their CV’s and become decision makers, those are the ones who keep pressuring or inducing academics to increase the number of their publication.
That’s because the evaluation of the administrators (presidents who chair deans councils) depends on boosting their university rankings, rankings that primarily depend on the number of publications and conference presentations.
And who would say no to a paid vacation?

I’m not sure what a dean’s council is in this context. In every faculty college I’ve been a part of (or of which I’m aware), tenure and promotion guidelines are drafted by a committee of the faculty and voted on by the faculty as a whole. Of course, I can only speak from the perspective of a US academic, and it’s very possible that things are done differently in other countries.

Regarding reviewers, one can continue to say that this is not eleemosynary, but as Maxwell noted, this unpaid process is what attracted him to the profitability of the academic journal.

Tom, you seem to be under the impression that “unpaid” and “eleemosynary” are synonyms. They’re not.

Specifically, while there are whitelists from Cabell’s, it seems like the most reasonable solution to predatory journals is to instruct your researchers to see if the journal is listed in Scopus and/or Web of Science. They have very detailed policies, guided by third-party editorial boards, that weed out the predatory journals, and the low-quality journals as well. You could reinvent the wheel, by why bother?

Scopus and Web of Science are only helpful for a limited number of fields. I’m at a large R2 university library, and I’ve been trying to assist faculty in linguistics, modern languages, and literature – and I have no access to Web of Knowledge’s Arts & Humanities segment. Scopus and JCR are largely useless in these areas – though they have been of enormous help in several other fields. So it really varies by discipline, and a blunt “the journal needs to be in Scopus or Web of Science” is not helpful for many areas.

Requiring this as a standard would also mean that every university on earth must subscribe to Elsevier and Clarivate’s products.

Both Web of Science and Scopus have free, searchable lists of their covered journals – and the purpose of those is precisely to allow ANYONE to see whether a journal has been positively reviewed.

And let’s not forget that many (I suspect most, but have no way of verifying that) of the authors who publish in these journals do so knowing full well what they’re doing. In these cases, the victim of the scam isn’t the author, but the colleagues (specifically on RPT and hiring committees) to whom the author will misrepresent his or her publishing history.

… and at the risk of sounding like a broken record (or a corrupted mp3?), being included in Scopus or Web of Science is or even being published by a reputable publisher is no guarantee that a journal isn’t publishing complete codswallop like the pseudoscientific journals to which I referred above. You can have the best curation policies, fanciest website and most rigorous peer-review procedures in the world, but if your entire editorial board and everybody in you pool of peer-reviewers subscribes to the notion that the Earth is flat, then your journal isn’t worth the paper its printed on.

Yes, it goes without saying that garbage scholarship is garbage scholarship, no matter what kind of journal publishes it. This is one reason why it’s so important to keep the question of journal quality separate from the question of fraudulent and deceptive publishing practices. Fraudulent journals are more likely to publish garbage, but even if they don’t, the fraudulent practices are still a problem.

There’s just a faint whiff of strawman that I’m picking up here, so let me offer that I don’t see many people denying that predatory publishing is an issue, but rather that:
– it’s not an OA issue (because calling your scam an OA journal doesn’t make it so)
– it’s not an issue for the integrity of science because people in the field don’t read those journals, know BS when they read it, & wouldn’t cite them if they did read them.

In order to demonstrate it’s a problem for scientific integrity, what needs to happen is for someone to take whatever imperfect list they can find, remove the borderline cases, then run queries in Scopus or WoS to count how many citations point to them.

To show it’s an issue the OA community bears blame for, you have to show poor adoption & awareness of the standards that make a journal a journal. This is probably easier to show in some economic sectors than others.

it’s not an OA issue (because calling your scam an OA journal doesn’t make it so)

Of course not. What makes your scam an OA journal is publishing it as a journal on an OA basis — which is exactly what virtually all of these publishers do.

it’s not an issue for the integrity of science because people in the field don’t read those journals, know BS when they read it, & wouldn’t cite them if they did read them.

And yet “people in the field” are publishing in these journals in significant numbers, according to the investigations cited in my piece. So they’re either being taken in by the scam, or they’re actively helping to perpetrate it. Neither of those possibilities would seem to bode well for the integrity of science.

Sorry, but it is an OA issue. If it weren’t for the dominant OA business model being author pays and particularly paying for acceptance, predatory publishers wouldn’t exist.

I have received exactly one spam email in the last two years asking me to do work for a low quality subscription journal publisher yet every day I receive emails asking me to submit papers to scam OA journals.

It’s a problem for scientific integrity because even if it’s 1% of articles being diverted by these scams, that’s still a lot of mostly-public funds being scammed from people who are supposedly from society’s top 1% of intellects. And if those findings are worth anything, they’re being lost in poorly archived low quality journals that no self-respecting scholar will ever read.

I think OA is important and that’s why I’d like to see more funder and library-publishing, more academic/publicly-owned OA infrastructure (from the DOAJ to PKP), and more platinum OA journals. But if OA continues to use the vanity press business model, then small market entrants will follow the incentives and be vanity presses.

I second William Gunn’s comments, and will add that the better view of “predatory” publishers is that they are an indictment of *traditional* publishing models more than of the “OA movement.” By placing profits *even more* highly above the interests of the academy, and distorting the academic record *even more* perversely in the process, predatory publishers are just taking the excesses of prestige publishing and dialing them up to 11. The only thing these journals share with the OA movement is a willingness to publish on the open web; their fundamental ethos of profiting from a publish-or-perish environment by providing artificially-constructed totems of success, and placing profits over the actual needs of academics and the public in the process, make them much more akin to Elsevier than to PLOS. This view of predatory publishers as parody of traditional ones is articulated at length (though in somewhat obscure terminology, at times) here: https://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/870.
The appropriate response in the long term is not to retrench and double down on the dysfunctional model of outsourcing academic prestige to for-profit vendors that PPs are parodying. It’s to find a way out of that model entirely.

Hi, Brandon —

Personally, I don’t have any particular opinion as to whether the rise of predatory publishers represents an “indictment” of either traditional or OA publishing. I’m mainly concerned about the real-world impact of institutionalized fraud–regardless of what kind of publisher is perpetrating it–and I’m willing to leave the deeper moral implications for others to discuss. That being said:

The only thing these journals share with the OA movement is a willingness to publish on the open web

This just isn’t true. In addition to making their content available on an OA basis (a pretty important commonality all by itself, if you think about it) they also share with the OA movement a funding model that creates a deep conflict of interest: their interest in publishing quality research (and therefore rejecting garbage and nonsense) is in conflict with their interest in maintaining a healthy revenue stream (which is undermined whenever they reject garbage and nonsense). Unlike legitimate APC-funded OA publishers, who manage this conflict of interest honorably and effectively, predatory publishers exploit it to their profit, thus undermining both the integrity of the scholarly record and the integrity of promotion and tenure processes.

Obviously, the APC model is not the only funding mechanism used in the OA movement–but it’s the predominant one (if you count articles rather than journal titles), and other than actually making their publications available on an OA basis, it’s the most salient feature that predatory publishing has in common with the OA movement.

Rick,

We may have discovered a useful, unmapped category in your breakdown of the various “denialisms,” and perhaps you, too, are a denialist! You’re right, I pivoted too quickly from your claim that PPs “tarnish” OA to the question of whether PPs “indict” OA (or perhaps they indict something else). It’s possible to be unfairly tarnished, in which case there is no indictment. If you’re not ready to say that PPs are an “indictment” of OA, then maybe you agree with me (or we may someday agree) that whatever tarnish Beall et al. have been able to apply to OA using PPs is unwarranted. This belief motivates my overall attitude toward PPs, which is that to the extent they are a problem, they are a problem that points to much bigger issues than OA and the APC model.

I think we have to trace the root of the evil of PPs more deeply in order to figure out what to make of them. I don’t love the APC model, and I affirmatively loathe it when it’s wielded by a for-profit publisher, whether it’s OMICS or Elsevier. I loathe it because it allows these for-profit entities to literally monetize the credibility and prestige granted (gratis!) by scholars and the academy, a function of the hard work of their authors and reviewers, not of the publisher itself. Contrary to everything OA was supposed to do, APCs simply replicate the dysfunction of traditional publishing but in a context where the buyer is more desperate and less sophisticated. APCs were supposed to decouple pay from prestige, but PPs show how they’ve done the opposite: they make it possible to pay for prestige quite directly.

But the moral risk you identify—that a publisher who profits by publishing more volume has an incentive to lower quality—is not unique to the APC model. I’m sure you’ve read the wonderful Guardian Longread (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/profitable-business-scientific-publishing-bad-for-science) about the history of academic publishing in the UK, which heavily features the aggressive campaign by commercial publishers there to proliferate journal titles as a way of demanding ever-more money from subscribers. Like cable bundles, journal bundles are stuffed with kruft, and scholars collude in this because (just like those who publish in PPs) they need the credential.

The deeper problem that PPs indicate, and that fuels their business, is that the academy has outsourced credentialing to for-profit third-parties. People who publish with PPs aren’t buying open access—they could get that by posting their work in a pre-print repository for free. They are buying (or they think they’re buying, if they’re not in on the con) credentials—an entry on a CV, an alleged impact factor, presence in an aggregator, etc. The combination of publish-or-perish pressures and turning over the publish half to for-profit vendors is what creates PPs. The APC model makes it easier for PPs to run their grift, but they would have nothing to sell to desperate authors if we didn’t set up academic publishing in a way that systematically vests third parties with valuable prestige-granting power. That’s why I think PPs are an indictment of traditional academic publishing writ-large, not just OA or APC-funding models.

So, I hope your commission will consider decoupling prestige from publication in for-profit venues as a major (THE major) response that PPs should prompt. The way to resolve the conflict between quality and profiting on volume is to do away with the profiting part.

maybe you agree with me (or we may someday agree) that whatever tarnish Beall et al. have been able to apply to OA using PPs is unwarranted.

I do agree with you on that point; I’ve always felt that Beall’s attitude towards OA was extreme and uninformed. But I don’t think we can blame Beall entirely (or even mostly) for the fact that predatory publishing has tarnished the reputation of OA. Predatory publishing is not a fake problem that Beall made up in order to attack OA. It’s a real problem, it really does arise from structural realities that inhere in one of the predominant models of OA, and to pretend that the two have nothing to do with each other is silly. In other words, just because it’s wrong to say that predatory publishing is the “fault” of OA doesn’t mean it’s right to say that one has nothing to do with the other.

But the moral risk you identify—that a publisher who profits by publishing more volume has an incentive to lower quality—is not unique to the APC model.

Of course it isn’t. To say that the APC model creates a conflict of interest isn’t to say that it’s the only thing that does.

The deeper problem that PPs indicate, and that fuels their business, is that the academy has outsourced credentialing to for-profit third-parties… The way to resolve the conflict between quality and profiting on volume is to do away with the profiting part.

So are you objecting to the outsourcing of (one kind of) academic credentialing in principle, or do you only see it as a problem when it’s done for profit? (For example, is it okay for a nonprofit scholarly society to publish a toll-access journal?)

Thanks, Rick. I was replying to your original framing: that supporters of OA have two responses available to them if they want to avoid being ‘tarnished’ by predatory publishing (PP), namely to deny PP is a problem or to somehow take responsibility for the problem and take steps to solve it. There is a third option: to acknowledge there may be a problem, but to avoid tarnishment by disassociating PPs from OA, and associating them instead with all models that monetize access to academic prestige. I don’t have to show that PP has “nothing to do with OA.” I just have to show that the demand for PPs (and hence their reason to exist) comes from the broken academic prestige economy, not from the OA movement. Now everyone can take their pitchforks and head to their local P&T committee, and leave me alone.

The evidence you cite from these new journalistic investigations does nothing new in terms of tying PP to OA. It only suggests (but does not yet prove, IMO, based on what I read here, but I confess I haven’t read the studies themselves) that PP is a problem, not that OA is the cause. Are German and Indian researchers using these venues because they support open access, or because they need to get tenure/promotion? Nothing in your summary indicates which it is, but I have a guess.

To my mind, if legit OA is morally exculpated (as we agree it should be), then the problem is no longer a problem for the OA movement. It’s a problem for the academy writ large, and I would argue that the nature of the problem, and its solution, is best understood by looking at how we outsource credentialing functions to entities with conflicting interests vis-a-vis the academy and the scholarly record.

But owning the problem, so to speak, may not be bad for OA supporters from a strategic point of view, because we have already seen knee-jerk editorials (in “prestigious” publications! by “elite” researchers!) saying that everything was fine before these dirty scammers came along, so we should double down on the old model—make publishing great again! If OA supporters are involved in developing responses to PP, then maybe there is a chance you will see its root causes and propose solutions that move us closer to a more just system.

To your specific question about the role of profit, I would put it this way: the profit motive is what creates the conflict. Can a scholarly society (that stands to profit in the ordinary sense by monetizing access to its prestigious journal(s), either through subscriptions or APCs, using that money to subsidize its other functions, perhaps) manage that conflict better than a private company? Probably. But it would be better if the custodians of the scholarly record didn’t have to manage a conflict at all. The deep problem, IMO, is the way a publication venue can be vested with prestige that is given *gratis* by researchers, then monetized by charging either authors or readers for access. It’s a perverse windfall and a needless tax on beneficent activities (reading and writing). A civilized, rational society shouldn’t tolerate it.

I don’t have to show that PP has “nothing to do with OA.”

Well, you do if you’re going to assert it, given the obvious fact that all of these predatory titles are OA journals. But I see we’re doomed to go in circles on the significance of that point, so never mind.

I just have to show that the demand for PPs (and hence their reason to exist) comes from the broken academic prestige economy, not from the OA movement.

Hang on, though. You’re acting as if you’ve already proved that the “academic prestige economy” is broken. I’m not sure that most academics agree with you. Do you have evidence that this is the prevalent view among academics? And if not, by what authority do you declare it to be broken?

The evidence you cite from these new journalistic investigations does nothing new in terms of tying PP to OA.

Well, no – because nothing new is needed. The reality is that all of these predatory journals are OA journals. That fact has led, unfortunately, to the tarnishment of OA’s reputation, despite the fact that so many OA publishers do good work and operate in good faith. This doesn’t mean that the OA community is somehow obligated to fix the problem of PP, only that it would seem to have an interest in seeing the problem fixed, or in at least helping out (rather than trying to get people to stop talking about it and pretend it isn’t really an issue). What’s new about these studies, as I explained in my piece, is the way they indicate how big and pervasive the problem really is.

To my mind, if legit OA is morally exculpated (as we agree it should be), then the problem is no longer a problem for the OA movement. It’s a problem for the academy writ large…

Except that it isn’t, in reality, a problem for the academy writ large, because PP isn’t significantly tarnishing the reputation of academic publishing generally. It’s mainly tarnishing the reputation of OA publishing. And not because of Beall, but because these journals are invariably published on an OA basis (and, unfortunately, love to trumpet that fact on their websites and in their come-ons to authors).

But owning the problem, so to speak, may not be bad for OA supporters from a strategic point of view… If OA supporters are involved in developing responses to PP, then maybe there is a chance you will see its root causes and propose solutions that move us closer to a more just system.

Yes! Agreed. This is my point. (Though at some point in the reform process you’ll be faced with the fact that not everyone will agree on what constitutes a “just” system.)

To your specific question about the role of profit, I would put it this way: the profit motive is what creates the conflict. Can a scholarly society (that stands to profit in the ordinary sense by monetizing access to its prestigious journal(s), either through subscriptions or APCs, using that money to subsidize its other functions, perhaps) manage that conflict better than a private company? Probably. But it would be better if the custodians of the scholarly record didn’t have to manage a conflict at all.

But wait. If it’s “the profit motive (that) creates the conflict,” and if “profit-seeking” means “monetizing access… either through subscriptions or APCs,” regardless of whether the publisher in question is a nonprofit or a for-profit entity, then it sounds like you believe the only way a “custodian of the scholarly record” can avoid a conflict of interest is by having no revenue stream tied either to the supply side (APCs) or the demand side (access tolls). So are you saying that the only acceptable method of underwriting scholarly publishing is by direct institutional subsidy? (And if not, then what kind of funding structure do you think would be both just and effective?)

So I didn’t hear anyone volunteering to do the things I described about that would be necessary to generate evidence for either assertion:

– Take whatever imperfect list they can find, remove the borderline cases, then run queries in Scopus or WoS to count how many citations point to them.

– Show poor adoption & awareness of the standards that make a journal a journal (as opposed to a scam calling itself a journal).

Agree with William, here. Until there’s evidence this stuff is being taken seriously (and cited), the charge that it’s undermining science seems way overblown.

Your suggestions only address potential impact within the academy and the world of research itself. Personally I still have faith that most researchers can recognize garbage, and feel that any institution that does such a poor job of vetting employee performance to let this stuff through will eventually have it catch up with them.

I’m much more concerned about the impact this stuff has outside of the academy. We have clear examples that the popular press is unable to tell the difference between predatory and legitimate journals (https://io9.gizmodo.com/i-fooled-millions-into-thinking-chocolate-helps-weight-1707251800). We see climate change denialists publishing garbage research in garbage journals to support their political maneuvering (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/planet-oz/2018/jan/24/murky-world-of-science-journals-a-new-frontier-for-climate-deniers). We saw Theranos publishing fake trials in fake journals to support their case for investment and uptake by medical professionals (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/549478/bad-blood-by-john-carreyrou/9781524731656/).

This is how predatory journals are undermining science, potentially hurting funding for real science, putting lives in danger, and stopping the progress that science should be generating.

Not to pile on, William, but your suggestions also only address a narrow range of the impacts that predatory publishing can have even within the academy. What about the faculty members who deceive their colleagues on tenure and promotion committees by (knowingly) publishing in fraudulent journals and misrepresenting those publications as legitimate peer-reviewed articles in real scholarly journals?

It’s one thing to look at an article and recognize it as garbage; that’s relatively easy if you know the field. It’s also relatively easy to look at a journal’s website and recognize it as a scam, if you have any experience at all with scholarly-journal websites. But imagine that you’re looking at a job or tenure candidate’s CV and you see these two items on the list of publications:

Lounis N., C. Maslo, C. Truffot-Pernod, J. Grosset, RJ Boelaert. 2003. Impact of iron loading on the activity of isoniazid or ethambutol in the treatment of murine tuberculosis. Int J Tuberc Lung Dis. 7:575-12.

Hansen, O., L. Zhou, J. Grosset, F.X. Gallietti. 2003. To estimate pulmonary arterial compliance and pulse-wave velocity in cerebral-cardiovascular patients using CT cardiac images. Amer J Med Bio Res. 5:23-30.

One of these articles was published in a predatory journal. Unfortunately, the citation for that article looks exactly like the citation to the legitimate publication. And that exemplifies another danger to the academy posed by predatory publishing: that academics are buying fake credentials and using them to get hired and/or promoted. (One way of mitigating this danger is, of course, to look up every article on a candidate’s CV. Obviously, authors who knowingly avail themselves of fraudulent publishing services are betting that this won’t happen.)

“… they also share with the OA movement a funding model that creates a deep conflict of interest: their interest in publishing quality research (and therefore rejecting garbage and nonsense) is in conflict with their interest in maintaining a healthy revenue stream (which is undermined whenever they reject garbage and nonsense)”

Two comments: (1) Did you really intend to attribute to the OA movement (as well as predatory publishers) a funding model that creates a deep conflict of interest? Just curious about that!

(2) The conflict of interest that leads to standards being lowered to increase revenue is by no means limited to the present context. In fact, it applies equally, for example, to most aspects of university operation, and, I suggest, presents a greater threat to quality research than predatory publishers do. There is a growing danger that research will already be undermined by economic factors, before it even reaches the publication stage!

Did you really intend to attribute to the OA movement (as well as predatory publishers) a funding model that creates a deep conflict of interest?

I explained how the APC funding model creates a deep conflict of interest, and I pointed out that a great deal of OA publishing is funded by APCs. So if that’s what you mean by “attribute to,” then I guess the answer is yes. Anytime a journal is funded by APCs, there’s a conflict of interest that the publisher may manage honestly (as in the case of legitimate OA journals) or dishonestly (as in the case of predatory or fraudulent OA journals).

The conflict of interest that leads to standards being lowered to increase revenue is by no means limited to the present context.

No, of course it isn’t.

Denying that APCs create a conflict of interest is just another form of denialism. Predatory publishing was always the logical conclusion of APC-funded OA. Vanity presses have historical precedents in the 19th century: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanity_press#History

Even people who support open access acknowledge that APCs create a conflict of interest. See for example, Haspelmath (2013, Front. Behav. Neurosci., doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00057). I think Haspelmath has the right solution – OA publishing should be non-profit, publicly funded and owned by academics and their institutions.

“One research team found that over 5,000 German scientists had published in predatory journals.”
It would be interesting to see an analysis of those more than 5,000 “scientists” who published in questionable journals. It is important to remember that a person does not automatically becomes a scientist when publishes something which looks like a scientific publication. Unfortunately, the initial report from NDR does not contain much details about the authors and their publications. Although the report names four individuals from different German universities, who published in such journals: all four of them are/were active in the field of industrial engineering and have positions in university/industrial management and even politics. This seems to be rather biased and makes it even more relevant to see the whole list, or at least some statistics about it.

Absolutely. It will be very interesting to see the full reports as they emerge from the various news outlets that are producing them. As is always the case with journalistic reports about science, they will get some things wrong, and we’ll need to read them critically.

Hi Rick, Would you please elaborate more on ‘I’m actually in the process of organizing a summit group of scholcomm stakeholders that will work on an answer to it.’.

That’s about all I can say publicly right now. Feel free to contact me offline at rick.anderson[at]utah.edu if you’d like to discuss further.

Web of Science uses the term “ethical publishing,” including “predatory publishing practices,” “excessive, inauthentic journal self-citation,” and “other fraudulent practices.” Imagine you have a journal that has one legitimate, rigorous article and 10 articles that use false science, results that cannot be reproduced, lack expert review, copyright violation, etc. All of these practices pre-date open access or “fake news.”

Hi Rick and all,

It looks like our comment thread is closed, for some reason (I don’t see a “Reply to comment” link under your last post, anyway), but I think we are now going in circles generally, so it’s a good time to close it down. The last thing I’ll say is that I associate myself 100% with this piece by Cameron Neylon, which you link to in your piece as proof that even “smart” academics are “duped” by PPs: https://cameronneylon.net/blog/researcher-as-victim-researcher-as-predator/.

What you don’t say is *why* Neylon argues that smart academics would willingly participate in a dumb/corrupt scheme. I was gratified to see that Neylon argues convincingly for the same basic proposition I’ve been trying to advance, namely that PPs are a symptom of a deeper problem: the familiar dysfunction in the “publish or perish” culture of academe. If others haven’t read it, I strongly recommend it. Also, I’m going to collect my comments here for a post on my own blog, The Taper. Thanks for the conversation.

Best,
Brandon

Hi, Brandon —

Comments aren’t closed — it’s just that our WordPress platform only allows nesting to a certain level, after which additional responses have to be made to the comment at the previous level. It’s an annoying feature of our site redesign.

I should clarify one thing here. You put the words “smart” and “duped” in quotes as if they were words that I used in my argument. They’re not.

I appreciate your willingness to discuss here as well, thanks. I’d still be very interested in an answer to that last question I asked, either here or offline: if it’s not okay for a journal to support itself either by imposing APCs or by charging for access, then what’s an acceptable funding mechanism for a journal?

Hi Rick,

Sorry about the scare-quotes! I realized (too late) after I submitted the comment that they could be construed as quoting you rather than casting doubt on the notion that all authors in PP journals are duped. Anyway, to briefly answer your question, I think institutional ownership/control of scholcomm infrastructure is the right way to enable publishing scholarly content. Or, at least, it’s the way that prevents inequities in access for authors and readers alike, as well as extractive behavior by middlemen. Something like the COAR next-gen repositories vision, with federated, interoperable repositories and journals as overlays, etc., would be fine. Bjorn Brembs has also described this kind of system. Any system where access to a journal, by readers or authors, is controlled by a third party with an incentive to extract rents based on the prestige of the title seems problematic, to me, for the reasons I’ve described above. See Bergstrom on the coordination problem in journals (pp. 10 ff.)—I think his argument applies equally to subscriptions and APCs: http://econ.ucsb.edu/~tedb/Journals/jeprevised.pdf.

best,
B

Hi Brandon

Yes, PP is a problem. On the other hand, PP’s need journals the same as families need housing. In that latter market, access is controlled to the advantage of those who develop, build and manage properties. The same for those needing to publish and so the same argument holds. One can live in a mansion in a restricted area or in a trailer court. To Rick’s point, whether the cost for access is via a journal charge or APC is moot; the money is the same to the recipient. In either case, sometimes it makes sense to have a “broker” or for articles, a central submission point, as suggested from several contributors elsewhere in this thread. The benefits to the authors and readers can be well listed. The move in this direction identified with both Elsevier and Nature/Springer has already given the publishing industry pause if the comments in this thread are indicative. This path is far simpler than the ones facing the real estate markets.

Re: researchers as predators rather than victims, here is evidence from a recent paper, involving 100k researchers and 2.3 million papers:

“Departing from prior studies, our analysis shows that experienced researchers with a high number of non-indexed publications and PhD obtained locally are more likely to publish in predatory journals.”

Perlin, M.S., Imasato, T. & Borenstein, D. Scientometrics (2018) 116: 255. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-018-2750-6

Hi Rick

Thanks for your post. Back in 2015, it was just this thinking that led to the establishment of Think.Check.Submit (https://thinkchecksubmit.org/). See Bev Acreman’s recent Editorial in UKSG eNews (https://www.uksg.org/sites/uksg.org/files/Editorial418.pdf) for a description of how it started).

Predatory publishing is a problem for OA publishing, but even more for the researchers who publish in these journals due to the consequences they face from doing so. Our thinking in setting up Think.Check.Submit (TCS) was that a key way to address the problem was to cut off the flow of manuscripts to these journals, through educating researchers what to look for in a journal before they submit.

We first created a checklist, which has now been translated into 30 languages. This has been widely promoted, and has had a large amount of traffic. The TCS committee recently met to discuss future strategy and we have a number of plans in train. We will shortly be releasing a survey to get feedback on how to develop the initiative.

We would love to work together with you on the initiative that you are planning.

I too initially thought that “predatory” was a misnomer because it was clearly symbiotic. The authors get an easy publication, so long as their credit card number goes through, and the the publishers get a business. Likely that’s where most of the 5,000 German authors fit, and other Western authors.
But I re-thought that after coming across Edmond Sanganyado’s post “5 Things I Learned After Publishing In A Predatory Journal.” For early-career scientists, they really are predators, and it’s easy for honest, legitimate, young scientists to be taken in.
https://sanganyado.com/2017/09/29/predatory-journal/

Further to Deborah Kahn’s comment above, the Think. Check. Submit. survey she mentioned is now live and is a opportunity to tell us more about the challenges you experience with predatory journals and how we can develop this educational initiative to tackle this more. Please do take a look at the survey (deadline 28th September) and please share with any who might be interested. Thank you.

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/STZS5TJ

The survey places all the burden on the authors and none on the publishers. This thread on SK has pointed out numerous issues that need serious consideration by the industry itself. There is much that is in parallel with the current problems with the drug industry at the present time.

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