Earlier this year, a U.S. District Court ruled that publisher and conference organizer Srinubabu Gedela and his companies OMICS, iMedPub, and Conference Series violated the U.S. FTC Act “by making deceptive claims regarding their academic journals and scientific conferences, and by failing to adequately disclose their publishing fees.” The Court imposed a number of requirements as well as a judgment of $50.1 million.
Today I’d like to reflect on the implications that this ruling may have for institutions — those that employ researchers and those that fund researchers, especially as this will by no means be the last enforcement action taken against publishers accused of deceptive practices.
How might an institution repair a tarnished reputation? And, given the reality of fraudulent publishers and their deceptive practices, will institutions consider more strongly guiding author choice of publishing venue in order to protect institutional reputation?
Universities and funders often herald the achievements of their researchers in order to garner positive press coverage, bolster their reputations, or recruit new employees. University rankings and memberships many times depend heavily not only on measures of research activity and quality but also on the impression they generate — the brand identity if you will — of their quality.
Human subjects mistreatment, research misconduct, athletics scandals, fraud and other misuses of government funding, fundraising outrages, admissions corruption, and the like, by even a small number of individuals, regularly do damage to an institution’s reputation. These reputational missteps are damaging in a variety of ways, from fundraising to admissions applications, and they thereby harm the careers of these institutions’ faculty members and students.
Across institutions, a great deal of effort is put into a variety of risk management mechanisms to ensure compliance with legal, financial, and ethical frameworks and encourage good research practices. This work is sometimes tagged as bureaucracy, or worse yet bloat, but even so every month the Chronicle of Higher Education brings us more stories about failures to protect universities from the worst instincts of their stakeholders.
Can Institutions Guide Choice of Publishing Venue?
Given the connection between researcher activity and institutional reputation, it is somewhat surprising that institutions have not moved more aggressively to guide author choice in publication venue. One can imagine that administrators might choose to tread lightly in this realm, given the importance of intellectual and academic freedom. However, it is also the case that review, tenure, and promotion guidelines, as well as funder mandates, do already shape researcher choice, whether for journals that have good reputations or for those that offer required open access and copyright licensing terms.
So, it is not impossible to envision mechanisms for shaping researcher choice of publication venue; they already exist. These shaping forces are typically framed as in the pursuit of something positive — e.g., a venue of perceived quality or a pathway for open access. The question is, then, should institutions also employ shaping forces to prevent something negative — i.e, publication in a venue that engages in deceptive practices?
Are Institutions Paying Attention?
Over the past few years, there have been a number of analyses that looks at the extent of publishing in predatory journals in particular fields and disciplines. Typically drawing on Beall’s List or its progeny, which are admittedly problematic in a variety of ways, these investigations seem to result in general discussions about better support for authors in making their decisions about where to publish through training and checklist approaches.
We have also seen some examinations of the publications of a specific group of faculty. When these have been shared publicly (one can reasonably suspect that there are more investigations than those publicly disseminated), it seems there has been a “shoot the messenger” response; at least one faculty member was banned from his own campus after publishing a report on the topic.
This may in part explain why the OMICS ruling does not seem to have garnered the kind of concern or analysis — at least in any public way — that I had thought it might. When I didn’t see much immediate discussion after the ruling, I put out an inquiry on a few listservs and Twitter:
Have any librarians been contacted by your admin wanting to know if your faculty published in OMICS journals after the FTC judgment? If don’t want to reply publicly, email firstname.lastname@example.org? Will keep confidential
The responses were not hard to keep confidential as the only replies I received were librarians saying that they had not been contacted.
There are many possibilities here. Of course it could be the case that these investigations went forward internally without the involvement of the librarians. But, it is also possible that research administrators are unaware of the ruling. Or, that they are aware of it but assume that, while authors at other institutions might publish with OMICS, their own would not.
It seems that funders might also want to guide their researchers away from publishing in fraudulent venues but here too the approach seems to have been education and advice. A staff member at one funder did ponder if there was an ethical obligation after the OMICS ruling to alert their grantees who had published in OMICS.
This is something I haven’t seen in any discussions about fraudulent publishers. Is there any obligation of care to alert individual authors who might find themselves with a tarnished reputation as a victim of fraud? And, if there is, who has this obligation?
What Could Institutions Do?
In light of the potential risk to an institution, I worry that the reality of fraudulent publishers might be one of those things where institutional leaders are crossing their fingers and hoping for the best without preparing for the worst.
At a minimum, it seems that institutions should be monitoring their risk exposure. Dimensions Analytics offers, for example, the ability to search for articles in journals from a specific publisher with a given institutional affiliation or funding source. Institutional repositories, research information management systems, etc. might also be able to assist in this monitoring.
From an ethos of care perspective, institutions may also wish to reach out to their authors and alert them that their research reputation may be tarnished if they have been the victims of fraudulent publishers. Institutions might also provide support for authors who wish to try and withdraw their publications or seek refunds of any payments they made to a publisher.
Finally, as discussed above, institutions may wish to put in place more proactive strategies for guiding authors when they are making their decisions about which journals to submit their manuscripts to. Such could be framed as an optional support service. Funders may be in a position to use their grant guidelines to enforce blacklist/whitelist compliance for grantees. Institutions may also wish to explore options for refusing to process payments to certain publishers to avoid being complicit in fraudulent activity.