Jun 16 2017

Open Access Predatory Journals

academic-publishers-titles-identified-as-predatorial-2011-2016-210116-largeFor about five years Jeffrey Beall, an academic librarian, maintained a list of predatory journals. Earlier this year he removed the list and all associated websites from the internet. Recently he explained exactly why he did this, and it’s a chilling tail.

Predatory Journals

A predatory journal is generally one in which authors pay a fee in order to publish a paper. This in itself does not make a journal predatory, but it sets the stage. This is part of the open-access movement, which is also not synonymous with predatory but is vulnerable to predatory practices.

Traditional journals earn their money from subscriptions and advertising. In order to maximize revenue, they want to maximize their reputation and impact factor. This gives them an incentive to publish high quality articles, although also surprising and new studies, which may not be replicable, but that is a separate issue.

Open access journals make the papers they publish freely available to the public. Because they don’t, therefore, have subscriptions, they make their money by charging researchers a publication fee. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this model and the idea of open access is a good one. But, with this model publishers have an incentive to publish a lot of papers and no financial incentive to reject poor quality submissions or to engage in rigorous peer review.

This further means that publishers may enter the business with the intent on generating revenue by publishing as many low-quality submissions as they can, while minimizing investment in infrastructure. They essentially fake peer review, have non-existent editorial standards, solicit submissions with spam e-mails and deceptive claims, and pad their editorial board with academics who don’t actually do any work for the journal. Anyone with an academic e-mail will be familiar with such solicitations.

In 2013 Science Magazine published the results of a sting in which a fake and terrible paper was submitted to over 300 open access journals. Sixty percent of the journals published the bogus paper, which should not have made it past even the flimsiest peer-review.

Hounded Into Silence

For all these reasons Beall maintained a list of open-access journals that engaged in predatory practices. It was a useful list, and many institutions used it when evaluating academic credentials. In essence, they would not give academic credit for papers published in a blacklisted predatory journal.

Of course, such a list hurts the financial bottom line of the predatory publishers. Beall then learned what skeptics have known for decades – when you go after con-artists they are going to push back, and they are not nice people. By definition they have low moral and ethical standards, and they are not going to play fair when you attack their source of income.

Beall also learned that many academics who made use of predatory journals in order to publish their work that they could not get published in more respected journals, actually defended the shady journals.

According to Beall the predatory publishers would harass him and his employer, University of Colorado Denver, in order to get removed from his list. He writes:

Some publishers, especially the publishers of standalone mega-journals, would go through my university’s website and cherry-pick names and email addresses of the university officials they thought important. Then they would send an email blast to them, denouncing me and making false accusations about my work, my ethics, and my ability to make judgments about journals and publishers. The publishers were driven by money, competition, and greed, and they sought to remove any obstacle standing in the way of increased revenue, and my list was one such obstacle.

Still others tried different strategies. Some tried annoying university officials with numerous emails and letters, often sent as PDF attachments, with fancy letterhead, informing the university how I was hurting its reputation. They kept sending the emails to the university chancellor and others, hoping to implement the heckler’s veto. They tried to be as annoying as possible to the university so that the officials would get so tired of the emails that they would silence me just to make them stop.”

Unfortunately this strategy ultimately worked. Beall was pressured to take down his list and his websites. This is a tragedy for academia and medicine.

The institution of science is built on quality control, peer-review, and self-criticism. Beall was providing an invaluable service by pointing out practices among some journals that violated the spirit and the process of quality control in science. Predatory journal contribute to a blurring of the lines between science and pseudoscience, essentially flooding the world with low quality and bogus studies and promoting the borderline academics who produce them.

He specifically points out, and I agree, that the pseudoscientific world of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) benefits greatly from this blurring of lines.

This is also very disappointing because it is critical that academic institutions hold the line against pseudoscience, and are willing to fight for quality control and ethical behavior in science. All the University of Colorado had to do was support Beall, stand firmly behind him, and not be intimated or harassed by charlatans, and they apparently failed. They caved under pressure when they should have rallied behind Beall and shouted support for his efforts from the top of their ivory tower.

The world of academia needs to recognize that charlatans, con-artists, and pseudoscientists are constantly trying to work their way through the gates. The scam that is CAM has largely succeeded, to the shame of academic medicine. They need to spend more resources on the type of quality control that will maintain the integrity of science and academia in the face of this intrusion. At the very least they should support those few academics who recognize the problem and make fighting pseudoscience, and promoting the public understanding of science, their specialty.

It is never going to be easy to stand firm against vested interests that have a lot of money to make or lose based on the acceptance of their pseudoscience. They are relentless in promoting their brand, lobbying for favorable regulations, and doing everything they can to acquire the trappings of legitimacy. To the extent that they do, however, they threaten academic legitimacy itself.

To the extent that predatory journals succeed, and silence their critics, they will dilute quality science in a sea of bad and bogus science. The ability for the scientific process to distinguish what is real from what is fake will be compromised. Entire fields of fake science will be able to thrive, and we will lose the ability to tell the difference.

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