Publish or Perish: Predatory Journals and the Scientific Community's Solutions
As a former bench scientist, it always amazed me how months or years of work can be condensed into a single figure or even into “data not shown.” Publishing papers is one measure of productivity and success in science. In order to progress to the next level, whether that is to earn a Ph.D., obtain funding, or secure tenure, the number and quality of manuscripts are considerations. The immense pressure to publish feeds into the “publish or perish” environment, which has successfully integrated into science. An increasing number of journals thrive in this environment, and some of these have earned a “predatory” reputation.
The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) recently updated their “Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals” to authors to include a warning about these “predatory journals.”1 The committee warns that “a growing number of entities are advertising themselves as ‘medical journals’ yet do not function as such (‘predatory journals’).”1 Additionally, they strengthened their statement to: “Authors have a responsibility to evaluate the integrity, history, practices and reputation of the journals to which they submit manuscripts.”1
While there is not an established definition of what specifically makes a journal “predatory,” there are common characteristics. Predatory journals are generally open-access publishers that rapidly accept articles with either minimal or no peer review and lack an overall quality control.2 Predatory publishers exploit the model by charging the fee, but they fail to offer the expected publishing services. These publishers aggressively solicit scientists to submit their research and/or serve as editors. Further, there have been reported instances of these journals publishing complete rubbish, which in one case resulted in resignation of the editor-in-chief of one of these journals.3 After receiving numerous emails from an aggressive publisher, a graduate student submitted a “fake, computer-generated manuscript” to a predatory journal.3 The manuscript was constructed using “software that generates grammatically correct but nonsensical text.”3 The student was surprised when it was accepted and he was subsequently charged $800 in order to get his paper published.3 Deciding his ruse had gone far enough, the author retracted the article and avoided paying the publication fee.3 However, these publishing groups often prey on early-career scientists or inexperienced researchers who may not realize these journals are of questionable quality. While conducting my postdoctoral fellowship, I was routinely solicited by some of these publishers to submit my research to their journals; they would “significantly reduce” the publication fees if I submitted my manuscript within five business days. Other times, I would be asked to be a reviewer or even an editor because I was a “well-known expert” in the field. I often consulted a peer-accepted list of these predatory publishers, “Beall’s list of potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers,” to identify whether they were on that list.
Jeffrey Beall was one of the major opponents of these predatory publishing practices; a research librarian at the University of Colorado, Beall kept a list of predatory publishers, standalone journals, and hijacked journals in addition to maintaining a blog. All of this was kept on a website, scholarlyoa.com, where OA referred to “open-access.” Researchers could use these lists as a means to investigate “suspicious scientific claims” to determine whether the root of these claims stemmed from one of these predatory journals. Beall had also published “Criteria for Determining Predatory Open-Access Publishers” to assist researchers to independently evaluate a journal’s merits.4 A useful feature of Beall’s blog was the tracking of the number of these predatory journals over time and of how they flourished utilizing the “open-access model style” of publishing. In 2011, there were about 20 predatory publishers; by the time the list was taken down in January 2017, it had grown exponentially to over 1,100! Beall highlighted that “2012 was basically the year of the predatory publisher; that was when they really exploded.”5
“...these publishing groups often prey on early career or inexperienced researchers who may not realize these journals are of questionable quality.”
Unfortunately, there has not been a reason given for the removal of the blog and lists, leaving much to speculation. Since the lists were published online, cached copies continue to be available online. But this void has led scientists to ask, “Who will keep predatory science journals at bay now that Jeffrey Beall’s blog is gone?”6
As the number of these predatory journals has increased dramatically, some of these groups are branching out into offering “scientific” or academic conferences.
To incentivize submission of your research to their journal, some will offer a package: if your manuscript is accepted to journal “x,” then you can attend and give a talk at conference “y” for at least half the cost of the registration fee, or the fee may be totally waived. These conferences are held at a hotel, and there are multiple conferences occurring simultaneously at the same venue. This practice makes it a financially lucrative opportunity for the predatory groups as they make “money on volume.”7 As Beall described, “You just rent a hotel, make up a name, and stand around while everyone is reading their papers. It’s easy money.” However, the difference in the name of a predatory journal or meeting and an established one can be slight (e.g., the presence of a hyphen or apostrophe),8 thereby allowing the researcher to be deceived by the predatory entity. Until recently, scientists could only look to Beall’s list for guidance on these suspicious entities, but this changed last year.
In August 2016, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a lawsuit against several of these groups. The suit states that these groups “solicit articles and manuscripts” from researchers and that they have “academic experts serve as editors, members of the editorial boards, or associated with” these journals.9 However, the FTC says that the majority of these manuscripts fail to undergo the peer-review process.9 These journals also cite a “high impact factor” and claim that their articles are available in the PubMed database.9 The FTC disputes both claims and alleges that these groups fail to disclose the cost associated with publishing in their journals.9 Unfortunately for the researcher, he or she learns about the failed review process and fee only after the article is accepted for publication and then “must pay a publishing fee for each published article.”9 By that time, it is often too late to “withdraw their articles,” ultimately “preventing them from publishing in other journals.”9 The lawsuit further states that these groups also “organize scientific conferences in the United States and abroad.”9 In order to recruit participants, it is often stated that “academic experts have agreed to participate in the conferences,”9 which is untrue. The outcome of this lawsuit is still pending.
While there is an increasing awareness of the predatory journals in the scientific community, an area of lingering concern is that the general public may not realize that these journals are not reputable among scientists. Further, the fact that these journals are open-access and their (subpar) publications are readily available to individuals after an Internet search may negatively impact researchers. As scientists it is important for us to ensure that accurate, reliable information is disseminated into society so that there continues to be trust and transparency of science, because when this begins to falter then everyone can suffer. For example, there has been resurgence in vaccine-preventable childhood diseases (such as measles, mumps, and whooping cough) in the United States because some parents refuse to vaccinate their children. When parents decline the vaccinations, a concern that is voiced is that vaccines may cause autism, or parents simply state they believe vaccines are unnecessary.10 The myth that vaccines cause autism is directly linked to a now-retracted paper, and though this study has been disproven numerous times, its impact continues to ripple through the scientific community, leading to a growing public health concern.
“Unfortunately for the researcher, he or she learns about the failed review process and fee only after the article is accepted for publicaiton...”
While many of these predatory journals use an open-access model style of publishing, it is important to mention that this does not mean that open-access journals are “bad.” The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) publishes three highly regarded open-access journals: mBio, mSphere, and mSystems. ASM continuously works on maintaining its credibility by implementing new initiatives to enhance scientific and publishing integrity. The landscape of scientific publishing is constantly changing. Ultimately, it is the scientist’s obligation to evaluate both the journal and the publisher before he or she submits a manuscript.
3. Gilbert N. Editor will quit over hoax paper. Nature. June 15, 2009.
5. Butler D. Investigating journals: the dark side of publishing. Nature.
7. Carey K. A peek inside the strange world of fake academia. The New York Times.
8. Rubin E. The problem of predatory journals: fake academia joins fake news. Nonprofit Quarterly.
10. Cha AE. More parents believe vaccines are ‘unnecessary,’ while a mumps outbreak grows. Washington Post.