A recent investigation led by an international group of journalists raised concerns over the scale of the problem of deceptive publishing practices, with many researchers of standing and reputation found to have published in “predatory” journals. However, while the findings of this investigation garnered significant media attention, the robustness of the study itself was not subject to the same scrutiny. To Tom Olijhoek and Jon Tennant, the profile afforded to investigations of this type causes some to overstate the problem of predatory publishing, while often discrediting open access publishing at the same time. The real problem here is one of education around questionable journals, and should not distract from more urgent questions around the shifting scholarly ecosystem.
Full disclosure: Tom Olijhoek is Editor-in-Chief of DOAJ and Jon Tennant is the founder of the Open Science MOOC.
Imagine you want to investigate the quality of restaurants. You know beforehand there are bad restaurants. So you set up your investigation by going to a number of bad restaurants of bad reputation. What do you find? You find that a number of restaurants are really bad, an inevitable conclusion. You even find that people of standing and reputation have visited these restaurants on occasion.
Would the conclusion here be that all restaurants are bad? Several investigations of this kind have looked into the problem of “predatory” or “questionable” publishers, the most famous being the heavily criticised and deeply flawed “sting operation” by John Bohannon in Science magazine. In science speak, this is called doing an experiment without an appropriate control group, usually sufficient for research to be desk rejected for being fundamentally flawed.
The latest such investigation, led by an international group of journalists, revealed something already widely known: in a number of countries, a relatively small number of “fake” papers have been submitted to, and published by, relatively few known-to-be-questionable journals that engage in deceptive publishing practices. The investigation built on this existing knowledge, and found that many of the journals to have accepted these articles had also published authors of name and fame, something which had often been overlooked before. It was said that in Germany, the main example used in the investigation, more than 5,000 researchers had published in such predatory or questionable journals, and the investigation in the UK also yielded the names of 5,000 researchers. A report of the investigation (unfortunately only available to view if you sign up for a two-week trial) showed a figure of geographical distribution of predatory publishers, without any attribution. The figure was taken from a highly-cited article by Cenyu Shen and Bo-Christer Björk that was published in 2015, but without appropriate reference.
The investigators quoted the estimated number of 420,000 articles in predatory journals, also taken from this publication without reference. This figure has been shown to be highly overestimated thanks to meticulous research by Walt Crawford, who, using the same source data, estimated a number closer to the region of 135,000 articles. While this number is by no means small, it is a relative drop in the ocean considering that more than two million articles are published each year in English-language journals alone.
Publications about parts of this investigation are still appearing, and the popular press, including TV and radio, has paid a lot of attention to this international collaboration. In many cases, however, it does not appear that the source data or methods were widely shared with these media outlets, and at present they are not public. Indeed, one journalist involved, when asked for the data supporting this media campaign to be shared, responded that the data could not be shared for legal reasons, despite also stating that the information is otherwise widely available online through web-scraping techniques. It seems strange that journalists appear not to want any form of independent verification of their work, given this is exactly one of the issues they are challenging within the scientific enterprise.
The investigation and many press releases and media attention suggest a link between predatory publishing and open access publishing, or at least traditional publishing models and research integrity.
Image credit: Matthew Ansley, via Unsplash (licensed under a CC0 1.0 license).
It is utterly incomprehensible that scientists accept this kind of investigation as sound. The methods appear opaque and flawed, at least partly plagiarised, the data are inaccessible and unverifiable, and often reported on without independent journalistic scrutiny; all things we expect of any rigorous, research-based investigation, and especially one to gain international media attention of this scale.
The investigation and its coverage also largely fail to note that there are a range of existing efforts to combat this widely known issue. For example, what about the fact that there are at least 12,000 trustworthy open access journals indexed in DOAJ, acting as a “whitelist” to combat the issue of questionable publishers? These journals have published more than 3.3 million research papers to date, and every day researchers are increasingly publishing in a wide array of reputable open access journals.
What about the fact that many predatory journals are subscription journals also? The problem here comes from opaque definitions of what characterises “predatory” publishing practices, across the whole publication ecosystem, and indeed far too much opacity around the entire publishing process and system. We need to view this “problem” in perspective in order to assess its relative importance!
This leads one to the question of why this campaign was started in the first place, what its intention was, other than to more widely spread information about something already generally known by the research and publishing communities. In a paper last year, Martin Eve and Ernesto Priego queried who is actually harmed by “predatory publishers”. They concluded that real harm is basically negligible to virtually all stakeholder groups, and indeed that “established publishers have a strong motivation to hype claims of predation as damaging to the scholarly and scientific endeavour while noting that, in fact, systems of peer review are themselves already acknowledged as deeply flawed”. This issue of peer review was also noted in a recent Lambert Heller post, which recommended transparency as the best remedy for any potential harm caused by predatory publishers. This understanding is important, as it comes at a time when radical ecosystem shifts are occurring, such as the recent launch of Plan S in the EU. Given these potentially seismic shifts, we need to make sure our conversations stay focused on the real, larger issues at hand, such as why each year we continue to funnel billions of dollars of public funds into the hands of corporate giants that impose a tax on access to public knowledge and education.
In the meantime the discreditation of open access is showing effect. Scientists, governments, and journalists claim that predatory publishing is a big problem for scientific communication caused by open access based on the “facts” uncovered by a worldwide investigation. Predatory publishing is, in fact, only a minor nuisance caused by scientists who don’t follow simple rules on where to publish. These simple rules are excellently described by Think, Check, Submit, a fantastic tool for researchers who aren’t sure about the legitimacy of a journal. In addition, scientists could pre-select safe open access journals by using the DOAJ list of indexed open access journals, currently containing more than 12,000 journals. The problem of questionable publishers is more of an education problem, exacerbated by the fact that journals are still considered the primary communication and reward system for researchers.
The best way to help resolve this would be to include learning programmes on open science and open access as a mandatory part of undergraduate studies and PhD courses. This is something that is being worked on as part of a huge collaborative effort with the Open Science MOOC and other community-led trainings.
With these simple educational measures, the “problem” of predatory publishing would simply fade away, leaving ample choice of good open access journals to publish in. Furthermore, a recent cross-publisher initiative to support the publishing of referee reports could help to expose “predatory” practices almost immediately, as journals who refuse to share information on their peer review practices could be treated with greater suspicion. The only problem remaining will be the ever-rising costs of subscription publishing which will cause more and more countries to continue cancel their subscription packages.
But that is not the problem of publishers who only commit to open access. There are huge changes happening right now in the global scholarly publishing ecosystem. Yes, “predatory” publishing practices are a problem, but this is a relatively small issue compared to the fact that the vast majority of our global research corpus remains a private commodity owned by a small number of multi-billion-dollar corporations. Let us focus our efforts on the bigger problems here, and make sure that we are truly seeing the forest as well as the trees.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
About the authors
Tom Olijhoek is Editor-in-Chief of DOAJ. He has a PhD in Molecular microbiology and has spend many years in Africa doing research on tropical diseases. His ORCID is 0000-0002-5433-5944. He can be found on Twitter @ccess.
Jon Tennant is an independent researcher and scientific communication consultant. He is the founder of the Open Science MOOC and the preprint server, paleorXiv. Jon is also the author of numerous kids’ books and for scientific news outlets, Executive Editor of the new journal Geoscience Communication, and Community Editor for the PLOS Paleo network. He completed his PhD at Imperial College London and his research looks at deep time evolutionary patterns in groups like dinosaurs and crocodiles. Jon tweets @protohedgehog and his ORCID is 0000-0001-7794-0218.
This article is really disappointing and shows that these OA leaders have yet to accept that a conflict of interest exists at the heart of OA. The article processing charge business model is, in my mind, one of the biggest things holding back OA publishing. The APC, levied at article acceptance, provides a strong incentive to publishers to accept as many article as possible – no study is really required to prove this, it’s as obvious as saying that businesses are rewarded by selling as many products to their customers as they can.
And while there may be methodological issues with the stings on OA publishers, academics get a daily stream of spam emails soliciting content for OA, not subscription, predators. At most, I’ve been solicited to submit to hybrid predatory journals – but they still wanted a fee whether the paper was subscription or OA. The problem is that the APC business model is fundamentally conflicted. Denying this by saying that the problem isn’t real, and if it is real it doesn’t hurt anyone, is not helping to make the system better.
I’d much prefer to see OA leaders pushing for the adoption of less conflicted OA business models – models like submission fees and funder or library-based platinum OA journals. Mega-journals are all APC-funded open access journals. High-profile subscription journals cascade to OAMJs because it’s a way for the publisher to ensure that they make money off a rejected submission.
There’s a reason commercial publishing largely abandoned the vanity press. Even the graduate students I work with instinctively realise the conflict of interest in APC-funded OA and are reluctant to publish their best work in OA journals – yet every OA journal in our field levies APCs. Why haven’t OA advocates and scholars realised that there is a problem here and why are OA advocates simply pushing forward with APC-based revolutions like Plan S? We need platinum OA, not the fool’s gold of APCs.
Relevant Twitter thread, any feedback is appreciated:
I was unable to locate in this article a (proper) definition of a predatory journal / publisher and I noticed that the authors do not refer to a recent paper in the journal ‘Current Science’ about this issue ( G.S. Seethapathy, J.U. Santhosh Kumar & A.S. Hareesha, ‘India’s scientific publication in predatory journals: need for regulating quality of Indian science and education’, http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/111/11/1759.pdf , published in December 2016, open access).
G.S. Seethapathy et al. have used the criteria of the list of Jeffrey Beall. They state at page 1760 of their paper that they have used the version of 15 February 2016 of this list. (The most recent version of the list of Jeffrey Beall can be viewed at https://web.archive.org/web/*/scholarlyoa.com .) The open access publisher Frontiers was at that time listed at the Beall’s list of ‘potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers’.
Frontiers is on the most recent version of the Beall’s list. For example science journalist Leonid Schneider has extensively published about publisher Frontiers (backgrounds at https://forbetterscience.com/?s=frontiers ). My own experiences with communicating with Mirjam Curno, a member of the staff of publisher Frontiers, about getting a copy of one of her papers, was unfavorable (no response, and also not on reminders, etc., etc.). Even contacts with allies of Mirjam Curno to get a copy from this paper were unfavorable (no response, etc.). I finally received from another source a copy of this paper (Mirjam Curno was the single author of this paper).
I understand that there are still issues in regard to the process of peer-review at Frontiers and I am therefore interested in the opinion of the authors of this article about the current status of the open access publisher Frontiers.
Thanks in advance for a response.
Agree that there are issues with the definition of “predatory publishers”. This article (https://predatory-publishing.com/what-is-predatory-publishing-and-should-you-care/) has a discussion on the definition of the term
All of the research done in this area to date has been flawed. More (and better) research is needed. In the meantime, the US Federal Trade Commission’s recent injunction against OMICS confirms that fraud and predation is a real problem that poses a real threat to science. Not yet addressed by the courts, almost every active researcher and journal editor can relay stories about how predation is a serious and growing problem. Researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa and India (which recently took state action against predatory journals) are more vulnerable than researchers in North America; where “value-priced” APCs aren’t necessarily driving journal selection decisions.
This has absolutely nothing to do with being against open access. To the contrary, it has everything to do with ensuring that as the scholarly publishing ecosystem grows, new publishers and journals abide by the norms, standards, and codes of ethical conduct that science requires in order to ensure the preservation of science knowledge.
OSI will be publishing a policy brief on this issue in the net few months (osiglobal.org).
For information, Cabells publishes a Blacklist of over 9,700 journals which have breached some of its 60+ behavioral indicators – screening for everything from misleading metrics to irregular publication practices – that help researchers identify predatory publishers. For more information, go to https://www2.cabells.com/about-blacklist
This is the issue trust in those who declares that they are leaders in promoting OA idea (OASPA). We know that among members of OASPA there are several which are quite questionable with regard to ethics. Yes, Beall’s list of predatory publishers contains some of them, and OASPA always tried to ignore this fact. But finally, look at the recent case. This is a smaller Publisher (Business Perspectives) accepted to OASPA recently https://oaspa.org/member/llc-cpc-business-perspectives/. This Publisher in the Bealls list too. OASPA ignores this fact. Let it be, but what a paradox that journals of this publisher were removed by DOAJ from DOAJ journal list a year ago (October 24, 2017). The reason was serious – Editorial misconduct by the Publisher. OASPA and DOAJ declared in August 2018 that they both combine its efforts about new applications by the journals and Publisher. And what do we have now? DOAJ removes the journals of the Publisher, and at the same time this Publisher is accepted by OASPA!!! Such cases can distrust OASPA and finally, the lack of accountability inside of DOAJ and OASPA will make both distrusted too. So, we should rely not on OASPA and similar promoters, but on the growing movement of scholars worldwide toward OA.
The problem of predatory publishing should be considered within Plan S first of all. I see that one of the most important for its promoters is an attempt to make DOAJ a widely and officially recognized list of journals. One of items of Plan S declares about a leading role of DOAJ and only journals listed in DOAJ will be acceptable to have an access to funding APC. It means that DOAJ intends to play the role of widely (WOS, SCOPUS) and nationally (ABDC, ABS, QUALIS, AIDEA, ANVUR, NSD, etc) journal lists. Yes, WOS and SCOPUS are commercial products but it was established in expenses and under initative of a sole institution. ABDC, ABS, QUALIS, AIDEA, ANVUR, NSD are not commercial and this is a request of scholars. DOAJ declared at its web-site that DOAJ does not recognize and journal impact factor (which are residuals from journal lists). Does it mean that DOAJ will get rid of its statement about the role of journal impact factor with regard to the wish of DOAJ to be recognized officially as a sole accptable journal list under Plan S? Does it mean that plan S ignores other national journal lists like ABDC, ABS, QUALIS, AIDEA, ANVUR, NSD? If we compare the procedure of revision the journal lists above, so in major cases the journals list are set up for 3-5 years. DOAJ addes and removes journals daily. This does not go in the line with the practices of other journal lists. If the open access journals are in ABDC, ABS, QUALIS, AIDEA, ANVUR, NSD why plan S disregards these national journal lists and addresses a respect just to DOAJ? If DOAJ excludes each year about 400-500 journals we expect that the procedures of evaluation of new journals by DOAJ should be improved remarkably before pretending for a sole journal list under plan S. I see that DOAJ should consider criteria of evaluation of the journals including predatory publsihing issues. It will make DOAJ quite original journal list and add more actual value to plan S as well. So, we, scholars are waiting for such steps from DOAJ and promoters of Plan S.
It was very useful to read one of the recent news by DOAJ https://blog.doaj.org/2019/01/09/large-scale-publisher-survey-reveals-global-trends-in-open-access-publishing/
DOAJ conducted very interesting survey above. “Predatory publishing really isn’t considered to be a big deal for DOAJ publishing community. 62% of respondents said that they didn’t have to deal with competition from predatory publishers or journals. There was no equivalent question in 2013”. Does it mean that Publishing community in DOAJ does not care about predatory publishing issue? It the era of ethical declarations in publishing worldwide, this issue of predatory publishing should be the issue of concern for all ethically driven Publisher. Probably, the majority of DOAJ community does not care about prodatory publishing because the georgraphy of this majority is from the countries where predatroy publishing took a place and finally born? In this case DOAJ should take a responsibility and fight about predatory publishing through incorporating it in its policy. It would very interesting to know who are those Publishers in DOAJ (38 per cent) who think that predatory publishing is still the issue to fight against. These are very responsible publishers. All the rest (62 per cent) – are not.
It is too strict to state that problem of predatory publishing is still small. Does DOAJ check up all papers in the journals DOAJ adds to its list of journals? To do it, DOAJ should have a team at least of 100-200 experts in the field to check it up. At the same time DOAJ added each month during 2018 about 150 journals. Keep on such pace of adding the journals, DOAJ will leave SCOPUS behind (with reference to the number of journals listed/indexed) in 3-4 years. Is this the case of DOAJ to be the largest directory of open access journals by any mean? The problem is that there are still many journals in DOAJ which publish very weak papers which are hardly possible to be reviewed before its publication. If DOAJ pretends to be an advocacy of good practices in OA publishing, then DOAJ should be much deeper inside of each journal (even each paper of this journal) DOAJ addes to the list. Frankly said, many scholars around can not answer what DOAJ is – OA advocacy or OA journals directory. My point is if DOAJ aspires to pretend for the role of OA advocacy, DOAJ should be on the forefront of fight against predatory publishers. The article above narrates that this is still not the case.
I am not sure that now there is any serious advocate of OA publishing truly fighting against predators. To fight against predators we need to see criteria of predatory publishing. Where are these criteria? Instead of that, experts related to DOAJ declare that predatory publishing is not the problem at all. It is like to close the eyes and state that there is not a problem. I see that DOAJ and others can not declare that predatory publishing is still the problem (and for OA publishing too) because they do not know the consequences of thier statements. I expect that the problem of predatory publishing is too lage for these promoters of OA publishing to fight against. In this context a statement made by Elsevier in October (see their web-site) about a problem of predatory publishing in the world is more perspective than a wish of DOAJ to avoid recognizing that thsi problem is serious, althouth it should be vise versa.