When Publishers Don’t Play Fair

December 03, 2015

By Melissa Cheung

The author pays model of open access (OA) publishing has given rise to predatory publishers, who do not follow acceptable standards in scholarly publishing. When they first started cropping up, predatory publishers were the scholarly version of the “Nigerian Prince” scam, emailing researchers invitations to publish in OA journals only to collect fees from the authors without providing the publishing services that were promised.

In 2013, predatory publishing made headlines in the news with Bohannon’s Journal Sting, which exposed predatory OA publishers by tricking them into accepting fake research papers. Since then, there has been increasing concern over the problem of predatory publishers polluting the scholarly landscape, as their questionable practices continue to evolve by claiming fake impact factors, fake editorial boards, hijacking or masquerading as reputable publishers, and even collecting fees for fake conferences.

Inadequate or lack of peer-review is a hallmark of predatory publishing, and it perpetuates the belief that all OA journals are low quality or vanity publications. This makes it difficult for librarians and OA advocates to convince skeptical researchers why open access is important and beneficial to scholarly research and society. 

The use of the term “predatory publishing” is problematic as it has become so closely associated with open access. Jeffrey Beall, an academic librarian at the University of Colorado Denver, coined the term and established a list of “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers”. However, Beall’s list has created some controversy since he is vocally critical of the ‘gold’ author pays model of open access, and can be quick to put journals on his blacklist whether they deserve to be or not. The truth is, unethical publishing existed long before open access; even some reputable, commercial publishers have questionable business practices or have made the mistake of publishing low-quality or even fake articles

Perhaps a more accurate term to describe unethical publishing practices is “deceptive publishing”, as Rick Anderson, the Associate Dean for Collections and Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah, has suggested. Deceptive publishers intentionally trick researchers into paying fees to publish in fake journals or journals that do not have rigorous peer-review services.

Furthermore, the term “predatory” creates a sense of fear, alluding to the idea that researchers are easy prey when in fact researchers choose whether to publish in these journals or not. While it is true that some authors may naively submit their paper to a disreputable journal, others knowingly publish in dubious journals in order to pad their list of publications. This is often reported as a problem in developing countries, but it also occurs in countries with a well-established research reputation; a practice that appears under the pressures of the “publish or perish” mentality.

From a librarian’s perspective, disappearing research is the larger concern. Research published in disreputable journals is not indexed by article databases, and are therefore not discoverable, accessible, or preserved. Digital curation and preservation of online documents is a huge challenge for libraries, archives, and other knowledge institutions. The problem of disappearing research as a result of predatory or deceptive publishers should be the focus of the discussion, rather than the fear of becoming a victim of predatory publishers.

Publishing in an illegitimate journal just to add another publication to a CV is a short-term gain, and the consequences will catch up to researchers in the long run. Unethical publishers will stay in business as long as they are profitable. Once their operations are no longer generating profits, they will disappear along with their journals. All of the work the researchers have done to collect, analyze and publish their findings will not be preserved and there will be no record of the published article. This has serious implications when researchers apply for promotion and tenure, research grants, or when they undergo any other type of research assessment. Evaluators will easily recognize the fact that the researcher has mostly published in low quality journals.

Librarians are experts in evaluating and selecting quality journals for library collections, and can play an important role in helping researchers identify appropriate and legitimate OA journals. Many libraries have a scholarly communications librarian and provide publishing support for researchers, including identifying appropriate journals and ways to comply with open access policies. For example the University of Ottawa Library has a checklist to help evaluate OA journals and publishers; and librarians at Grand Valley State University have developed Open Access Journal Quality Indicators that highlight positive indicators associated with well-respected OA journals and negative indicators that suggest deceptive journals or publishers. 

At minimum, respectable OA journals will have a clearly defined scope, primary audience, and have an International Standard Serial Number (ISSN), however these indications are easily faked and researchers need to do a bit more digging to determine if a journal is reputable. Any policies regarding Article Processing Charges (APCs) should be transparent, and the information should be easily found on the journal website so researchers aren’t tricked into paying fees after working hard to get their manuscript accepted for publication.
False claims of journal indexing and impact factors are dead giveaways for spotting illegitimate journals. Deceptive OA publishers make misleading statements about their journals being indexed by recognized database providers. When evaluating journals, librarians take the extra step to verify where a journal is indexed. Ulrich's Web Global Serials Directory is one of the tools often used by librarians to find key information about journals, including indexing and abstracting details.

Advertising imaginary impact factors, such as Universal Impact Factor, Global Impact Factor, and Citefactor, is another tactic used by predatory publishers. The Thomson Reuters’ Journal Citation Reports (JCR), which includes the impact factor (IF), and the SCImago journal rank (SJR) are the most trusted sources for journal metrics. These metrics are calculated using citation data from the Web of Science and Scopus databases, respectively, which have stringent evaluation criteria for selecting which journals to include in their index.

Additionally, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) have introduced strict criteria for OA journals that are included in the directory and are awarding the DOAJ Seal to outstanding journals that follow OA best practices. Journals already indexed in DOAJ are required to reapply for inclusion by demonstrating that they meet the new criteria. This initiative is to establish DOAJ as a whitelist for OA journals.

Meanwhile, publishers are also stepping up to ensure quality standards and ethical practices in the industry. The Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA) have a set of membership criteria and a code of conduct to maintain ethical standards for OA publishers. This means that respectable publishers are likely to be members of OASPA. Furthermore, a coalition of publishers, including DOAJ and OASPA, have recently launched a campaign called Think.Check.Submit to help researchers identify reputable OA journals.

Predatory publishers are a problem for scholarly communication, but they shouldn’t be synonymous with open access publishers. Trusted scholarly publishers offer researchers plenty of reputable OA journals to choose from. Librarians have been at the forefront of the open access movement since the beginning, and can help researchers avoid predatory publishers and choose quality OA journals.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Jeanette Hatherill for providing additional insights and feedback.

Melissa Cheung
(@mwscheung) is a Science and Engineering Research Liaison Librarian at the University of Ottawa. She received her MIS from the School of Information Studies at the University of Ottawa; and also holds a Bachelor of Science from Carleton University. She is interested in makerspaces, research data management, scientific publishing, and research impact metrics.

Filed Under: FACETS Open Access

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