What is the black market in predatory publishing worth each year? No satisfactory estimate has yet been produced, so Simon Linacre has decided to grab the back of an envelope and an old biro to try to make an educated guess.
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Possibly as a result of spending too much holed up at home, a friend of mine in scholarly communications asked me last week how much predatory publishers earned each year. I confess that I was a little stumped at first. Despite the fact that Cabells has created the world’s most comprehensive database of predatory titles in its Journal Blacklist, it does not collate information on article processing charges (APCs), and even if it did it would not bear any relation to what was actually paid, as often APCs are discounted or waived. Indeed, sometimes authors are even charged a withdrawal fee for the predatory journal to NOT publish their article.
So, where do you start trying to estimate a figure? Well, firstly you can try reviewing the literature, but this brings its own risks. The first article I found estimated it to be in the billions of dollars, which immediately failed the smell test. After looking at the articles it had cited, it became clear that an error had been made – the annual value of all APCs is estimated to be in the billions, so the figure for predatory journals is likely to be a lot less.
The second figure was in an article by Greco (2016) which estimated predatory journals to be earning around $75m a year, which seemed more reasonable. But is there any way to validate this? Well, recently the case was closed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on its judgement against Omics Group which it had fined $50.1m in April 2019 (Linacre, Bisaccio & Earle, 2019). After the judgement was passed, there were further checks on the judgement to ensure the FTC had been fair and equitable in its dealings, and these were all validated. This included the $50m fine and the way it was worked out… which means you could use these calculations and extrapolate them out to all of the journals included in the Cabells Journal Blacklist.
And no, this is not mathematically valid, and nor is it any guarantee of getting near a correct answer – it is just one way of providing an estimate so that we can get a handle on the size of the problem.
So, what the back of my dog-eared envelope shows is that:
- The judgement against OMICS was for $ $50,130,811, which represented the revenues it had earned between August 25, 2011 and July 31, 2017 (2,167 days, or 5.94 years)
- The judgement did not state how many journals Omics and its subsidiaries operated, but Cabells includes 776 Omics-related journals in its Journal Blacklist
- For Omics, if you use this data that means each journal earns revenues of $10,876 per year
- If we were to assume OMICS were a typical predatory publisher (and they are bigger and more professional than most predatory operators) and were to extrapolate that out to the whole Blacklist of 13,138 journals, that’s a value of $142.9m a year
I do think this is very much top side as many predatory publishers charge ultra-low APCs to attract authors, while some may have stopped functioning. However, on the flip side we are adding to the Blacklist all the time and new journals are being created daily. So, I think a reasonable estimate based on the FTC judgement and Cabells data is that the predatory journal market is probably worth between $75m and $100m a year. What the actual figure might be is, however, largely irrelevant. What is relevant is that millions of dollars of funders’ grants, charitable donations and state funding have been wasted on these outlets.
Greco, A. N. (2016). The impact of disruptive and sustaining digital technologies on scholarly journals. Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 48(1), 17–39. doi: 10.3138/jsp.48.1.17
Simon Linacre, Michael Bisaccio & Lacey Earle (2019). Publishing in an Environment of Predation: The Many Things You Really Wanted to Know, but Did Not Know How to Ask, Journal of Business-to-Business Marketing, 26:2, 217-228, DOI: 10.1080/1051712X.2019.1603423