This week The Economist published an article on predatory publishing following collaboration with Cabells. Simon Linacre looks into the findings and points to how a focus on education can avert a disaster for Covid-19 and other important research.
One of the consequences of the all-consuming global interest in the coronavirus pandemic is that it has catapulted science and scientists right onto the front pages and into the public’s range of vision. For the most part, this should be a good thing, as there quite rightly has to be a respect and focus on what the facts say about one of the most widespread viruses there has ever been. However, there have been some moments where science itself has been undermined by some of the rather complex structures that support it. And like it or not, scholarly communication is one of them.
Let’s take the perspective of, say, a mother who is worried about the safety of her kids when they go back to school. Understandably, she starts to look online and in the media for what the science says, as many governments have sought to quell fears people have by saying they are ‘following the science’. But once online, they are faced with a tangled forest of articles, journals, jargon, paywalls and small print, with the media seemingly supporting contradictory statements depending on the newspaper or website you read. For example, this week’s UK newspapers have led on how the reduction of social distancing from 2m to 1m can double the infection rate, or be many times better than having no social distancing – both factually accurate and from the same peer reviewed study in The Lancet.
Another area that has seen a good deal of coverage has been preprints, and how they can speed up the dissemination of science… or have the capability of disseminating false data and findings due to lack of peer review, again depending on where you cast your eye. The concerns represented by media bias, the complexity of information and lack of peer review all combine into one huge problem that could be coming down the line very soon, and that is the prospect of predatory journals publishing erroneous, untested information as research in one of the thousands of predatory journals currently active.
This week Cabells collaborated with The Economist to focus some of these issues, highlighting that:
- Around a third of journals on both the Cabells Journal Whitelist and Blacklist focus on health, with predatory journals in subjects such as maths and physics number more than legitimate journals
- Geography plays a significant role, with many more English language predatory journals based in India and Nigeria than reliable ones
- The average output of a predatory journal is 50 articles a year, although 60% of these will never be cited (compared to 10% for legitimate journals)
- Despite the like of peer review or any of the usual publishing checks, an estimated 250,000 articles each year are cited in other journals
- Most common severe behaviors (which are liable to lead to inclusion in the Blacklist) are articles missing from issues or archives, lack of editor or editorial board on the website, and journals claiming misleading metrics or inclusion in well-known indexes.
Understandably, The Economist makes the link between so much fake or unchecked science being published and the current coronavirus threat, concluding: “Cabells’ guidelines will only start to catch dodgy studies on COVID-19 once they appear in predatory journals. But the fact that so many “scholars” use such outlets means that working papers on the disease should face extra-thorough scrutiny.” We have been warned.