Can Research Lost to Predatory Journals Be Saved?

At the launch event last month for the InterAcademy Partnership’s (IAP) recently released report on combatting predatory academic journals and conferences, an all too familiar question was posted to the virtual session’s chat by an attendee:

… I made this mistake once and I published a paper in one of these journals … now it does not appear online on searching … how can I withdraw this paper and republish it in a trusted journal??

This is a variation of a question we at Cabells are asked and consider frequently, and one that perfectly encapsulates the scholarly publishing-esque three-act drama that unfolds when a researcher is entangled with a deceptive publishing operation:

Act I: Setup

‘… I made this mistake once and I published a paper in one of these journals …’

The ‘mistake’ made (or in our drama, the ‘inciting incident’) was unknowingly submitting work to and publishing it in a predatory journal. This can and does happen innocently and somewhat easily to unsuspecting researchers, most often students and early career researchers.

Act II: Confrontation

‘…now it does not appear online on searching…’

The stakes are raised as the ramifications of the inciting incident from Act I are realized. One of the damaging results of having research published in a predatory journal is that it won’t be easily (if at all) discoverable. Some predatory journals advertise that they are included in well-known databases like Web of Science, Scopus, or Cabells, when they are not. These operations devote no time or resources to developing SEO or facilitating inclusion in research databases, so published articles will be difficult, if not impossible, to find.

Act III: Resolution

‘…How can I withdraw this paper and republish it in a trusted journal??’

The short answer, as provided in the launch event chat by Susan Veldsman, one of the authors of the IAP report, was succinct and unfortunately accurate:

‘Authors have reported that it is very difficult to retract these articles, actually no chance, as publishers just ignore requests and pleas from authors.’

This is the sad truth. Once an article is submitted to a predatory journal there is little to no hope of successfully withdrawing the article. These requests by authors are either ignored or not acted upon. Once published by the predatory journal, which often occurs without notice, researchers risk running afoul of publication ethics concerning duplicate publication if they submit the article to a second publication, whether or not copyright has been transferred. But should this be the case?

One alternative for dealing with research that has essentially been ‘lost’ to predatory operations, and so dismissed or ignored, was put forth by Jeanette Hatherill, Scholarly Communication Librarian at the University of Ottawa. Hatherill proposes that an author be able to “… retract or withdraw the article, acknowledge its ‘prior publication’ and submit it to a preprint server to make it available for open peer review.” While most preprint servers, including bioRxiv, require that articles be submitted prior to being accepted by (and of course, published in) a journal, Hatherill points out that these policies are set by the preprint servers and can be examined and revised.

As for the question of copyright, Hatherill notes that ‘even deceptive publishers’ such as OMICS, the predatory publishing giant recently on the losing end of a $50 million dollar judgment due to their predatory publishing practices, ‘state that all articles are available under a Creative Commons Attribution license.’ Publishing an article open access under Creative Commons licenses leaves the copyright with the author, meaning from a copyright standpoint it should be permissible to post on a preprint server as long as the place of first ‘publication’ is cited.

This solution doesn’t address the harmful effects of duplicate publication, like skewed citation metrics or flawed research due to redundant results from multiple publications, but the risk is minimal as papers published in predatory journals attract little attention and citations from scientists, especially when compared to those published in reputable publications.

Until a more comprehensive, structured, and widely applicable solution to the dilemma of how to salvage legitimate and potentially valuable research that has been unknowingly published in a predatory journal is found, creative solutions such as posting to a preprint server with an acknowledgment of prior publication and might be the most effective and efficient way to proceed.