How do you know you can trust a journal?

As many readers know, this week is Peer Review Week, the annual opportunity for those involved in scholarly communication and research to celebrate and learn about all aspects of peer review. As part of this conversation, Simon Linacre reflects on this year’s theme of ‘Trust in Peer Review’ in terms of the important role of peer review in the validation of scholarship, and dangers of predatory behaviour in its absence.


I was asked to deliver a webinar recently to a community of scholars in Eastern Europe and, as always with webinars, I was very worried about the Q&A section at the end. When you deliver a talk in person, you can tell by looking at the crowd what is likely to happen at the end of the presentation and can prepare yourself. A quiet group of people means you may have to ask yourself some pretty tough questions, as no one will put their hand up at the end to ask you anything; a rowdy crowd is likely to throw anything and everything at you. With a webinar, there are no cues, and as such, it can be particularly nerve-shredding.

With the webinar in question, I waited a while for a question and was starting to prepare my quiet crowd response, when a single question popped up in the chat box:

How do you know you can trust a journal?

As with all the best questions, this floored me for a while. How do you know? The usual things flashed across my mind: reputation, whether it’s published known scholars in its field, whether it is indexed by Cabells or other databases, etc. But suddenly the word trust felt a lot more personal than simply a tick box exercise to confirm a journal’s standing. That may confirm it is trustworthy but is that the same as the feeling an individual has when they really trust something or someone?

The issue of trust is often the unsaid part of the global debates that are raging currently, whether it is responses to the coronavirus epidemic, climate change or democracy. Politicians, as always, want the people to trust them; but increasingly their actions seem to be making that trust harder and harder. As I write, the UK put its two top scientists in front of the cameras to give a grave warning about COVID-19 and a second wave of cases. The fact there was no senior politician to join them was highly symbolic.

It is with this background that the choice of the theme Trust in Peer Review is an appropriate one for Peer Review Week (full disclosure: I have recently joined one of the PRW committees to support the initiative). There is a huge groundswell of support by publishers, editors and academics to support both the effectiveness of peer review and the unsung heroes who do the job for little recognition or reward. The absence of which would have profound implications for research and society as a whole.

Which brings me to the answer to the question posed above, which is to ask the opposite: how do you know when you cannot trust a journal? This is easier to answer as you can point to all those characteristics and behaviours that you would want in a journal. We see on a daily basis with our work on Predatory Reports how the absence of crucial aspects of a journal’s workings can cause huge problems for authors. No listed editor, a fake editorial board, a borrowed ISSN, a hijacked journal identity, a made-up impact factor, and – above all – false promises of a robust peer review process. Trust in peer review may require some research on the part of the author in terms of checking the background of the journal, its publisher and its editors, and it may require you to contact the editor, editorial board members or published authors to get personal advice on publishing in that journal. But doing that work in the first place and receiving personal recommendations will build trust in peer review for any authors who have doubts – and collectively for all members of the academic community.

Special report: Assessing journal quality and legitimacy

Earlier this year Cabells engaged CIBER Research (http://ciber-research.eu/) to support its product and marketing development work. Today, in collaboration with CIBER, Simon Linacre looks at the findings and implications for scholarly communications globally.


In recent months the UK-based publishing research body CIBER has been working with Cabells to better understand the academic publishing environment both specifically in terms of Medical research publications, and more broadly with regard to the continuing problems posed by predatory journals. While the research was commissioned privately by Cabells, it was always with the understanding that much of the findings could be shared openly to enable a better understanding of these two key areas.

The report — Assessing Journal Quality and Legitimacy: An Investigation into the Experience and Views of Researchers and Intermediaries – with special reference to the Health Sector and Predatory Publishinghas been shared today on CIBER’s website and the following briefly summarizes the key findings following six months’ worth of research:

  • The team at CIBER Research was asked to investigate how researchers in the health domain went about selecting journals to publish their papers, what tools they used to help them, and what their perceptions of new scholarly communications trends were, especially in regard to predatory journals. Through a mixture of questionnaire surveys and qualitative interviews with over 500 researchers and ‘intermediaries’ (i.e. librarians and research managers), research pointed to a high degree of self-sufficiency among researchers regarding journal selection
  • While researchers tended to use tools such as information databases to aid their decision-making, intermediaries focused on sharing their own experiences and providing education and training solutions to researchers. Overall, it was notable how much of a mismatch there was between what researchers said and what intermediaries did or believed
  • The existence of so-called ‘whitelists’ were common on a national and institutional level, as were the emergence of ‘greylists’ of journals to be wary of, however, there seemed to be no list of recommended journals in Medical research areas
  • In China, alongside its huge growth in research and publication output are concerns that predatory publishing could have an impact, with one participant stating that, “More attention is being paid to the potential for predatory publishing and this includes the emergence of Blacklists and Whitelists, which are government-sponsored. However, there is not just one there are many 10 or 20 or 50 different (white)lists in place”
  • In India, the explosion of predatory publishing is perhaps the consequence of educational and research expansion and the absence of infrastructure capacity to deal with it. An additional factor could be a lack of significant impetus at a local level to establish new journals, unlike in countries such as Brazil, however, universities are not legally able to establish new titles themselves. As a result, an immature market has attempted to develop new journals to satisfy scholars’ needs which in turn has led to the rise of predatory publishing in the country
  • Predatory publishing practices seemed to be having an increased impact on mainstream publishing activities globally, with grave risk of “potentially polluting repositories and citation indexes but there seems to have been little follow through by anyone.” National bodies, publishers and funders have failed to follow through on the threat and how it may have diverted funds away from legitimate publications to those engaged in illicit activities
  • Overall, predatory publishing is being driven by publish-or-perish scenarios, particularly with early career researchers (ECRs) where authors are unaware of predatory publishers in general, or of the identity of a specific journal. However, a cynical manipulation of such journals as outlets for publications is also suspected.

 

blog image 2
‘Why do you think researchers publish in predatory journals’

 


CIBER Research is an independent group of senior academic researchers from around the world, who specialize in scholarly communications and publish widely on the topic. Their most recent projects have included studies of early career researchers, digital libraries, academic reputation and trustworthiness.

 

Right path, wrong journey

In his latest post, Simon Linacre reviews the book, The Business of Scholarly Publishing: Managing in Turbulent Timesby Albert N. Greco, Professor of Marketing at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business, recently published by Oxford University Press.


Given the current backdrop for all industries, one might say that scholarly communications is in more turmoil than most. With the threat to the commercial model of subscriptions posed by increasing use of Open Access options by authors, as well as the depressed book market and recent closures of university presses, the last thing anyone needs in this particular industry is the increased uncertainty brought about by the coronavirus epidemic.

As such, a book looking back at where the scholarly communications industry has come from and an appraisal of where it is now and how it should pivot to remain relevant in the future would seem like a worthwhile enterprise. Just such a book, The Business of Scholarly Publishing: Managing in Turbulent Times, has recently been written by Albert N. Greco, a U.S. professor of marketing who aims to “turn a critical eye to the product, price, placement, promotion, and costs of scholarly books and journals with a primary emphasis on the trajectory over the last ten years.”

However, in addition to this critical eye, the book needs a more practical look at how the industry has been shaken up in the last 25 years or so. It is difficult to imagine either an experienced academic librarian or industry professional advised on the direction of the book, as it has a real blind spot when it comes to some of the major issues impacting the industry today.

The first of these historical misses is a failure to mention Robert Maxwell and his acquisition of Pergamon Press in the early 1950s. Over the next two decades the books and journals publisher saw huge increases in revenues and volumes of titles, establishing a business model of rapid growth using high year-on-year price increases for must-have titles that many argue persists to this day.

The second blind spot is around Open Access (OA). This subject is covered, although not in the detail one would like given its importance to the journal publishing industry in 2020. While one cannot blame the author for missing the evolving story around Plan S, Big Deal cancellations and other OA-related stories, one might expect more background on exactly how OA started life, what the first OA journals were, the variety of declarations around the turn of the Millennium, and how technology enabled OA to become the dominant paradigm in subject areas.

This misstep may be due to the overall slight bias towards books we find in the text, and indeed the emerging issues around OA books are well covered. There are also extremely comprehensive deep dives into publishing finances and trends since 200 that mean that the book does provide a worthy companion to any academic study of publishing from 2000 to 2016.

And this brings us to the third missing element, which is the lack of appreciation of new entrants and new forms in scholarly publishing. For example, there is no mention of F1000 and post-publication peer review, little on the establishment of preprint servers or institutional repositories, and nothing on OA-only publishers such as Frontiers and Hindawi.

As a result, the book is simply a (very) academic study of some publishing trends in the 2000s and 2010s, and like much academic research is both redundant and irrelevant for those practicing in the industry. This is typified in a promising final chapter that seeks to offer “new business strategies in scholarly publishing” by suggesting that short scholarly books, and data and library publishing programs should be examined, without acknowledging that all of these already exist.


The Business of Scholarly Publishing: Managing in Turbulent Times, by Albert N. Greco  (published April 28, 2020, OUP USA) ISBN: 978-0190626235.

Cabells’ top 7 palpable points about predatory publishing practices

In his latest post, Simon Linacre looks at some new stats collated from the Cabells Predatory Reports database that should help inform and educate researchers, better equipping them to evade the clutches of predatory journals.


In recent weeks Cabells has been delighted to work with both The Economist and Nature Index to highlight some of the major issues for scholarly communication that predatory publishing practices represent. As part of the research for both pieces, a number of facts have been uncovered that not only help us understand the issues inherent in this malpractice much better, but should also point researchers away from some of the sadly typical behaviors we have come to expect.

So, for your perusing pleasure, here are Cabells’ Top 7 Palpable Points about Predatory Publishing Practices:

  1. There are now 13,500 predatory journals listed in the Predatory Reports database, which is currently growing by approximately 2,000 journals a year
  2. Over 4,300 journals claim to publish articles in the medical field (this includes multidisciplinary journals) – that’s a third of the journals in Predatory Reports. By discipline, medical and biological sciences have many more predatory journals than other disciplines
  3. Almost 700 journals in Predatory Reports start with ‘British’ (5.2%), while just 50 do on the Journalytics database (0.4%). Predatory journals often call themselves American, British or European to appear well established and legitimate, when in reality relatively few good quality journals have countries or regions in their titles
  4. There are over 5,300 journals listed in Predatory Reports with an ISSN (40%), although many of these are copied, faked, or simply made up. Having an ISSN is not a guarantee of legitimacy for journals
  5. Around 41% of Predatory Reports journals are based in the US, purport to be from the US, or are suspected of being from the US, based on information on journal websites and Cabells’ investigations. This is the highest count for any country, but only a fraction will really have their base in North America
  6. The average predatory journal publishes about 50 articles a year according to recent research from Bo-Christer Björk of the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, less than half the output of a legitimate title. Furthermore, around 60% of papers in such journals receive no future citations, compared with 10% of those in reliable ones
  7. Finally, it is worth noting that while we are in the throes of the Coronavirus pandemic, there are 41 journals listed on in Predatory Reports (0.3%) specifically focused on epidemiology and another 35 on virology (0.6% in total). There could be further growth over the next 12 months, so researchers in these areas should be particularly careful now about where they submit their papers.

Gray area

While Cabells spends much of its time assessing journals for inclusion in its Verified or Predatory lists, probably the greater number of titles reside outside the parameters of those two containers. In his latest blog, Simon Linacre opens up a discussion on what might be termed ‘gray journals’ and what their profiles could look like.


 

The concept of ‘gray literature’ to describe a variety of information produced outside traditional publishing channels has been around since at least the 1970s, and has been defined as “information produced on all levels of government, academia, business and industry in electronic and print formats not controlled by commercial publishing (ie. where publishing is not the primary activity of the producing body*” (1997; 2004). The definition plays an important role in both characterizing and categorizing information outside the usual forms of academic content, and in a way is the opposite of the chaos and murkiness the term ‘gray’ perhaps suggests.

The same could not be said, however, if we were to apply the same term to those journals that inhabit worlds outside the two main databases Cabells curates. Its Journal Whitelist indexes over 11,000 journals that satisfy its criteria to assess whether a journal is a reputable outlet for publication. As such, it is a list of recommended journals for any academic to entrust their research to. The same cannot be said, however, for the Journal Blacklist, which is a list of over 13,000 journals that NO ONE should recommend publication in, given that they have ‘met’ several of Cabells’ criteria.

So, after these two cohorts of journals, what’s left over? This has always been an intriguing question and one which was alluded to most intelligently recently by Kyle Siler in a piece for the LSE Impact Blog. There is no accurate data available on just how many journals there are in existence, as like grains of sand they are created and disappear before they can all be counted. Scopus currently indexes well over 30,000 journals, so a conservative estimate might be that there are over 50,000 journals currently active, with 10,000 titles or more not indexed in any recognized database. Using Cabells experience of assessing these journals for both Whitelist and Blacklist inclusion, here are some profiles that might help researchers spot which option might be best for them:

  • The Not-for-Academics Academic Journal: Practitioner journals often fall foul of indexers as they are not designed to be used and cited in the same way as academic journals, despite the fact they look like them. As a result, journals that have quite useful content are often overlooked due to lack of citations or a non-academic style, but can include some good quality content
  • The So-Bad-it’s-Bad Journal: Just awful in every way – poor editing, poor language, uninteresting research and research replicated from elsewhere. However, it is honest and peer reviewed, so provides a legitimate outlet of sorts
  • The Niche-of-a-Niche Journal: Probably focusing on a scientific area you have never heard of, this journal drills down into a subject area and keeps on drilling so that only a handful of people in the world have the foggiest what it’s about. But if you are one of the lucky ones, it’s awesome. Just don’t expect citation awards any time soon
  • The Up-and-Coming Journal: Many indexers prefer to wait a year or two before including a journal in their databases, as citations and other metrics can start to be used to assess quality and consistent publication. In the early years, quality can vary widely, but reading the output so far is at least feasible to aid the publishing decision
  • The Worthy Amateur Journal: Often based in a non-research institution or little-known association, these journals have the right idea but publish haphazardly, have small editorial boards and little financial support, producing unattractive-looking journals that may nevertheless hide some worthy articles.

Of course, when you arrive at the publication decision and happen upon a candidate journal that is not indexed, as we said last week simply ‘research your research’: check against the Blacklist and its criteria to detect any predatory characteristics, research the Editor and the journal’s advisory board for their publishing records and seek out the opinion of others before sending your precious article off into the gray ether.


*Third International Conference on Grey Literature in 1997 (ICGL Luxembourg definition, 1997 – Expanded in New York, 2004


***LAST CHANCE!***

If you haven’t already completed our survey, there is still time to provide your feedback. Cabells is undertaking a review of the current branding for ‘The Journal Whitelist’ and ‘The Journal Blacklist’. As part of this process, we’d like to gather feedback from the research community to understand how you view these products, and which of the proposed brand names you prefer.

Our short survey should take no more than ten minutes to complete, and can be taken here.

As thanks for your time, you’ll have the option to enter into a draw to win one of four Amazon gift vouchers worth $25 (or your local equivalent). More information is available in the survey.

Many thanks in advance for your valuable feedback!

Doing your homework…and then some

Researchers have always known the value of doing their homework – they are probably the best there is at leaving no stone unturned. But that has to apply to the work itself. Simon Linacre looks at the importance of ‘researching your research’ and using the right sources and resources.


Depending on whether you are a glass half full or half empty kind of a person, it is either a great time for promoting the value of scientific research, or, science is seeing a crisis in confidence. On the plus side, the value placed on research to lead us out of the COVID-19 pandemic has been substantial, and rarely have scientists been so much to the fore for such an important global issue. On the other hand, there have been uprisings against lockdowns in defiance of science, and numerous cases of fake science related to the Coronavirus. Whether it is COVID-19, Brexit, or global warming, we seem to be in an age of wicked problems and polarising opinions on a global scale.

If we assume that our glass is more full than empty in these contrarian times, and try to maintain a sense of optimism, then we should be celebrating researchers and the contribution they make. But that contribution has to be validated in scientific terms, and its publication validated in such a way that users can trust in what it says. For the first part, there has been a good deal of discussion in academic circles and even in the press about the nature of preprints, and how users have to take care to understand that they may not yet have been peer reviewed, so any conclusions should not yet be taken as read.

For the second part, however, there is a concern that researchers in a hurry to publish their research may run afoul of predatory publishers, or simply publish their articles in the wrong way, in the wrong journal for the wrong reasons. This was highlighted to me when a Cabells customer alerted us to a new website called Academic Accelerator. I will leave people to make their own minds up as to the value of the site, however, a quick test using academic research on accounting (where I managed journals for over a decade, so know the area) showed that:

  • Attempting to use the ‘Journal Writer’ function for an accounting article suggested published examples from STM journals
  • Trying to use the ‘Journal Matcher’ function for an accounting article again only recommended half a dozen STM journals as a suitable destination for my research
  • Accessing data for individuals journals seems to have been crowdsourced by users, and didn’t match the actual data for many journals in the discipline.

The need for researchers to publish as quickly as possible has perhaps never been greater, and the tools and options for them to do so have arguably never been as open. However, with this comes a gap in the market that many operators may choose to exploit, and at this point, the advice for researchers is the same as ever. Always research your research – know what you are publishing and where you are publishing it, and what the impact will be both in scholarly terms and in real-world terms. In an era where working from home is the norm, there is no excuse for researchers not to do their homework on what they publish.


***REMINDER***

If you haven’t already completed our survey, there is still time to provide your opinion. Cabells is undertaking a review of the current branding for ‘The Journal Whitelist’ and ‘The Journal Blacklist’. As part of this process, we’d like to gather feedback from the research community to understand how you view these products, and which of the proposed brand names you prefer.

Our short survey should take no more than ten minutes to complete, and can be taken here.

As thanks for your time, you’ll have the option to enter into a draw to win one of four Amazon gift vouchers worth $25 (or your local equivalent). More information is available in the survey.

Many thanks in advance for your valuable feedback!

Simon Linacre

Unintended consequences: how will COVID-19 shape the future of research

What will happen to global research output during lockdowns as a result of the coronavirus?  Simon Linacre looks at how the effect in different countries and disciplines could shape the future of research and scholarly publications.


We all have a cabin fever story now after many countries have entered into varying states of lockdown. Mine is how the little things have lifted what has been quite an oppressive mood – the smell of buns baking in the oven; lying in bed that little bit longer in a morning; noticing the newly born lambs that have suddenly appeared in nearby fields. All of these would be missed during the usual helter-skelter days we experience during the week. But things are very far from usual in these coronavirus-infected days. And any distraction is a welcome one.

On a wider scale, the jury is still very much out as to how researchers are dealing with the situation, let alone how things will be affected in the future. What we do know is that in those developed countries most impacted by the virus, universities have been closed down, students sent home and labs mothballed. In some countries such as Italy there are fears important research work could be lost in the shutdown, while in the US there is concern for the welfare of those people – and animals – who are currently in the middle of clinical trials. Overall, everyone hopes that the specific research into the coronavirus yields some quick results.

On the flip side, however, for those researchers not confined to labs or field research, this period could accelerate their work. For those in social science or humanities freed from the commute, teaching commitments and office politics of daily academic life, the additional time will no doubt be put to good use. More time to set up surveys; more time for reading; more time for writing papers. Increased research output is perhaps inevitable in those areas where academics are not tied to labs or other physical experiments.

These two countervailing factors may cancel each other out, or one may prevail over the other. As such, the scholarly publishing community does not know yet what to expect down the line. In the short term, it has been focused on making related content freely accessible (such as this site from The Lancet: ). However, what we may see is that there is greater pressure to see research in potentially globally important areas to be made open access at the source given how well researchers and networks have seemed to work together so far during the short time the virus has been at large.

Again, unintended consequences could be one of the key legacies of the crisis once the virus has died down. Organizations concerned about how their people can work from home will no doubt have their fears allayed, while the positive environmental impact of less travelling will be difficult to give up. For publishers and scholars, understanding how their research could have an impact when the world is in crisis may change their research aims forever.

The future of research evaluation

Following last week’s guest post from Rick Anderson on the risks of predatory journals, we turn our attention this week to legitimate journals and the wider issue of evaluating scholars based on their publications. With this in mind, Simon Linacre recommends a broad-based approach with the goal of such activities permanently front and center.


This post was meant to be ‘coming to you LIVE from London Book Fair’, but as you may know, this event has been canceled, like so many other conferences and other public gatherings in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. While it is sad to miss the LBF event, meetings will take place virtually or in other places, and it is to be hoped the organizers can bring it back bigger and better than ever in 2021.

Some events are still going ahead, however, in the UK, and it was my pleasure to attend the LIS-Bibliometrics Conference at the University of Leeds last week to hear the latest thinking on journal metrics and performance management for universities. The day-long event was themed ‘The Future of Research Evaluation’, and it included both longer talks from key people in the industry, and shorter ‘lightning talks’ from those implementing evaluation systems or researching their effectiveness in different ways.

There was a good deal of debate, both on the floor and on Twitter (see #LisBib20 to get a flavor), with perhaps the most interest in speaker Dr. Stephen Hill, who is Director of Research at Research England, and chair of the steering group for the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK. For those of us wishing to see crumbs from his table in the shape of a steer for the next REF, we were sadly disappointed as he was giving nothing away. However, what he did say was that he saw four current trends shaping the future of research evaluation:

  • Outputs: increasingly they will be diverse, include things like software code, be more open, more collaborative, more granular and potentially interactive rather than ‘finished’
  • Insight: different ways of understanding may come into play, such as indices measuring interdisciplinarity
  • Culture: the context of research and how it is received in different communities could become explored much more
  • AI: artificial intelligence will become a bigger player both in terms of the research itself and how the research is analyzed, e.g. the Unsilo tools or so-called ‘robot reviewers’ that can remove any reviewer bias.

Rather revealingly, Dr. Hill suggested a fifth trend might be the societal impact, and this is despite the fact that such impact has been one of the defining traits of both the current and previous REFs. Perhaps, the full picture has yet to be understood regarding impact, and there is some suspicion that many academics have yet to buy-in to the idea at all. Indeed, one of the takeaways from the day was that there was little input into the discussion from academics at all, and one wonders if they might have contributed to the discussion about the future of research evaluation, as it is their research being evaluated after all.

There was also a degree of distrust among the librarians present towards publishers, and one delegate poll should be of particular interest to them as it showed what those present thought were the future threats and challenges to research evaluation. The top three threats were identified as publishers monopolizing the area, commercial ownership of evaluation data, and vendor lock-in – a result which led to a lively debate around innovation and how solutions could be developed if there was no commercial incentive in place.

It could be argued that while the UK has taken the lead on impact and been busy experimenting with the concept, the rest of the higher education world has been catching up with a number different takes on how to recognize and reward research that has a demonstrable benefit. All this means that we are yet to see the full ‘impact of impact,’ and certainly, we at Cabells are looking carefully at what potential new metrics could aid this transition. Someone at the event said that bibliometrics should be “transparent, robust and reproducible,” and this sounds like a good guiding principle for whatever research is being evaluated.

Guest Post – Why Should We Worry about Predatory Journals? Here’s One Reason

Editor’s Note: This post is by Rick Anderson, Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro and as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno. Rick serves on numerous editorial and advisory boards and is a regular contributor to the Scholarly Kitchen. He has served as president of the North American Serials Interest Group (NASIG), and is a recipient of the HARRASSOWITZ Leadership in Library Acquisitions Award. In 2015 he was elected President of the Society for Scholarly Publishing. He serves as an unpaid advisor on the library boards of numerous publishers and organizations including biorXiv, Elsevier, JSTOR, and Oxford University Press.


This morning I had an experience that is now familiar, and in fact a several-times-daily occurrence—not only for me, but for virtually every one of my professional colleagues: I was invited to submit an article to a predatory journal.

How do I know it was a predatory journal? Well, there were a few indicators, some strong and some merely suggestive. For one thing, the solicitation addressed me as “Dr. Rick Anderson,” a relatively weak indicator given that I’m referred to that way on a regular basis by people who assume that anyone with the title “Associate Dean” must have a doctoral degree.

However, there were other elements of this solicitation that indicated much more strongly that this journal cares not at all about the qualifications of its authors or the quality of its content. The strongest of these was the opening sentence of the message:

Based on your expertise & research on Heart [sic], it is an honour to invite you to submit your article for our Journal of Cardiothoracic Surgery and Therapeutics.

This gave me some pause, since I have no expertise whatsoever “on Heart,” and have never published anything on any topic even tangentially related to medicine. Obviously, no legitimate journal would consider me a viable target for a solicitation like this.

Another giveaway: the address given for this journal is 1805 N Carson St., Suite S, Carson City, NV. As luck would have it, I lived in northern Nevada for seven years and am quite familiar with Carson City. The northern end of Carson Street—a rather gritty stretch of discount stores, coffee shops, and motels with names designed to signal affordability—didn’t strike me as an obvious location for any kind of multi-suite office building, let alone a scientific publishing office, but I checked on Google Maps just to see. I found that 1805 North Carson Street is a non-existent address; 1803 North Carson Street is occupied by the A to Zen Thrift Shop, and Carson Coffee is at 1825. There is no building between them.

Having thus had my suspicion stoked, I decided to give this journal a real test. I created a nonsense paper consisting of paragraphs taken at random from articles originally published in a legitimate journal of cardiothoracic medicine, and gave it a title consisting of syntactically coherent but otherwise randomly-chosen terms taken from the discipline. I invented several fictional coauthors, created an email account under the assumed name of the lead author, submitted the manuscript via the journal’s online system and settled down to wait for a decision (which was promised within “14 days,” following the journal’s usual “double blind peer review process”).

***

While we wait for word from this journal’s presumably distinguished team of expert peer reviewers, let’s talk a little bit about the elephant in the room: the fact that the journal we’re testing purports to publish peer-reviewed research on the topic of heart surgery.

The problem of deceptive or “predatory” publishing is not new; it has been discussed and debated at length, and it might seem as if there’s not much new to be said about it: as just about everyone in the world of scholarly publishing now knows, a large and apparently growing number of scam artists have created thousands upon thousands of journals that purport to publish rigorously peer-reviewed science, but will, in fact, publish whatever is submitted (good or bad) as long as it’s accompanied by an article processing charge. Some of these outfits go to great expense to appear legitimate and realize significant revenues from their efforts; OMICS (which was subject to a $50 million judgment after being sued by the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive practices) is probably the biggest and most famous of predatory publishing outfits. But most of these outfits are relatively small; many seem to be minimally staffed fly-by-night operations that have invested in little more than the creation of a website and an online payment system. The fact that so many of these “journals” exist and publish so many articles is a testament to either the startling credulity or the distressing dishonesty of scholars and scientists the world over—or, perhaps, both.

But while the issue of predatory publishing, and its troubling implications for the integrity of science and scholarship, is discussed regularly in broad terms within the scholarly-communication community, I want to focus here on one especially concerning aspect of the phenomenon: predatory journals that falsely claim to publish rigorously peer-reviewed science in fields that have a direct bearing on human health and safety.

In order to try to get a general idea of the scope of this issue, I did some searching within Cabell’s Journal Blacklist to see how many journals from such disciplines are listed in that database. My findings were troubling. For example, consider the number of predatory journals found in Cabell’s Blacklist that publish in the following disciplines (based on searches conducted on 25 and 26 November 2019):

Disciplinary Keyword # of Titles
Medicine 3,818
Clinical 300
Cancer 126
Pediatrics 64
Nutrition 88
Surgery 159
Neurology 39
Climate 25
Brain 24
Neonatal 16
Cardiovascular 51
Dentistry 44
Gynecology 44
Alzheimer’s 10
Structural Engineering 10
Anesthesiology 21
Oncology 74
Diabetes 51

Obviously, it’s concerning when scholarship or science of any kind is falsely represented as having been rigorously reviewed, vetted, and edited. But it’s equally obvious that not all scholarship or science has the same impact on human health and safety. A fraudulent study in the field of sociology certainly has the capacity to do significant damage—but perhaps not the same kind or amount of damage as a fraudulent study in the field of pediatric anesthesiology, or diagnostic oncology. The fact that Cabell’s Blacklist has identified nearly 4,000 predatory journals in the general field of medicine is certainly cause for very serious concern.

At the risk of offending my hosts, I’ll just add here that this fact leads me to really, really wish that Cabell’s Blacklist were available to the general public at no charge. Recognizing, of course, that a product like this can’t realistically be maintained at zero cost—or anything close to zero cost—this begs an important question: what would it take to make this resource available to all?

I can think of one possible solution. Two very large private funding agencies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, have demonstrated their willingness to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to supporting open access to science; both organizations require funded authors to make the published results of their research freely available to all, and allow them to use grant funds to pay the attendant article-processing charges. For a tiny, tiny fraction of their annual spend on research and on open-access article processing charges, either one of these grantmakers could underwrite the cost of making Cabell’s Blacklist freely available. How tiny? I don’t know what Cabell’s costs are, but let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it costs $10 million per year to maintain the Blacklist product, with a modest amount of profit built in. That would represent two tenths of a percent of the Gates Foundation’s annual grantmaking, or 2.3 tenths of a percent of Wellcome’s.

This, of course, is money that they would then not be able to use to directly subsidize research. But since both fundmakers already commit a much, much larger percentage of their annual grantmaking to APCs, this seems like a redirection of funds that would yield tremendous value for dollar.

Of course, underwriting a service like Cabell’s Blacklist would entail acknowledging that predatory publishing is real, and a problem. Oddly enough, this is not universally acknowledged, even among those who (one might think) ought to be most concerned about the integrity of the scholcomm ecosystem and about the reputation of open access publishing. Unfortunately, among many members of that ecosystem, APC-funded OA publishing is largely—and unfairly—conflated with predatory publishing.

***

Well, it took much longer than promised (or expected), but after receiving, over a period of two months, occasional messages telling me that my paper was in the “final peer review process,” I finally received the long-awaited-for response in late January: “our” paper had been accepted for publication!

Journal Blacklist entry for Journal of Cardiothoracic Surgery and Therapeutics

Over the course of several subsequent weeks I received a galley proof for my review—along with an invoice for an article-processing charge in the amount of $1,100. In my guise as lead author, I expressed shock and surprise at this charge; no one had said anything to me about an APC when my work was solicited for publication. I received a conciliatory note from the editor, explaining that the lack of notice was due to a staff error, and further explaining that the Journal of Cardiothoracic Surgery and Therapeutics is an open-access journal and uses APCs to offset its considerable costs. He said that by paying this fee and allowing publication to go forward I would be ensuring that the article “will be available freely which allows the scientific community to view, download, distribution of an article in any medium (provided that the original work is properly cited) thereby increasing the views of article.” He also promised that our article will be indexed “in Crossref and many other scientific databases.” I responded that I understood the model but had no funds available to pay the fee, and would therefore have to withdraw the paper. “You may consider our submission withdrawn,” I concluded.

Then something interesting happened. My final communication bounced back. I was informed by a system-generated message that my email had been “waitlisted” by a service called Boxbe, and that I would have to add myself to the addressee’s “guest list” in order for it to be delivered. Apparently, the editor no longer wanted to hear from me.

Also interesting: despite my nonpayment of the APC, the article has now been published and can be seen here. It will be interesting to see how long it remains in the journal.

We need to be very clear about one thing here: the problem with my article is not that it represents low-quality science. The problem with my article is that it is nonsense and it is utterly incoherent. Not only is its content entirely plagiarized, it’s so randomly assembled from such disparate sources that it could not possibly be mistaken for an actual study by any informed reader who took the time to read any two of its paragraphs. Furthermore, it was “written” by authors who do not exist, whose names were taken from famous figures in history and literature, and whose institutional affiliations are entirely fictional. (There is no “Brockton State University,” nor is there a “Massapequa University,” nor is there an organization called the “National Clinics of Health.”)

What all of this means is that the fundamental failing of this journal—as it is of all predatory journals—is not its low standards, or the laxness of its peer review and editing. Its fundamental failing is that despite its claims, and despite charging authors for these services, it has no standards at all, performs no peer review, and does no editing. If it did have any standards whatsoever, and if it performed even the most perfunctory peer review and editorial oversight, it would have detected the radical incoherence of my paper immediately.

One might reasonably ask, though: if my paper is such transparently incoherent nonsense, why does its publication pose any danger? No surgeon in the real world will be led by this paper to do anything in an actual surgical situation, so surely there’s no risk of it affecting a patient’s actual treatment in the real world.

This is true of my paper, no doubt. But what the acceptance and publication of my paper demonstrates is not only that the Journal of Cardiothoracic Surgery and Therapeutics will publish transparent nonsense, but also—more importantly and disturbingly—that it will publish ­anything. Dangerously, this includes papers that may not consist of actual nonsense, but that were flawed enough to be rejected by legitimate journals, or that were written by the employees of device makers or drug companies that have manipulated their data so as to promote their own products, or that were written by dishonest surgeons who have generally legitimate credentials but are pushing crackpot techniques or therapies. The danger illustrated by my paper is not so much that predatory journals will publish literal nonsense; the more serious danger is that they will uncritically publish seriously flawed science while presenting it as carefully-vetted science.

In other words, the defining characteristic of a predatory journal is not that it’s a “low-quality” journal. The defining characteristic of a predatory journal is that it falsely claims to provide quality control of any kind—precisely because to do so would restrict its revenue flow. This isn’t to say that no legitimate science ever gets published in predatory journals; I’m sure quite a bit does since there’s no reason why a predatory journal would reject it, any more than it would reject the kind of utter garbage this particular journal has now published under the purported authorship of Jackson X. Pollock. But the appearance of some legitimate science does nothing to resolve the fundamental issue here, which is one of scholarly and scientific fraud.

Such fraud is distressing wherever it occurs. In the context of cardiothoracic surgery—along with all of the other health-related disciplines in which predatory journals currently publish—it’s terrifying.

Or it should be, anyway.

Predatory publishing from A to Z

During 2019, Cabells published on its Twitter feed (@CabellsPublish) at least one of its 70+ criteria for including a journal on the Cabells Journal Blacklist, generating great interest among its followers. For 2020, Simon Linacre highlights a new initiative below where Cabells will publish its A-Z of predatory publishing each week to help authors identify and police predatory publishing behavior.


This week a professor I know well approached me for some advice. He had been approached by a conference to present a plenary address on his research area but had been asked to pay the delegate fee. Something didn’t seem quite right, so knowing I had some knowledge in this area he asked me for some guidance. Having spent considerable time looking at predatory journals, it did not take long to notice signs of predatory activity: direct commissioning strategy from unknown source; website covering hundreds of conferences; conferences covering very wide subject areas; unfamiliar conference organizers; guaranteed publication in unknown journal; evidence online of other researchers questioning the conference and its organizers’ legitimacy.

Welcome to ‘C for Conference’ in Cabells’ A-Z of predatory publishing.

From Monday 17 February, Cabells will be publishing some quick hints and tips to help authors, researchers and information professionals find their way through the morass of misinformation produced by predatory publishers and conference providers. This will include links to helpful advice, as well as the established criteria Cabells uses to judge if a journal should be included in its Journal Blacklist. In addition, we will be including examples of predatory behavior from the 12,000+ journals currently listed on our database so that authors can see what predatory behavior looks like.

So, here is a sneak preview of the first entry: ‘A is for American’. The USA is a highly likely source of predatory journal activity, as the country lends credence to any claim of legitimacy a journal may adopt to hoodwink authors into submitting articles to them. In the Cabells Journal Blacklist there are over 1,900 journals that include the name ‘American’ in their titles or publisher name. In comparison, just 308 Scopus-indexed journals start with the word ‘American’. So for example, the American Journal of Social Issues and Humanities purports to be published from the USA, but this cannot be verified, and it has 11 violations of Journal Blacklist criteria, including the use of a fake ISSN number and complete lack of any editor or editorial board member listed on the journal’s website (see image).

‘A’ also stands for ‘Avoid at all costs’.

Please keep an eye out for the tweets and other blog posts related to this series, which we will use from time to time to dig deeper into understanding more about predatory journal and conference behavior.