FTC’s victory will educate, but will it deter?

Word of the Federal Trade Commission’s $50 million court judgment against OMICS International and its owner, Srinubabu Gedela, has reached all corners of the academic community. While there is no question this is a step in the right direction, there is little reason to believe this will do much to slow the growing problem of predatory publishing.

The victory for the FTC was a decisive one, with the court granting a summary judgment – a decision without the need for a trial as no material facts were in dispute – and the message is clear: OMICS International is running a scam operation and the damage is real and impactful. If there are still those in the scholarly community who doubt the severity of the problem of predatory publishing, perhaps this judgment will convince them of the magnitude of the issue and the need to deal with it in a proactive manner.

While OMICS is the largest predatory publishing operation – there are currently 768 OMICS journals listed on Cabells’ Journal Blacklist – it is simply the most ravenous shark in a sea of predators. If/when OMICS actually halts their fraudulent operations – they are expected to appeal the decision – the vacuum created will quickly be filled by any number of bad actors looking to capitalize and snatch up the revenue that is now presumably up for grabs.

Fundamentally, there are two groups of researchers at play when it comes to predatory publishers. The first group is made up of researchers who might be considered “prey” – those who unwittingly fall victim to the ploys of predatory publishers. These researchers submit their paper for publication only to find that their work has been hijacked, part of their limited budget has been squandered on (often hidden) publication fees, and their careers have been compromised by this association with a fraudulent publisher.

The work of the FTC and news of their victory over OMICS will hopefully go far in protecting those who are unaware of the existence and deceitful nature of operations such as OMICS, and will educate them on the warning signs and help them steer clear of ever becoming involved going forward.

However, what (if any) impact this decision will have on the second group of researchers, those who knowingly use predatory publishers to advance their career or for other professional gains remains to be seen.  The reason predatory publishers have been able to flourish and grow exponentially is that there is an insatiable market for their services due in large part to the ‘publish or perish’ system forced upon academics. The publication of research papers is at an all-time high with estimates of close to two million papers published each year, with little in the way of a quality control system in place. Predatory publishers have simply identified and capitalized on an opportunity for illicit profit.

The focus on research and publication needs to be on quality and not quantity. Publication records need to be vetted and researchers held accountable for the outlets they choose for publication.  The respective bodies of knowledge for many fields are compromised and diluted by the dissemination of junk research. Unqualified candidates are getting hired, promoted and tenured on the backs of their ginned-up publication records. Predatory publishers and these researchers who support them are coming out ahead, while academia and knowledge are losing out.

Despite the decision against OMICS, certain researchers have been and will continue to look for shortcuts to publication. The onus is on administrators, department heads, funders, and academia at large to change – not just the process by which academics are measured by moving away from the “publish or perish” mindset, but also the methods used to monitor and vet research and publication activity.

The FTC’s victory may go a long way in reducing the number of researchers who can honestly say they were unaware of a problem with the journal they chose, but it will do little to stop those who are willful participants in this process without wholesale changes from other key stakeholders.

Do we need the Journal Blacklist?

As any scholar will attest, one of the most annoying aspects of becoming an academic author is the incessant emails popping into your inbox on a daily basis offering to publish your next article for a knockdown price – in just a few weeks’ time, in a subject area you know nothing about, for a journal you have never heard of. Simon Linacre asks if the Blacklist of journals is actually worth the time and expense just to help eradicate this nuisance, or if there is more to it than that.


In the world of academic research, there is an equivalent to the emails everyone receives supposedly from a Nigerian prince who needs to deposit $30m in your account for a few days, for which you will be paid handsomely. These are the emails that promise rapid open access publication for just a few hundred dollars, most likely in a very generic-sounding journal that purports to have an Impact Factor, even though you have never heard of it. As with the emails promising a generous slice of $30m, if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. And anyway, just how many gullible idiots pay these people?

Well, if you are sat in a lab or department meeting, you could be looking at one. While it is difficult to establish exactly how many authors fall for predatory publishing, some recent investigations can put the problem in context. Firstly, a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) judgment in the US in 2018 against OMICS Group Inc and related entities found damages totaling over $50m were owing due to the predatory practices of the organizations over a four-year period, based on the operation of predatory journals and predatory conferences. This figure was arrived at following an estimation of the total revenues accruing from predatory practices – revenues from individuals paying for publishing and conference services that were below the expectations they were entitled to have from such services. In other words, that’s a lot of disappointed people.

Human face

The FTC investigation brings the actual cost of predatory practices into relief, as that money will not just have come from the back pockets of some gullible academics, but from university grants and research funders, happy to support research in belief some of the money will enable it to published in reputable journals, cementing its place in the body of knowledge for others to use. Another investigation in 2018 put forward the human side to this problem, namely a joint enterprise by three German news organizations – Süddeutschen Zeitung, the NDR and the WDR. In the article Das Scheingeschäft – Angriff auf die Wissenschaft” (“The Bogus Business – Assault on Science), the various aspects, dangers and consequences of predatory publishing are considered using a sting operation as a vehicle. What is striking about the reports – supported by Cabells which gave gratis access to the Blacklist – is that the problem is not just one of annoyance, but large-scale fraud and misinterpretation of science. Amongst other things:

  • After analyzing over 175,000 of publications in predatory journals, authors included Nobel-prize winners and those from top German institutions
  • Individual employees from large firms figured significantly among the authors of papers, including BMW, Siemens and Airbus. Indeed, of the thirty top companies on the German stock exchange (DAX), employees of 12 of these companies had published in predatory journals
  • One top pharma company has published a study on Aspirin in a predatory journal, which purports to provide evidence that a new version of its product is more effective at treating flu symptoms than the original drug
  • Finally, one story emerged about a German celebrity who died of cancer after trying a drug where the only evidence for its efficacy was published in predatory journals.

The German team of journalists concluded that this final example was a warning for the dangers abusing predatory publishing to spread “false science”, citing examples where climate-change deniers had also published research in predatory journals. This highlights an often overlooked point – recently covered by Danish academic Tove Faber Frandsen in the article ‘Why do researchers decide to publish in questionable journals? A review of the literature’ – that far from being duped, many authors knowingly publish in predatory journals simply to tick the necessary box. This trend has also been noted by reports in The New York Times and other research journals like CMAJ and Journal of Scholarly Publishing.

Black and White

Cabells’ Journal Blacklist was several years in development and was specifically designed to provide researchers and their institutions a resource to help them avoid publishing in predatory journals and avoid the serious issues outlined above. The Blacklist uses over 60 different, weighted criteria to determine whether a journal exhibits predatory behaviors or not. It utilizes a team of academic and publishing experts to constantly monitor publishing practices and assess if an individual journal – not a publisher – is legitimate or not. Many journals are left off the Blacklist where they are legitimate, but of low quality, and as such are not listed in the Journal Whitelist either. The process is transparent and often time-consuming, with all the criteria published by Cabells as well as the violations if a journal is listed.

It has been almost two years since the Blacklist was first published, in which time it has grown from 4,000 journals to 11,000.

In all that time, there have only been three requests from journals for a review.

Cabells places a very high value indeed on the legitimacy and veracity of scholarly publishing, a value it believes it shares with academics the world over. It believes that the provision of the Blacklist is a valuable service to those institutions who believe they need to support their academics in a world of fake news, fake science and fake journals. Like any other commercial service, in order to recoup the costs of its investment it charges a fee for a subscription to the Blacklist which can be less than a single APC for many predatory journals, so universities can avert the problems caused by a faculty member submitting to a predatory journal just once to pay for the service.

As we have seen, faculty can be unaware of the problems, or in some cases, they can be aware but make unethical decisions. Either way, librarians or research managers are often tasked with policing publications, and Cabells continues to develop the Blacklist to support them in their work. Hopefully, a subscription is a small price to pay to ensure public or institutional funding isn’t wasted and quality research is published in the right journals.

Blacklist Journals Overtake Whitelist

What’s in a number? Well, when the number of bad journals overtakes the number of good journals, we may have something to worry about. Simon Linacre takes a brief look behind the figures and shares some insight into the current dynamics of scholarly publishing.


Right up there with ‘How many grains of sand are there in the world?’, ‘Is Santa Claus real?’ and ‘Where do babies come from?’, one of the questions you do not want to be asked as a member of the scholarly communications industry is ‘How many journals are there?’. This is because, like grains of sand there is no finite answer as the numbers will change from one day to the next, but also there is no way to even approximate an educated guess. You could, perhaps, as a fall back look at the numbers of journals where someone has actually counted and updated the number. For example:

  • Cabells Journal Whitelist: 11,048
  • Clarivate Analytics Master Journal List: 11,727
  • Directory of Open Access Journals: 12,728
  • Scopus: 36,377
  • Ullrichs Periodicals Directory: 300,000+ (periodicals)

However, all of the above have criteria that either limit the number of journals they count or include most journals plus other forms of publication. And another journal list that adds further complexity is this one:

Now, the more eagle-eyed among you will have seen that the Cabells Blacklist now lists more journals than are indexed in the Whitelist. How can this be? Are we saying there are more predatory journals than legitimate titles out there? Well, not quite. While Cabells has a growing Blacklist thanks to the ever-expanding activities of predatory publishers, the Whitelist is limited to journals of evident quality according to specific criteria and is yet to include medical and engineering journals. When both databases were launched in 2017, the Whitelist was based on Cabells Directories that went back decades, while the Blacklist was newly developed with 4,000 journals. That has now grown to over 11,000 in nearly two years, with many journals coming through the pipeline for assessment.

Due to the rigorous process Cabells administers for the Whitelist, it was inevitable that such a list where many titles are rejected would be superseded by the Blacklist where sadly ever more titles are acceptable for inclusion, due to the proliferation of predatory publishing practices.

So, if you do get asked the dreaded question, the answer is that there are a LOT of journals out there. Some are good, some are bad, and some are in-between. But arm yourself with a trusted index and some relevant criteria, and you won’t need to play the numbers game.

Yosemite Sam is at Yale University? And he’s on the editorial board of an academic journal??

yosemite sam ajbsrAccording to the fraudulent ‘journal’ American Journal of Biomedical Science & Research, published by Biomed Research and Technology, the answer is yes on both counts.  Thanks to a tip from a subscriber—a librarian who, along with several colleagues, received an email calling for editorial board members for this publication—our Journal Blacklist team initiated an investigation and lo and behold, among the ‘Honorable Editors’ on the journal’s Editorial Committee is one Yosemite Sam, of Yale University:

AJBSR screenshot
Wait, what?
Sam closeup.png
Upon closer inspection…

You can probably guess which of our Blacklist criteria the presence of Bugs Bunny’s archenemy (with all due respect to Elmer Fudd) violates (hint: it’s the one that expects editors to be living…or actually exist).  This is of course not the only violation for American Journal of Biomedical Science & Research, there were several other doozies such as:

  • Emails from journals received by researchers who are clearly not in the field(s) the journal covers
  • Scholars included on the editorial board without their knowledge or permission (not Yosemite Sam, though this would apply to him too)
  • Promise of rapid publication and/or unusually quick peer review (less than four weeks)
  • No policies for digital preservation
  • The same article appears in more than one journal

AJBSR blog 3.1.19

Unfortunately, not all predatory journals include cartoon characters on their editorial board, making them easy to spot if you know where to look. And, without a doubt, none are a laughing matter.  We’ll continue to keep on top of the different methods of deceit used by predatory publishers, closely investigate suspected journals, and report on those that prove to be fraudulent. We’ll also be sure to pass along any that give us a chuckle along the way.

Curiosity, curation and cures

In his latest post, Simon Linacre considers ways to solve new problems in an old industry from CISPC 2018


This week saw the second hosting of the Challenges in the Scholarly Publishing Cycle (CISPC) event in London, where a motley collection of publishers, librarians and researchers convened to discuss the latest issues in the scholarly publishing industry. The usual suspects – open access (OA), discoverability, accessibility – were given an airing, as were some new issues that hadn’t seen the light of day even a year ago, such as Plan S. With these topics and a mix of attendees, it was no surprise that full and frank exchanges ensued.

Adding grist to the mill of scholarly publishing discourse was The Scholarly Publishing Research Cycle 2018 report, which was released at the event. A detailed survey of the three main stakeholder groups, the report covers the issues above and a host of others in a wide-ranging overview of what’s on the minds of the great and the good in the industry. While having an inevitable UK focus – I’ll spare the intricacies of the REF for those of you outside Blighty – many of the findings will be familiar to all. Taking each group in turn:

  • For researchers, the most important challenges they identified currently were open access and licensing, discoverability and accessibility
  • For publishers, the key challenges were trust and validation, discoverability and policymakers’ scholarly publishing policies
  • While for librarians it was OA and accessibility, as well as scholarly publishing policies.

Curiouser and curiouser

While the issues were familiar – as were the shrugs when confronted with how to bridge some of the divides – there were a couple of stark omissions from the debate that perhaps could have shed some new light. Firstly, during an animated discussion of who were the real gatekeepers of scholarly publishing, which swung between publishers and librarians, the role of editors was curiously absent. Surely, with fast-moving changes in policymaking, mandates and author choice for their outputs, the role of editor as curator has never been more crucial?

Secondly, an old favorite of The Source reared its ugly head again in the shape of unintended consequences. Particularly in respect of Plan S and how things may get shaken out, it was evident from the flummoxed faces of all in attendance that there was much to still comprehend for all concerned. Could it accelerate predatory publishing practices? Will the ‘publish or perish’ culture alive and well in many countries be marginalized? Will journals see large scale consolidation and fragmentation? Again, the sage voice of editors would have brought welcome insight.

A problem shared

What was encouraging was that the report highlights some shared issues where much-improved communication and collaboration could help cure some longstanding problems that have become increasingly troublesome for all stakeholder groups. The ills of predatory publishing were mentioned by representatives of industry members as a major challenge, as was the different rates of change in the regulatory environment. However, some of the conclusions of The Scholarly Publishing Research Cycle 2018 report offered at least a glimmer of hope in the December gloom:

  • Better evaluative metrics for researchers will support the whole industry in dealing with the rise of impact evaluation and offer ample opportunity for collaborative working on all sides
  • Greater transparency by publishers, particularly around APCs and on behalf of society publishers who may have a distinct and more compelling offer than their larger cousins
  • Continued collective action by librarians, as seen in Sweden and Germany where they have made large-scale cancellations of content, may be replicated elsewhere and hasten change
  • Moving beyond open access, in the shape of seeking to address other issues in a shared publishing system, with the aim of making progress in other areas that often get neglected in the all-encompassing OA debate.

Who knows what will happen in the intervening 12 months before what will hopefully be the third CISPC event, but for many in the UK, it is difficult to think about anything beyond the 29th March 2019. With the balance of power likely to continue changing between the main protagonists, what is certain is that further such shared events can only be a good thing.

 

What lies beneath

On announcing that the Journal Blacklist has reached 10,000 journals – 10,060 to be precise – there have been two broad reactions. One group of people have said, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know there were 10,000 journals in total!’, while another group has said, ‘Wow, I bet that’s just scratching the surface.’ This underlines the challenge in estimating how large the problem of predatory publishing is, but however large it is, there are ways to circumvent it. 

 

One of the many roles the librarian at a university has had over the years is to be the de facto guardian not only of the journal resources they provide in the library, but also to ensure faculty and researchers use legitimate resources outside the library as well. Many have provided invaluable guidance over choosing the right journals to read, use and publish in, a contribution made more and more difficult over time as the number of journals has grown exponentially. In a time of budget cuts, these services have often been retired or forgotten without any substitutes put in place.

Librarians would also have a savviness and understanding of the journal world, and be on hand to answer quick questions about journals and legitimacy. It is hoped that the Cabells Blacklist can go some way to support these kinds of queries from academics, and in case your trusty librarian is in Charleston this week, here is a quick guide on how to identify predatory journals and use the Blacklist to ensure you or your colleagues are not one of the thousands of scholars who waste millions of dollars every year paying to publish in predatory journals:

B Behavioral Indicators: What is the track record of the journal you want to publish in? Look at its history and appearance online. Read the articles.

L – Look, But Don’t Touch: Use investigative skills to ‘research your research’ before making any submission decisions.

A – Actively Monitor: Ensure any information used in a decision to publish is up-to-date. 

C – Community Effort: Journals on the Blacklist, Whitelist or official ranking have used their communities to validate their entries – trust in your communities to help you choose a journal.

K – Kickass Metrics: Use citation-based information, such as the Impact Factor, alongside other metrics, such as alt metrics, usage and readership to ensure evidence-based decision-making with a blended approach. 

L – Legitimacy: Failure to legitimize your journal submission decision can lead to painful consequences – use of the Cabells Blacklist can prevent this.

I – Independent: Make sure your investigation of journals is based on independent, verified sources of information.

S – Searchable Database: The Blacklist, along with major journal databases such as Scopus and Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, are fully searchable and enable comparison of journals across multiple data points.

T – Transparency: There are many databases which offer information, but are not transparent. How and where did they get their data? Being critical of any information is vital to ensure optimal decision-making. 

(NB: For help in identifying potentially predatory journals, ask your librarian if your institution subscribes to the Cabells Blacklist.)

 

Tracking predatory publishers

Recently, we here at Cabells were fortunate enough to have an article (Cabells’ Journal Whitelist and Blacklist: Intelligent data for informed journal submissions) published in Learned Publishing, the journal of the Association of Learned & Professional Society Publishers, which is read around the world. We were very excited about this opportunity and received many wonderful notes from around the academic community after publication.

One note, in particular, forced us to do a double-take. “Nooo,” we thought, “this can’t be a predatory journal inviting us to submit for publication (for only $770) our article on predatory journals…”

 

Sure enough, the editors of Social Sciences, published by Science Publishing Group (Science PG), wanted to let us know that “the topic of the paper has impressed [them] a lot” and extended an invitation not only to publish the paper in their “journal” but to also join their Editorial Board. Upon hearing this news our Blacklist team began an investigation (Science PG was already on our list of publishers to be reviewed, but we had not yet begun to investigate this particular journal) into Social Sciences and, with eight violations in total, the journal was promptly added to our Blacklist:

Just days after this episode, we were contacted by our friends at Emerald Publishing who were concerned that one of their respected journals, International Journal of Innovation Science, was being targeted by a possible fake journal with a very similar name, International Journal of Innovation Science and Research:

After our team carried out an investigation on the International Journal of Innovation Science and Research, it will come as no surprise that it too (with 10 violations) was added to our Blacklist (which as of this writing lists 9,156 fraudulent publications):

We love to hear from the scholarly community about situations like the ones described above, or any involving contact from deceitful publishers. While we have an ever-expanding list of publications slated for review for the Blacklist, we consider it a top priority to protect the community from active occurrences of predatory activity and to help shed light on these phony operations. Contact us with tips, concerns or to share your thoughts at blacklist@cabells.com.