FTC v. OMICS: a landmark predatory publishing case

In March of 2019, upon review of numerous allegations of predatory practices against the publisher OMICS International, the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada ordered OMICS to pay $50.1 million in damages. The case marks one of the first judgments against a publisher accused of predatory practices and could be a signal of greater publisher oversight to come.


In March of this year, a US federal court ordered OMICS International to pay over $50 million in damages stemming from a 2016 lawsuit brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the first such action against a ‘predatory’ publisher.  The FTC was moved to act against the Hyderabad, India-based open access publisher and its owner, Srinubabu Gedela, after receiving a multitude of complaints from researchers concerning several systematic fraudulent practices.

In April we wondered if this decision would be more than a public record and condemnation of OMICS’ practices, but also act as a deterrent to other similar operations. Stewart Manley, a lecturer for the Faculty of Law at the University of Malaya, has gone deeper in examining this topic in two recent articles: “On the limitations of recent lawsuits against Sci‐Hub, OMICS, ResearchGate, and Georgia State University” (subscription required) featured in the current issue of Learned Publishing, and “Predatory Journals on Trial: Allegations, Responses, and Lessons for Scholarly Publishing from FTC v. OMICS” from the April issue of Journal of Scholarly Publishing (subscription required).

Mr. Manley was also recently interviewed for Scholastica’s blog where he addressed several key questions on this topic and felt that other questionable publishers will likely not be deterred if OMICS wins on appeal or simply refuses to comply with the order. He also lays out the key takeaways from FTC v. OMICS for publishers, academics, and universities.

Another recent article, “OMICS, Publisher of Fake Journals, Makes Cosmetic Changes to Evade Detection” by Dinesh C. Sharma for India Science Wire discusses a recent study showing the evolution of OMICS journals to mimic legitimate journals, making it difficult to distinguish between authentic and fake journals using the standard criteria. Rather than make substantive changes to their practices, OMICS is finding ways to more effectively evade quality checks.

Despite the hits OMICS has taken in actual court and in the court of public opinion, with an appeal in the offing, the final outcome of this matter is still to be determined. Additionally, as Mr. Manley points out in his Q&A, enforcing a judgment such as this is difficult, especially when the defendant is from a foreign jurisdiction. OMICS has yet to comply with the order and there is little reason to believe they ever will. We will continue to monitor this case and will provide updates as they become available.

The power of four

After hearing so many different ways that its Journal Whitelist and Journal Blacklist have been used by customers, Cabells has started to map out how any researcher can use journal data to optimize their decision-making. Fresh from its debut at the World Congress on Research Integrity in Hong Kong last month, Simon Linacre shares the thinking behind the new ‘Four Factor Framework’ and how it could be used in the future.


The 6th World Congress on Research Integrity (WCRI) was held in Hong Kong last month, bringing together the great and the good of those seeking to improve the research process globally. Topics were surprisingly wide, taking a look at such diverse areas as human rights, predatory publishing, data sharing, and policy. It was significant that while much of the focus of the conference was on the need to improve education and learning on how to conduct research ethically, many of the cases presented showed that there is still much to do in this respect.

Cabells was also there and used its presence to share some ideas on how to overcome some of these challenges, particularly with regard to engagement with improved research and publishing practices. Taking the established issues within predatory publishing encountered the world over as a starting point (i.e. choosing the wrong journal), as well as the need to look at as much data as possible (i.e. choosing the right journal), Cabells has very much put the author at the center of its thinking to develop what it has called the ‘Four Factor Framework’:

 

The framework, or FFF, firstly puts the onus on the researcher to rule out any poor, deceptive or predatory journals, using resources such as the Blacklist. This ‘negative’ first step then opens up the next stage, which is to take the four following factors into account before submitting to a research paper to a journal:

  • Strategic: understanding how a journal will impact career ambitions or community perspectives
  • Environmental: bringing in wider factors such as research impact or ethical issues
  • Political: understanding key considerations such as publishing in titles on journal lists, avoiding such lists or journals based in certain areas
  • Cultural: taking into account types of research, peer review or article form

Having talked to many customers over a period of time, these factors all become relevant to authors at some point during that crucial period when they are choosing which journal to publish in. Customers have fed back to Cabells that use of Cabells’ Whitelist and Blacklist – as well as other sources of data and guidance – can be related to as benchmarking, performance-focused or risk management. While it is good to see that the databases can help so many authors in so many different ways, judging by the evidence at WCRI there is still a huge amount to do in educating researchers to take advantage of these optimized approaches. And this will be the main aim of Cabells’ emerging strategy – to enable real impact by researchers and universities through the provision of validated information and support services around scholarly publishing.

Look to the North

Say what you like about Canada – and plenty do – but they are taking the threat of predatory publishing more seriously than just about any other country. Simon Linacre reflects on recent activities North of the 49th parallel.


It’s all about Canada at the moment. They have the new NBA champions in the shape of the Toronto Raptors, overcoming huge odds to beat defending champions Golden State Warriors in a thrilling finals series, and in the process becoming the first Canadian winner of a major US sports championship in over 25 years. Add to that one of the more likable (if under pressure) world leaders, and continued dominance of lists of best places to live, and those living North of the border seem to have it sewn up, eh?

They also seem to be leading the way when it comes to research integrity and publishing ethics, as a number of high-profile studies and articles have shown. A piece in Canadian news magazine The Walrus has highlighted the problems of predatory publishing in Canada, but also the fight to overcome these concerns. The article is entitled ‘The Rise of Junk Science’ and highlights the ways predatory publishing has infected scholarly activities in Canada, including:

  • Seeing predatory publishers buy out legitimate publishers and use their name to support predatory conferences
  • Wasting resources from funding organizations and universities on APCs for predatory journals
  • Forcing reputable universities to check every individual CV of every academic to ensure they haven’t published in predatory journals
  • Running the risk that ‘junk science’ published in seemingly authentic journals will be read and used, causing unknown harm
  • Allowing unscrupulous academics to take advantage of university policy to publish in journals with no peer review or quality control in order to be rewarded.

This last point was also highlighted by Derek Pyne in 2017, who pointed out that some of his colleagues at Thompson Rivers University had published in predatory journals and received rewards as a result. Pyne was suspended for a brief spell following publication of the article, but it acted as a wake-up call to many institutions to review their policies when it came to publications.

Canada also hosted a conference on predatory journals this year – as opposed to the numerous predatory conferences that have also sprung out of predatory publishing practices. These are also highlighted by the article in The Walrus which gives a great overview of the predatory publishing problem in Canada. Cabells’ own evidence shows that there seems to be a specific issue there as there are 119 confirmed and over 500 suspected predatory journals originating from there in the Blacklist, which is nearly 5% of the total. However, by shining a light on the problem and tackling it head-on, the country can at least lead the way for many others to follow.

Lasting impressions from another great SSP Annual Meeting

The Society for Scholarly Publishing’s Annual Meeting, the 41st such event, was held this year in beautiful San Diego and the Cabells team once again had an amazing time reconnecting with old friends, making new ones, and attending excellent sessions full of great discussions. The focus of this year’s meeting was on connecting stakeholders from around the globe to usher in a new era of scholarly communication. A common theme that emerged in so many sessions was the importance of previously underrepresented groups and markets being connected to the scholarly community as we move ahead to tackle new challenges and bring about the “New Status Quo.

Having had some time to step away and reflect on the meeting we are imbued with a sense of community and the pressing need to work toward removing barriers that prevent the sharing of research. Things were kicked off on a very high note by Dr. Mariamawit Yeshak, Assistant Professor of Pharmacognosy at Addis Ababa University, who spoke of the disconnect between the rate of publication and impact on societal development in Africa in her opening keynote.  Dr. Yeshak stated that “research is not complete until it is shared” and that was a common theme that could have been applied to many sessions throughout the meeting.  The need to leverage technology to ensure indigenous peoples and their methods in key areas such medicine, farming and animal husbandry are not marginalized was made clear.

Inclusion and diversity can not just be buzz words. They must be the tenets that we use to build the future of scholarly communication.  This thought was also front and center during the day 2 keynote talk by Betsy Beaumon, CEO of Benetech, a nonprofit organization with the mission to empower communities with software for social good.  Ms. Beaumon spoke of the need to think of those with disabilities from the outset when developing technology.  The key to her message was, “everything born digital must be, and can be, born accessible.”  There are one billion disabled people on the planet and the vast majority of them cannot consume information through the traditional methods that have dominated the information sharing landscape.

Technological innovations are opening a world of possibilities to those who were previously denied access to knowledge. While this is a huge move in the right direction, it is also important to think critically of existing technology and examine just how accessible the products and platforms are (or quite possibly, are not) and how they can be made truly accessible to all.  While there has been significant progress made in this area, and more and more technology is being developed to be accessible from “birth,” there is still a great deal left to be done.

Thanks to all who made this year’s SSP Annual Meeting a memorable one, and we cannot wait to see you all next year!

Faking the truth

Predatory publishing can cause harm in all sorts of ways, but so can fighting it with the wrong ammunition. In this blog post, Simon Linacre looks at examples of how organizations have gone the wrong way about doing the right thing.


One of the perks – and also the pains – of working in marketing is that you have to spend time trawling through social media posts. It is painful because no matter how good your filters are, there is a huge amount of unnecessary, unearthly and unhealthy content being shared in absolute torrents. On the flip side, however, there are a few gems worth investigating further. Many of them prove to be rabbit holes, but nevertheless, the chase can be worthwhile.

Searching through some posts earlier this month I happened upon mention of an updated list of recommended and predatory journals. Obviously, this is our gig at Cabells so I was genuinely intrigued to find out more. It turns out that the Directorate General of Scientific Research and Technological Development (RSDT) in Algeria has produced three lists on its website – two of recommended journals for Algerian researchers in two subject categories, and one of predatory journals and publishers.

Judgment

A cursory look at the predatory list shows that the first 100 or so journals match Beall’s archived list almost exactly. Futhermore, there is nowhere on the website that suggests how and why such a list exists, other than an open warning to authors who publish in one of the journals listed:

“To this effect, any publication in a journal in category A or B which is predatory or published by a predatory publisher, or that exclusively publishes conference proceedings, is not accepted for defense of a doctoral thesis or university tenure.” (own translation)

In other words, your academic career could be in trouble if you publish in a journal in the RSDT list.

Consequences

The rights and wrongs, accuracies and inaccuracies of Beall’s list have been debated elsewhere, but it is fair to say that as Beall was trying to eradicate predatory publishing practices by highlighting them, some journals were missed while some publishers and their titles were perhaps unfairly identified as predatory. Now the list is over two years out of date, with one version being updated by no-one-knows-who. However, what are the consequences for Algerian academics – and authors from anywhere else who are judged by the same policy – of publishing in a journal?

  1. Publish in RSDT-listed journal that is not predatory but on the list: Career trouble
  2. Publish in RSDT-listed journal that is predatory and on the list: Career trouble
  3. Publish in journal not listed by RSDT but is predatory: Career trouble
  4. Publish in journal not listed by RSDT and is not predatory: Career OK

Option 4 is obviously the best option, and Option 2 is a sad result for authors not doing their homework and de-risking their publishing strategy. But it seems there will be a large number of academics who make a valid choice (1) based on independent criteria who will fall foul of an erroneous list, or who think they are safe because a journal is not on the RSDT list but is predatory (3).

Comparison

One of my colleagues at Cabells cross-referenced the RSDT list and the Cabells Blacklist, which now has over 11,595 journals reviewed and validated as predatory. The results show that due to a lack of crossover between the lists, many academics in Algeria, and potentially elsewhere, could be wrongly condemned or unwittingly publish in predatory journals:

  • In terms of publishers, the RSDT list contains 1601 unique publishers, while the Blacklist contains 443
  • There are exactly 200 publishers on both lists, meaning that around 12% of the publishers on the RSDT list are also included in the Blacklist, while 43% of the Blacklist publishers are also on the RSDT list
  • The RSDT list contains 2488 unique journals, of which only 81 are the same as the 11,500+ Blacklist journals
  • Less than 1% (0.7%) of the Blacklist is also on the RSDT list; conversely, about 3% of the RSDT list is also included on the Blacklist.

As always, the moral of the story for authors is ‘research your research’ – fully utilize the skills you have gained as an academic by applying them to researching your submission decision and checking multiple sources of information. Failure to do so could mean serious problems, wherever you are.

Not all black and white

Two recently published articles by Cabells highlight the problems facing scholarly publishing. Their author, Simon Linacre, summarizes the articles and explains why publishing services are likely to see an increase in demand


Why do people go to a coffee shop? These institutions seem to have been doing a roaring trade in recent years, fueling the growth of multinationals such as Starbucks as well as local stores specializing in artisan coffee. But people going to these places are not there to drink coffee – they are there to meet friends, do some work, read a book or 101 other different things in addition to having a coffee. The success or otherwise of coffee shops is not necessarily down to the quality of the drinks available, but how well they facilitate the needs of their customers.

And in the digital world, those needs are changing fast, as they are for academic libraries the world over. People no longer visit the library to find information, but to do almost everything coffee shop customers also do. Which is why you will often find the best coffee places inside libraries, where 30 years ago you would run the risk of being thrown out for daring to drink the brown stuff.

Changing places

If libraries must adapt quickly, then so do publishers, and simply putting books and journals online doesn’t quite cut it in the brave new digital world. In 2019, the scholarly publishing press has been awash with stories of cancellations and so-called ‘read & publish’ deals that mark the transition from predominantly subscription deals to open access agreements between libraries (and the consortia/governments that represent them) and academic journal publishers. However, this is not the beginning of the end of academic publishing, more likely it is the end of the beginning of the second phase of scholarly communication development.

The first phase was subscriptions themselves and their dominance and growth during the 20th century; the second phase began with the Big Deal which almost inevitably has ended with the move to free access and open access to research. The next phase is likely to focus on a shift towards the taxonomizing and facilitation of research, so that the huge boom in available content will in some way be more manageable for researchers. This is why they will likely want to use the library as a resource – as well as for getting a decent coffee while they do so.

User case

In two articles recently published in EON, the journal of the International Society of Managing and Technical Editors (ISMTE), I have set out how the Cabells Whitelist and Blacklist are geared up for this third age of publishing in supporting academic libraries to meet the challenges currently facing them. In the case of the Whitelist, it helps academics understand the myriad of options they have where once they had a relatively simple choice of which journal they should choose to submit their research articles. Now they have a much more complex picture before them. Depending on where they are based as a scholar, there may be Open Access mandates in place directing you to choose Open Access-only journals, or lists of designated journals from your Dean in given subject areas, or repositories or platform-based outlets that do not operate like traditional journals at all.

So, for the user of journals or any kind of research platform, the picture is a complex one. However, in addition, there are risks inherent in this complexity as predatory publishers prey on uncertainty and lack of knowledge of this new, changing publishing environment. In this respect, the Blacklist also supports the work of librarians, research managers and authors themselves by providing a reliable, curated list of 11,000+ predatory publishers that researchers should steer well clear of.

Combined, use of the Whitelist and Blacklist can act as a safety net for those involved in the decision-making process for article publishing. This process will never be a black and white process, but it hopefully adds at least some clarity to the blurred lines that have rapidly emerged in recent years.


References

Linacre, Simon (2019) ‘Life Without Journals? Platforms, Preprints, and Peer Review in Scholarly Communications’, Eon (March 2019) https://doi.org/10.18243/eon/2019.12.2.2

Linacre, Simon (2019) ‘Hiding in Plain Sight: The Sinister Threat of Predatory Publishing Practices’, Eon (April 2019) https://doi.org/10.18243/eon/2019.12.3.1

Bridging the Validation Gap

The pressure on academics is not just to publish, but to publish high research and to do so in the right journals. In order to help researchers with what can be a monumental struggle, Cabells is launching an enhanced service offer with leading editing services provider Editage to offer scholars the chance to up their game.


What is the greatest obstacle for authors in their desire to publish their research? This is a common question with a multitude of answers, much of them depending on the personal circumstances of the individual, but there are some things that everyone must overcome in order to fulfill their potential in the field of academia. Quality research is the starting point, ensuring that it makes an original contribution to the current body of knowledge. But what about finding the right journal, and ensuring the article itself is word perfect?

These constitute what I would call the ‘validation gap’ that exists for all authors. In the publication process for each article, there are points where the author should check that the intended journal they would like to submit their work to is legitimate and whether it has the required quality aspects to publish their work. The Cabells Blacklist and Whitelist were designed to help authors with these questions, and today Cabells is stepping up its partnership with Editage to relaunch its Author Services support page.

New beginning
Far too little support is given to researchers about publishing in universities, which is why I and others involved in scholarly communication have always been content to share some of our knowledge with them on campus or through webinars. Universities or governments set benchmarks for researchers to publish in certain journals without equipping them with the skills and knowledge to help them do that. This is incredibly unfair on researchers, and understandably some struggle. They need much greater support in writing their articles, especially if they do not have English as a first language, and understanding how the publication process works.

Universities can offer great support to researchers from Ph.D. supervision and research ethics up to teaching and public engagement. However, when it comes to publication of articles there is this chasm that needs to be crossed to develop academic careers and help is too often found wanting. This is a crucial part of the journey for early career scholars and even more experienced scholars, and along with Editage, Cabells is aiming to bridge that gap.

Give it a try
So, if you or any of your colleagues are about to take the trip over this yawning divide, why not give our new service a go. Just go to the website at https://cabells.editage.com/ and let Editage do the rest. And once you are happy with your article, check that the intended journals on your shortlist are legitimate by using the Blacklist, and have the necessary quality benchmarks by using the Whitelist. And then, once the validation gap has been successfully negotiated, you can click ‘send’ with peace of mind.

NB: For help on using the Whitelist and Blacklist in your journal search, you can use Cabells’ BrightTALK channel, which aims to answer many of the individual user queries we receive in one place. Good luck!

Why asking the experts is always a good idea

In the so-called ‘post-truth’ age where experts are sidelined in favor of good soundbites, Simon Linacre unashamedly uses expert insight in uncovering the truth behind poor publishing decisions… with some exciting news at the end!


Everyone in academia or scholarly publishing can name at least one time they came across a terrible publishing decision. Whether it was an author choosing the wrong journal, or indeed the journal choosing the wrong author, articles have found their way into print that never should have, and parties on both sides must live with the consequences for evermore.

My story involved an early career researcher (ECR) in the Middle East whom I was introduced to whilst delivering talks on how to get published in journals. The researcher had submitted an article to well-regarded Journal A, but, tired of waiting on a decision, submitted the same article to a predatory-looking Journal B without retracting the prior submission. Journal B accepted the paper… and then so did Journal A after the article had already appeared in Journal B’s latest issue. Our hapless author went ahead and published the same article in Journal A – encouraged, so I was told, by his boss – and was then left with the unholy mess of dual publication and asking for my guidance. A tangled web indeed.

Expert advice

The reason why our author made a poor publishing choice was both out of ignorance and necessity, with the same boss telling him to accept the publication in the better-ranked journal, the same boss who wanted to see improved publishing outputs from their faculty. At Cabells, we are fast-approaching 11,000 predatory journals on our Blacklist and it is easy to forget that every one of those journals is filled with articles from authors who, for some reason, made a decision to submit their articles to them for publication.

The question therefore remains: But why?

Literature reviewed

One researcher decided to answer this question herself by, you guessed it, looking at what other experts had said in the form of a literature review of related articles. TF Frandsen’s article is entitled, “Why do researchers decide to publish in questionable journals? A review of the literature” and is published by Wiley in the latest issue of Learned Publishing (currently available as a free access article here). In it, Frandsen draws the following key points:

  • Criteria for choosing journals could be manipulated by predatory-type outlets to entrap researchers and encourage others
  • A ‘publish or perish’ culture has been blamed for the rise in ‘deceptive journals’ but may not be the only reason for their growth
  • Identifying journals as ‘predatory’ ignores the fact that authors may seek to publish in them as a simple route to career development
  • There are at least two different types of authors who publish in so-called deceptive journals: the “unethical” and the “uninformed”
  • Therefore, there should be at least two different approaches to the problem required

For the uninformed, Frandsen recommends that institutions ensure that faculty members are as informed as possible on the dangers of predatory journals and what the consequences of poor choices might be. For those authors making unethical choices, she suggests that the incentives in place that push these authors to questionable decisions should be removed. More broadly, as well as improved awareness, better parameters for authors around the quality of journals in which they should publish could encourage a culture of transparency around journal publication choices. And this would be one decision that everyone in academia and scholarly publishing could approve of.

PS: Enjoying our series of original posts in The Source? The great news is that there will be much more original content, news and resources available for everyone in the academic and publishing communities in the coming weeks… look out for the next edition of The Source for some exciting new developments!

Academic freedom fighters

Isn’t it worrying what your kids pick up from the radio and TV these days? When I was a child – back in the good ol’ days of four TV channels and the one radio station my parents only ever seemed to listen to – I don’t remember hearing the constant stream of news stories about rape, murder, sera misconduct or violence that seem to dominate the news programs today. Is that right, or am I donning the same rose-tinted glasses that show fashion, music and sporting icons just BETTER 30 years ago?

What prompted these musings was a question my 10-year-old asked me last week while the radio was on in the background:

‘Dad, what are they talking about on the radio?’

Me, not listening to the radio due to an intense focus on making the first espresso of the day, ‘What?’

‘Dad, on the radio. They are talking about something. And they said “post-truth”. What’s “post-truth”?’

‘Oh, erm, well, er – it’s not worth explaining. Eat your breakfast’

Difficult to swallow

Now, I am not saying an in-depth of exposition of modern political discourse and current media disintermediation is beyond me, but I need at least a couple of strong coffees before breaking that down into the proverbial bite-sized chunks for my kids. But it did concern me that while I dodged that particular challenge that morning, it only delayed the inevitable that I would have to explain in the future that there is a school of thought that believes that truth can somehow be ignored in favor of emotion, feelings – or simply shouting more loudly.

For many in academia, the notion of post-truth comes at a worrying time. While the idea may make for some interesting debate and analysis, the effect is to concentrate attention away from evidence and rigor towards something else entirely, as if truth is something that is irrelevant, unnecessary. What’s next after post-truth – post logic? Post-freedom? Post-life? At a time when the need for experts has been challenged in some quarters, and worse wholly ignored, the very essence of what an academic does is also called into question.

Global Challenges

If this wasn’t bad enough, faculty also see challenges to what has been termed ‘academic freedom’ across a wide-ranging number of cases around the world in recent months:

  • In Brazil, academics have promised to resist what they say is a breach of their freedoms by the state after campuses were stormed by police and people arrested for their views following the recent presidential election
  • In Canada, a professor was suspended by his school in the Summer after blowing the whistle on colleagues who had published in predatory journals
  • Meanwhile, in China, it was reported last month that the head of the elite Peking University was removed from office and replaced by a government representative
  • Scientific network ResearchGate has come under fire for allegedly forcing authors to upload their open access publications rather than share a link to them
  • The consortium of research funders that have come together under Plan S – joined this month by Wellcome and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – has also been challenged for not allowing publication of their funded projects in hybrid OA journals

Looking at these together, it is clear that there is a spectrum of potential breaches to academic freedoms, and while all such breaches are serious, it is clear that being arrested because of your research or having a member of the ruling party put in charge of your university present major problems for academic freedom. For those academics unnerved by Plan S then, they should think themselves lucky, right?

Wading through the pages and pages of comment on this issue, there seems to be a huge disconnect on both sides. While some open access advocates stress the fundamental necessity to make funded research openly accessible, some academics stress the fundamental necessity to choose which journal to publish in. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive, and it may well be that both publishers and Plan S alike evolve their policies into a joined-up approach that will satisfy both of the concerns expressed. Like the TV of my youth, publication channels have exploded in number and variety, but research quality remains absolute, and a further fundamental necessity for scholarly endeavor. We shouldn’t lose sight of that or the other academic freedoms that are currently under threat.