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.
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.
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:
There are now 13,500 predatory journals listed in the Predatory Reports database, which is currently growing by approximately 2,000 journals a year
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
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
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
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
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
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.
One of the consequences of the all-consuming global interest in the coronavirus pandemic is that it has catapulted science and scientists right onto the front pages and into the public’s range of vision. For the most part, this should be a good thing, as there quite rightly has to be a respect and focus on what the facts say about one of the most widespread viruses there has ever been. However, there have been some moments where science itself has been undermined by some of the rather complex structures that support it. And like it or not, scholarly communication is one of them.
Let’s take the perspective of, say, a mother who is worried about the safety of her kids when they go back to school. Understandably, she starts to look online and in the media for what the science says, as many governments have sought to quell fears people have by saying they are ‘following the science’. But once online, they are faced with a tangled forest of articles, journals, jargon, paywalls and small print, with the media seemingly supporting contradictory statements depending on the newspaper or website you read. For example, this week’s UK newspapers have led on how the reduction of social distancing from 2m to 1m can double the infection rate, or be many times better than having no social distancing – both factually accurate and from the same peer reviewed study in The Lancet.
Another area that has seen a good deal of coverage has been preprints, and how they can speed up the dissemination of science… or have the capability of disseminating false data and findings due to lack of peer review, again depending on where you cast your eye. The concerns represented by media bias, the complexity of information and lack of peer review all combine into one huge problem that could be coming down the line very soon, and that is the prospect of predatory journals publishing erroneous, untested information as research in one of the thousands of predatory journals currently active.
Around a third of journals on both the Cabells Journal Whitelist and Blacklist focus on health, with predatory journals in subjects such as maths and physics number more than legitimate journals
Geography plays a significant role, with many more English language predatory journals based in India and Nigeria than reliable ones
The average output of a predatory journal is 50 articles a year, although 60% of these will never be cited (compared to 10% for legitimate journals)
Despite the like of peer review or any of the usual publishing checks, an estimated 250,000 articles each year are cited in other journals
Most common severe behaviors (which are liable to lead to inclusion in the Blacklist) are articles missing from issues or archives, lack of editor or editorial board on the website, and journals claiming misleading metrics or inclusion in well-known indexes.
Understandably, The Economist makes the link between so much fake or unchecked science being published and the current coronavirus threat, concluding: “Cabells’ guidelines will only start to catch dodgy studies on COVID-19 once they appear in predatory journals. But the fact that so many “scholars” use such outlets means that working papers on the disease should face extra-thorough scrutiny.” We have been warned.
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.
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!
Recent studies have shown that academics can have a hard time identifying some predatory journals, especially if they come from high-income countries or medical faculties. Simon Linacre argues that this is not surprising given they are often the primary target of predatory publishers, but a forthcoming product from Cabells could help them.
A quick search of PubMed for predatory journals will throw up hundreds of results – over the last year I would estimate there are on average one or two papers published each week on the site (and you can sign up for email alerts on this and other scholarly communication issues at the estimable Biomed News site). The papers tend to fall into two categories – editorial or thought pieces on the blight of predatory journals in a given scientific discipline, or original research on the phenomenon. While the former are necessary to raise the profile of the problem among researchers, they do little to advance the understanding of such journals.
The latter, however, can provide illuminating details about how predatory journals have developed, and in so doing offer lessons in how to combat them. Two such articles were published last week in the field of medicine. In the first paper ‘Awareness of predatory publishing’, authors Panjikaran and Mathew surveyed over 100 authors who had published articles in predatory journals. While a majority of authors (58%) were ignorant of such journals, of those who said they recognized them nearly half from high-income countries (HICs) failed a recognition test, while nearly a quarter from low-income to middle-income countries (LMICs) also failed. The result, therefore, was a worrying lack of understanding of predatory journals among authors who had already published in them.
The second article was entitled ‘Faculty knowledge and attitudes regarding predatory open access journals: a needs assessment study’ and authored by Swanberg, Thielen and Bulgarelli. In it, they surveyed both regular and medical faculty members of a university to ascertain if they understood what was meant by predatory publishing. Almost a quarter (23%) said they had not heard of the term previously, but of those that had 87% said there confident of being able to assess journal quality. However, when they were tested by being presented with journals in their own fields, only 60% could, with scores even lower for medical faculty.
Both papers call for greater education and awareness programs to support academics in dealing with predatory journals, and it is here that Cabells can offer some good news. Later this year Cabells intends to launch a new medical journal product that identifies good quality journals in the vast medical field. Alongside our current products covering most other subject disciplines, the new medical product will enable academics, university administrators, librarians, tenure committees and research managers to validate research sources and publication outputs of faculty members. They will also still be backed up, of course, by the Cabells Journal Blacklist which now numbers over 13,200 predatory, deceptive or illegitimate journals. Indeed, in the paper by Swanberg et al the researchers ask faculty members themselves what support they would like to see from their institution, and the number one answer was a “checklist to help assess journal quality.” This is exactly the kind of feedback Cabells have received over the years that has driven us to develop the new product for medical journals, and hopefully, it will help support good publishing decisions in the future alongside our other products.
PS: A kind request – 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!
Predatory publishing generally refers to the systematic for-profit publication of purportedly scholarly content (in journals and articles, monographs, books, or conference proceedings) in a deceptive or fraudulent way and without any regard for quality assurance. Here, ‘for-profit’ refers to profit generation per se… Predatory publishers may cheat authors (and their funders and institutions) through charging publishing-related fees without providing the expected or industry standard services.
The most professional and exact list of such journals, the Journal Blacklist, is offered by Cabells and was launched in 2017 and uses a large number of criteria rather than a specific definition to identify predatory or illegitimate journals. Recently, a coalition of publishers, scholars and funders has provided the following definition that was published in the journal Nature: “Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterized by false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial and publication practices, a lack of transparency, and/or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices.”
In other words, profit (mostly illegal) is one of the signs of predation. There are even cases of prosecutions of predators, such as the findings in the case of the US Federal Trade Commission against the OMICS Group: “These publishing companies lied about their academic journals and took millions of dollars from aspiring researchers and writers.”
The illustration in the Nature article depicts a wolf (i.e. a predator) in sheep’s clothing, rendered as an academic journal. But is a researcher always the obedient prey of a predator? Is he or she always a sheep? The vast majority of authors likely fall victim to predatory outfits because of their own incompetence or lack of discrimination. But not all authors are sheep.
There is a group of authors who, from time to time, consciously manipulate data or submit dubious results. Grimes, Bauch, and Ioannidis call them unethical authors.
Among these unethical authors are ‘parasite authors’ who deliberately seek symbiosis with predatory journals.
Such parasites should be considered authors who, when choosing a journal, clearly understand that this journal does not intentionally use the best editorial and publication practices, does not perform the declared review procedure, and, at the same time, for a fee, it is guaranteed to quickly legitimize the text of dubious scientific content by publishing it. Predatory journals and parasite authors co-exist and co-operate by tacit agreement. The journal enjoys the desired profit, and the author has the article he needs for his/her career progression (according to Tove Faber Frandsen, this is the main motive of unethical authors) or other rewards.
Predatory journals indexed by Web of Science Core Collection or Scopus are especially attractive to parasite authors.
There are a number of questions that arise when the articles published in these three journals are analyzed. Firstly, it is interesting to note how the number of articles in the three journals has changed since the indexing of journals in Scopus (Figure 1). The publications of articles in journals indexed by Scopus is often a prerequisite for obtaining an academic degree, academic rank, or contracts in many countries.
Secondly, perhaps not all authors of these 21,926 articles were victims (Figure 2). For example, can we call Author A, who published 80 articles in two BEIESP journals during a year, a victim? What could have caused such hypertrophied publishing activity? Perhaps there are worthwhile incentives for this?
Secondly, in Vietnam the Ministry of Education and Training paid USD 259,000 to 1,718 authors of scientific articles published in international journals in 2018. The University of Economics in Ho Chi Minh City rewards authors into the amount of USD 8,650 for any article published.
It would be interesting to know if the 81 Vietnamese authors who published their articles in the 2019 IJEAT were rewarded?
Thirdly, in these journals, most of the articles were published by authors from India, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc. (Figure 3). Authors from several universities have shown an abnormally high commitment to these journals (Figure 4). Researchers from K L Deemed to be University (India) have published nearly 1,000 articles in three OMICS journals in 2019 alone, and those from Bharath Institute of Higher Education and Research (India) published more than 800 articles. It is difficult to assume that this remained unnoticed by the universities themselves. And was the lack of response from the university management acceptable?
Finally, the success of authors and journals can depend largely on the article citation. When it comes to parasite authors and predatory journals, they can “collaborate fruitfully” even with one publisher.
Such actions lead to abnormal results. For example, Article A published in IJEAT in 2019 managed to get 201 citations from “partner journals” (Figure 5а). Article B received 193 citations (Figure 5b); Article С obtained 85 citations (Figure 5с).
Now, imagine an army of researchers from different countries who have submitted their papers to such journals. They were not confused by either the review process or the payment system or anything else. And, as Grimes, Bauch, and Ioannidis rightly point out, “The authors may use lack of awareness to excuse their actions, but indeed, they search for a low‐barrier way to getting published…”
Therefore, it is critical to find effective mechanisms that will force scientists to accept and apply best publishing practices and ethical principles of scientific publications, and create an environment in which the symbiosis of predatory journals and unethical authors will be impossible.
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.
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:
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):
# of Titles
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.
Recent studies have shown the huge impact that spam emails from predatory journals have on academics’ workflows. Simon Linacre argues that, far from being harmless, they contribute to a wider malaise in academic life.
If I said I have a New Year’s Resolution that could save everyone who reads this blog hundreds of dollars in time and effort, as well as enrich everyone’s lives, would you be interested in joining me? There is no catch, no trick, but there is a small degree of effort involved. And it is quite simple – just open up every email unsolicited email you receive and either block it or unsubscribe. Your life will improve as a result, guaranteed. But will such a straightforward, if humdrum, task really make such savings? Well, two recent studies show that the total cost to academia of spam emails is vast. Firstly, this week’s Times Higher Education (THE) reports on a new study that estimates the time wasted on opening and deleting spam emails, typically ones from predatory journals, is equal to $1.1bn – and this rises to over $2bn when all spam email is included. They arrive at this figure using the following methodology: take an average figure for the number of targeted spam emails academics receive each day from a number of prior studies (which is around five); estimate that each academic spends five seconds dealing with every email; assume the average academic earns $50 an hour; multiply by the number of academics in the world according to the United Nations. It may sound a bit like a back-of-a-napkin calculation, but for many academics, the number of emails and time to sift through them may seem significantly undercooked. Another study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) looked more specifically at the impact of emails received from predatory journal publishers by career development grant awardees. This study found that academic spam emails (or ASEs) were a significant distraction for academics and that there was an urgent need to mitigate the problem. The results from a survey of grant awardees showed that almost 90% had a spam filter turned on, but around half said they received up to 10 spam emails a day, with fully 30% estimating they received between 11 and 20. Some unsolicited emails may of course be legitimate, and can be blocked, while others are a result of individuals at some stage signing up to receive emails, usually to gain access to something or when making a purchase. Emails from law-abiding sources such as these can be stopped – it just takes a little time. As can those purchases from Amazon, Gap or Ebay where we have used our work email only to suffer a permanent slew of special offers (don’t worry, we’ve all been there). In these cases, our New Year’s Resolution can indeed help cut down the time spent on email and make more time for more meaningful pursuits. However, as the THE piece points out, there is very little academics can currently do to stem the tide of spam from predatory journals. All we can do is become more savvy in identifying them quickly, choose not to open them and delete straight away. And in the meantime, hope that someone invents a spam filter that genuinely screens ASEs out and doesn’t send important emails from your Dean to your ‘junk’ folder.