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Author Beware: Predatory scholarly journals, Insights on OA predatory publishing from Jeffrey Beall

Jeffrey Beall
Jeffrey Beall, Scholarly Initiatives Librarian at Auraria Library, University of Colorado Denver

The increase in popularity of online scholarly journals has given rise to new open-access publishing models, including the gold open-access model, in which authors often pay to have their accepted papers published. While there are advantages to this model, according to Jeffrey Beall, author of Scholarly Open Access, a blog which tracks and critically analyzes questionable online open-access journal publishers, some online journals are exploiting this model by engaging in predatory practices that defraud authors and dilute the quality of the corpus of scholarly literature.

During his 2013 TAA Conference presentation, “A Primer on Predatory Open-Access Scholarly Publishers”, Beall, Scholarly Initiatives Librarian at Auraria Library, University of Colorado Denver, outlined several disadvantages to the gold open-access publishing model that have opened the door for predatory publishers to abuse the model for their own profit.

The difficulty with an ‘author pays’ business model for providing open access, he said, is that it creates a powerful incentive for the publisher to accept papers regardless of their quality, since the more papers a journal accepts, the more money it earns: “The conflict of interest is too tempting for many, and they [predatory journals] accept papers that don’t deserve to be called science just to earn the author fee.”

Some of these submissions, said Beall, come from authors who submit to such journals hoping to beef up an unimpressive CV, and others are from well-meaning authors who are approached by the journals and enticed to submit work through personalized and deceptive spam emails—some of which neglect to mention the fact that an author fee will be required prior to publication of the paper. These authors may not find out about the fee until they receive an acceptance letter, accompanied by a bill. While the publisher may not have legal standing to collect that bill, the letter may create a sense of obligation, and the drive to have their work published only adds to the pressure on authors to find a way to cover the expense. These spam emails are usually targeted to people who are less experienced with the publishing process, such as junior faculty, post docs, and graduate students. Beall recounted that in one case that was brought to his attention, an unsuspecting author was charged a hefty $2,700 publication fee after submitting a manuscript in response to a spam email from a predatory publisher.

Authors may also feel cheated if the journal later changes from gold open-access to a subscription-based model, which it can do at any time, or if the journal disappears altogether. In that case, not only has the author lost his or her publishing fee, but his or her work may no longer be available to the academic community. To protect themselves, authors should carefully review their contracts with publishers to understand the publisher’s rights and assertions about its business model, and to ensure that there is a long-term archiving plan in place that will preserve the works even in the event of the demise of the publication.

Another potential disadvantage of online publishing versus the traditional print model lies in the ‘flip side’ of its greatest advantage, that is, the much lower cost of publishing and distributing the next article. In the days of print publishing, space was limited by the publisher’s ability to pay the substantial cost of printing and mailing the issues, so only the best papers could be accepted for publication. Readers therefore could be more confident in the soundness of a paper that was published in a scholarly journal. However, Beall noted, in the online format space limitations are no longer a concern, which means more papers can be accepted, but may result in a weakening of the validation function of academic journals.

Even so, there is tremendous advantage in the lower cost of online publishing. It enables scholars to produce more detailed papers, to provide supplemental back-up materials that could never have been affordably provided in print, and to distribute papers as far as the Internet can reach. So the solution is not to turn away from online publishing, but rather to install better safeguards against the publication of flawed or insignificant papers. Maintaining a rigorous peer review system is still central to that task.

According to Beall, other vulnerabilities of some open access models that make them ripe for predatory publishers, include:

  • Research misconduct. “Predatory publishers’ articles are a breeding ground for research misconduct,” Beall warned. “They are filled with plagiarism, self-plagiarism, image and data manipulation, salami slicing, which is breaking a research project into least publishable units and publishing each as a separate article, host authorship, which is when someone helps contribute to a paper but is not properly credited for it, and honorary authorship, which is when someone is listed as a co-author but didn’t contribute to the paper.”

These types of research misconduct can occur in any publication, but they may be more pervasive in predatory publishing venues, he said, because they go uninvestigated in order to preserve the journal’s revenue stream.

  • Phony or insufficient peer review. This lack of sufficient peer review is alarming because it contributes to a weakening of the academic record over time. “One of the purposes of peer review is to differentiate true science from non-science,” Beall noted. “Because many predatory publishers do a fake or non-existent peer review, much non-science is being published as if it were real science. This non-science later gets cited in other scientific articles, and the result is a breakdown of the scientific process. Articles in quality journals may be contaminated with citations from bogus journals, journals that never conducted an honest peer review.”

Any journal – even ones with high standards – can make a reviewing error that results in a bad paper getting published. The problem here is that low standards, combined with the much lower costs of online dissemination, may result in a burgeoning of false or misleading reports.

  • A negative impact on a society that depends on sound science. “We need to consider the societal uses of published research,” Beall said. “It is cited in legal cases, it is translated into clinical practice, journalists cover research in the media, public policy makers use it to make public policy, and textbook writers base what they write on research recorded in the academic record. Thus it is crucial that work bearing the imprimatur of science be true, accurate, and peer-reviewed science. Unfortunately, the predatory publishers are publishing bogus science, and this may affect these societal uses of it by poisoning the well of science.”
  • An author-centric orientation. Unlike the reader-centric nature of the traditional print publishing model, said Beall, predatory open-access publications cater to the author, offering advantages such as short review times at the expense of a quality peer-review process.
  • Complicit authors. Some authors, desperate to meet a yearly quota, obtain tenure, or just see their name in print, see weaknesses in the gold open-access model as an opportunity to publish sub-par papers. Beall notes that, as a result, predatory publishing practices have made the work of tenure committees more difficult as they assess a faculty member’s publications.

These problems cause Beall to worry about the future of the scholarly tradition: “I am sometimes asked who the victims of predatory publishers are. I respond by saying the victims of predatory publishers are researchers, science communication, and science itself.”

This issue has many people wondering what can be done to put a stop to predatory open access publishing. There may be no legal recourse, as Beall noted that these publishers are mainly violating ethical codes and are operating under the tenet of freedom of the press. However, members of the academic community can take action. Beall entreats all authors to help save the future of research by resisting the urge to fill their CVs with easy publications and being very selective about the journals to which they choose to submit their work.

To learn more about this topic and see a list of open access publishers that Beall has identified as predatory, please visit his blog, Scholarly Open Access.