Caveat Researcher: Open Access Spawns ‘Predatory Journals’

Every ecosystem breeds parasites and predators. The Open Access Publishing movement, a high-minded effort to break high-priced journals’ copyrighted death grip on scientific information, is no exception.

The ranks of Open Access are growing. These journals –many of them good and a few excellent—make peer-reviewed papers available to all comers without subscription fees. Usually, they charge the authors to publish, rather than charge the readers to read.

Below the idealistic surface, though, lurks a new breed of opportunists out for profit alone. More and more, scientific researchers are being duped into submitting papers to journals that boast comfortingly austere names and noble Open Access mission statements, but exist mainly to charge authors exorbitant fees to publish articles that may never be cited or even read, as recent investigations—by Declan Butler in Nature and then Gina Kolata in the New York Times—have revealed.

Open Access is an appealing proposition. Scientific information should be available to whoever needs it, without expensive paper subscriptions, site-licenses, or Web pay walls. The doctrine fits perfectly with the Internet’s “information wants to be free” ethos. And it seems like simple justice, in a world where public money pays for so much research. Indeed, more and more government funding agencies are demanding that research underwritten by taxpayers must be published openly and without restriction.

In overturning the old business model, though, Open Access created new opportunities for profiteering. To be sure, no one can claim that the traditional model was without abuses: proliferating legions of unnecessary journals with high subscription rates, infinitesimal circulations, and even smaller citation rates; and unscrupulous sponsored journals that slapped a tinsel seal of approval on papers that are really bought and paid for. And it’s worth noting that both Nature (where I was once U.S. editorial director) and the Times have dogs in this fight. Nature has been the international flagship of traditional scientific publishing since 1869. And the Times has been struggling to hold its own as a generator of original content in the age of  aggregation.  Both are supported by subscription fees and advertising. Neither is thrilled about Open Access.

Come to the Dark Side

In “The Dark Side of Publishing,” one of several articles in a special Nature issue on the future of scientific information distribution, Butler recounted the story of University of Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beall. About five years ago, Beall started seeing a spate of solicitations—much of them indistinguishable from spam—from sketchy-looking new journals.

These publications have plausibly dry and academic names, aggressively solicit both manuscripts and editorial board candidates, and promote their Open Access commitment. What they conceal, though, is low readership and high author fees.  In some cases, researchers have submitted articles to journals whose titles are almost the same as established journals, only to be whip-sawed by a rapid acceptance (yay!) followed immediately by author-fee bills that may run thousands of dollars (what?!).

Beall’s List

To combat this trend, Beall created Scholarly Open Access, In addition to blog reports on specific journals and events, Scholarly Open Access maintains lists of “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access journals” and publishers. I’ve added the italics: it’s important to remember that being included on one of Beall’s lists doesn’t necessarily mean that a journal is doing anything shady. Beall himself points out that the listed publications occupy a continuum from legitimate journals (albeit sometimes with poor internal controls and small readerships) to out-and-out scams.

As of 8 April, Beall’s lists include some 187 specific journals—from Academic Exchange Quarterly (Stuyvesant Falls, N.Y.)  to World Journal of Science and Technology (published by KRFD Society, Karnataka, India)—and 323 possibly shady publishers—ranging from Abhinav (Mumbai) to Wudpecker Research Journals (whereabouts unknown) and Wyno Academic Journals (Lagos, Nigeria). In at least two cases, scammers (apparently based in Armenia) have set up fake Web sites for two real journals that are not yet online. And the index includes a raft of titles in electronics and computer science.

The problem is growing steadily To quote Nature:.

"2012 was basically the year of the predatory publisher; that was when they really exploded," says Beall. He estimates that such outfits publish 5–10 percent of all open-access articles.

Other observers think this figure is overstated. Lars Bjornsnauge, an official of the Directory of Open Access Journals  “estimates that questionable publishing probably accounts for fewer than 1 percent of all author-pays, open-access papers.”

Untouched by Human Hands

These computer-based fake journals (many do not list any real-world addresses) harken back to the fake computer papers of 2005. Back then, you may remember, a group of MIT students put together SCIgen, a program that applied context-free grammar to fabricate fake computer science papers—text, diagrams, references, and all. They managed to get at least one of them accepted by a journal or conference (by the way, the current generation of fake journals also run equally bogus conferences, which charge speakers for appearing).

Just think of the synergy! Mate fake computer-generated papers with fake online “golden open access” journals. Voilà! An explosion of pseudoscholarship, glutting the literature and inflating CVs with papers that are written, published, and indexed in minutes, without ever being touched by a human being. And once they start citing one another.....

Photo: Diane Macdonald/Getty

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