open access

Science publishing predators

The open-access movement, a worldwide effort to provide free online access to scientific and scholarly research literature, in particular through peer-reviewed articles, could be corrupted due to exploitative, money-hungry ‘predatory open-access journals and publishers.’

Predatory open-access publishing exploits the open access model —in which the authors pay — through journals that will publish anything as long as a fee is paid, including pseudo-science, nonsense, and even hoaxes.

Scientists and researchers are likely to be more aware of these predators than the general public. Academics may notice that predatory journals tend to publish articles quickly without peer reviewing them first. Or they may see their inboxes flooded with emails from these publishers campaigning for them to submit articles. They may even notice their names listed as members of editorial boards without their permission, or worse still, that some of the names listed on the editorial boards are not even real people at all.

Beyond these tell-tale indications of predatory journals, some researchers have gone out of their way to expose the true nature of such publications. In 2009, Philip M. Davis, a doctoral student in communication at Cornell University, concocted a crafty plan to shed light on the problem of bogus publications. Using a computer program from MIT called SCIgen, Davis created two research papers that were utter gibberish, complete with nonsensical footnotes and graphs. After being harassed via email to submit papers by Bentham Science, a group that finances 200 open-access scientific journals by charging a publication fee, Davis decided to submit the ridiculous papers.

One of the papers was rejected by Bentham Science, but the other was accepted after the publisher said it had been peer-reviewed. Mr. Davis reported that an invoice for US$800 had been issued by Bentham, without any evidence that the article was ever peer-reviewed. Unfortunately, his findings were not unique, as many other researchers have since carried out similar stings to uncover many other predatory publications.

​A particularly deceitful example of predatory journals taking advantage of their readership happened recently, when a respected Canadian medical journal, Experimental & Clinical Cardiology, was sold last year and is now printing scientific junk for hire, but still using its original good name.The journal is defrauding the scientific community while becoming wildly profitable. For US$1,200 they will print anything, including an absurd article that was deliberately submitted including a garbled blend of fake cardiology, poor Latin grammar, and useless graphs.

Today, scientists are better equipped to wade through papers in bogus journals or to avoid sending their own research to them. Unfortunately, it is the general public who may continue suffer the consequences of predatory practices.

A danger may lie in science reporting in the news. Outside academic circles, the public is not always aware that not all journals are created equal, and journalists may not be trained to distinguish between credible scientific papers and bogus ones either. They may end up writing stories based on these fake articles, which the general public read in great numbers.

Journalists at national daily newspapers might see these journals as an easy source of controversial or sensational science, and the predatory journals may cater for that market. When the news is flooded with sensational headlines that aren’t based in truth, the public’s view of science is a very skewed and misguided one.

What are some ways non-scientists can spot these journals? While it is not always clear, there are certainly some things both journalists and interested readers can do to make sure what they are reading is legit.

Journals usually have something called an impact factor, a useful metric of the quality or importance of a journal within its field. It indicates how often recent papers published in that given journal are cited. Scam journals will have very low impact factors, an order of magnitude lower than a respectable journal. Furthermore, most citations in predatory journals will belong to other authors in the same journal or the paper’s authors themselves.

Another way that the public can spot bogus journals is to refer to Beall’s List of Predatory Publishers. University of Colorado Denver librarian and researcher Jeffry Beall created this list —so far it includes 600 journals— after noticing a large number of emails inviting him to submit articles or join the editorial boards of previously unknown journals. He began researching open-access publishers, and formulated strict criteria for determining predatory open-access publishers.

Until the international science community can find a way to eliminate the predator while still keeping open-access publishing alive, the responsibility lies on the reader to distinguish between good science and junk. By paying close attention to the publication, we can work to avoid giving garbage journals any viewership, and mitigate the damage they are doing to the science community.

Stephanie Samman is currently studying for an MSc in Science Media Production at Imperial College London.
Image Credit: Nicole Skinner. Shark drawing: kreezzalee (via Flickr).