A few days ago, an article was published in Nature, reporting on a “sting operation”. What could covert espionage possibly have to do with scientific publishing? Well, the targets of the operation were the so-called “predatory journals”; commercial enterprises that exploit the principles of open-access scientific publishing to make a profit.
Like legitimate open-access journals, they charge authors a fee for publishing their work. Unlike legitimate open-access journals, they employ little to no oversight on the content of the published papers, and provide no editorial services or quality control. The term was coined by an American librarian, Jeffrey Beall, who, until January 2017 maintained a list of publishers that he deemed potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers. The list was met with a lot of support, as well as criticism and was recently un-published. The main difference between legitimate and non-legitimate scientific journals, is the level of responsibility they assume on the content that they publish, and that has a lot to do with the editorial board. Legitimate journals employ review and assessment procedures on the papers that they publish and whether or not they enlist the assistance of peer-reviewers, ultimately, the decision on whether to publish a paper lies with the editor.
The Nature paper reported on a group of Polish academics who have created a fictional researcher with a very poor publication history and no experience as a reviewer or editor, who they called Anna O. Szust (Oszust is the Polish word for 'a fraud'). They sent out her sub-par CV with a cover letter requesting a position as a journal editor. Needless to say, not only is this not the manner in which one becomes a scientific journal editor, this fake under-qualified academic should never have gotten accepted for the role of editor in any self-respecting scientific journal. The application package was sent out 360 journals, 120 from each of three well-known directories: the JCR (journals with an official impact factor as indexed on Journal Citation Reports), the DOAJ (journals included on the Directory of Open Access Journals) and the above mentioned 'Beall's list'. Despite the glaring inadequacy of the candidate for the role, 33% of journals included in Beall’s list (and considered predatory) accepted her, with 4 titles going as far as appointing her editor-in-chief and many prompting her to make a payment for the privilege or to publish her own or her colleagues’ papers for a fee in the journal. By comparison, only 7% of journals indexed on DOAJ and none of those on JCR, provided a positive response. Naturally, journals who do not care who their editors are, do not care what they publish, and are only doing it for the money.
Predatory journals hurt the scientific community in a few ways: As a scientist, one cannot rely on the information they provide as background for one’s own research; As an author, publishing in such a journal is a waste of a lot of work and money, as this type of publication may not account towards fulfilling criteria for career advancement or for funding opportunities and the lack of professional review deprives the author of valuable scientific input. In a broader sense, these publications undermine the status of science in the view of the general public and that may have dire consequences.
What can you do? Be vigilante. As a reader and an author of scientific publications, inspect the source before using or disseminating information. If you are not yet an established “name” in your field, there is probably no real reason for a journal to solicit papers from you (or, for that matter, invite you to speak at conferences). Consider any such invitations to be spam and discard them. Use verified indexes to assess any journal prior to submitting anything to it for publication or citing any of its papers. For biomedical work, my preference has always been and continues to be use of Pubmed as the search engine of choice, relying heavily on the vetting process employed by the American National Library of Medicine to weed out less trustworthy publications from my reading lists.
The next post will focus on scientific literature indexes.