What many now refer to as predatory publishing first came to my attention 7 years ago, when I interviewed a publisher who — I had been told — was bombarding researchers with invitations to submit papers to, and sit on the editorial boards of, the hundreds of new OA journals it was launching.
Since then I have undertaken a number of other such interviews, and with each interview the allegations have tended to become more worrying — e.g. that the publisher is levying article-processing charges but not actually sending papers out for review, that it is publishing junk science, that it is claiming to be a member of a publishing organisation when in reality it is not a member, that it is deliberately choosing journal titles that are the same, or very similar, to those of prestigious journals (or even directly cloning titles) in order to fool researchers into submitting papers to it etc. etc.
As the allegations became more serious I found myself repeatedly telling OA advocates that unless something was done to address the situation the movement would be confronted with a serious problem. But far too little has been done, and so the number of predatory publishers has continued to grow, and the cries of alarm are becoming more widespread.
Initially, the OA movement responded by saying that it was not a real problem because most so-called predatory journals had few if any papers in them, so there could be very few researchers affected.
Nevertheless, the number of publishers listed by Jeffrey Beall as “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers” has grown year by year. Since 2011 Beall’s list has increased from just 18 publishers to 693. One has to ask: why would there have been a 3,750% increase in this number if only a handful of people ever use the journals?
When it became harder to sweep the problem aside, OA advocates shifted ground, and began to argue that while there may be an issue it was only a problem for researchers in the developing world.
But is that response not simply another way of trying to suggest that there isn’t really a problem? Either way, why would the problem be any less important if the only victims were researchers based in the developing world?
In any case, I do not believe it to be an accurate characterisation. When a recent ABC Background Briefing examined the activities of one suspect publisher’s operations in Australia it concluded that there was a real problem down under. And Australia can hardly be described as a developing country.
Call me a sceptic
My own personal experience likewise suggests that the problem is somewhat more widespread and worrying than is generally acknowledged. I am regularly contacted by researchers who have fallen foul of dubious OA publishers. Yes, some of these researchers are based in the developing world, but a good number are based in the developed world, and some are even based in prestigious North American universities.
So call me a sceptic over claims that predatory publishing is not a serious issue, or that it is only impacting on those based in the developing world.
I’d also have to say that when I contact universities where those who have asked me for help are based, or big publishers whose journal titles have been used as bait to gull researchers into submitting to a predatory journal, I don’t get the feeling that there is much willingness to help the victims, to tackle the problem, or even to confront it.
For their part, OA advocates often also resort to arguing that subscription publishers are also predatory, so why does not Beall include them in his list as well? While this may be true, it is not particularly helpful, or relevant, in the context of seeking a solution to the problem of predatory OA journals.
So we are left with a growing problem but little effort being put into resolving it.
What we do have is a white list run by the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), and a blacklist run by a single individual (Jeffrey Beall).
One problem with the white list approach is that it can too easily become an exclusive club (excluding, say, journals based in the developing world). Moreover, the management of DOAJ has not been trouble free. Last year, for instance, it had to remove over 650 journals from its database after it decided it needed to tighten up its selection criteria and ask publishers to re-apply for inclusion. This was necessary because it had become clear that predatory journals were finding their way into the database. But as predatory journal buster John Bohannon has pointed out, the real problem is that DOAJ doesn’t have sufficient resources to be very effective. DOAJ is, he says, “fighting an uphill battle to identify all of literature’s ‘fake journals’.”
As a lone individual, the challenge for Beall is that much greater. It is no surprise therefore that he and his blacklist are frequently (and often bitterly) criticised for including publishers without sufficient evidence that they are indeed predatory. In any case, add OA advocates, Beall is “anti-OA”, and so his list should be completely ignored. Of course, it is always much easier to criticise someone who is trying to solve a problem than to do something about it yourself.
So what is the solution? Personally, I think the problem needs to be approached from a different direction.
What is surely relevant here is that in order to practise their trade predatory publishers depend on the co-operation of researchers, not least because they have to persuade a sufficient number to sit on their editorial boards in order to have any credibility. Without an editorial board a journal will struggle to attract many submissions.
This suggests that if a journal is predatory then all those researchers sitting on its editorial and advisory boards are to some extent also predatory, or at least they are conspiring in the publisher’s predatory behaviour. After all, if members of the editorial board of a journal that was engaging in predatory activity wanted to end or curtail that activity they could join together and resign, or threaten to resign.
Yes, I know some researchers have their names listed on journal editorial boards without their permission, or perhaps even knowledge. But the majority do so because it looks good on their CV. And in accepting an invitation to be associated with a journal most ask far too few questions about the publisher, and do far too little research into its activities, before saying yes. ABC found over 200 Australian researchers sitting on the editorial boards of just one predatory publisher. I am confident that most if not all of these agreed to sit on the boards.
So my question is this: Do these researchers not have some responsibility for any predatory behaviour the publisher engages in? Personally, I think the answer is yes!
What to do?
So what to do? Here I have a modest proposal. I don’t know whether it is practical or feasible, but I make the proposal anyway, if only to try and get people to think more seriously about solutions rather than excuses.
Why does the OA movement not create a database containing all the names of researchers who sit on the editorial and/or advisory boards of the publishers on Beall’s list, along with the names of the journals with which they are associated? Such a database could perhaps serve a number of purposes:
· It could be used as a way of cross checking the appropriateness of a publisher/journal being listed on Beall’s site. It would at least surely focus minds, and hopefully encourage editorial boards to demonstrate (if they can) that their publisher/journal has been inappropriately placed on Beall’s list, or do something about it, if only by resigning. To help trigger this process researchers listed in the database could be contacted and told that their name was in it.
· The database could help those thinking of submitting to a journal listed in it to more easily find and contact members of its editorial board, and before submitting ask them to personally vouch for the quality of the review process. If things then went wrong the submitting researcher could take the issue up with those board members s/he had contacted. There is nothing quite like personal recommendation, and the personal responsibility that accompanies it.
· Researchers could also search on the database before agreeing to sit on an editorial board as part of a due diligence process. If the publisher/journal is listed in the database they could contact board members and ask them to personally vouch for the quality of the journal.
· Researchers could search the database for their own names in order to establish whether they have been listed on an editorial board without their permission or knowledge.
· Such a database could also quickly reveal how many journals on Beall’s list a particular researcher was associated with.
· If editorial board members’ institutions were included in the database regular Top 10 lists could be published showing the institutions that had the greatest number of board members of journals in Beall’s list. Would that not also focus minds?
· And if countries were included Top 10 lists of those could be published too.
I am sure people would also come up with other uses for such a database.
As I say, I don’t know how practical my proposal is, or whether anyone would be willing to take it on — but it is worth noting that ABC has already produced a list of board members of the journals of one publisher (although without the name of the relevant journal attached). This suggests that it is feasible. In fact, creating such a database would be a great candidate for a crowdsourcing project.
Above all, such an initiative would make an important point: responsibility for predatory behaviour needs to be pushed back to the research community.
As Cameron Neylon points out, we need to move beyond the point of seeing researchers as “hapless victims”. They are active agents in scholarly communication, and when the publishing practices of journals with which they are associated turn out to be inadequate or deceptive researchers ought to take responsibility, not just point the finger at rogue publishers.
In any case, it is surely past time for the research community to step up and grasp this nettle.
On a more general note, creating public databases of researchers on the editorial and advisory boards of journals (both those considered predatory and those not considered so) would make the point that agreeing to be associated with a journal comes with responsibilities, that it is not just a way of padding a CV.