Friday, July 20, 2018

Falling prey to a predatory OA publisher: Individual failure or community problem?

Depending on whom you speak to, so-called predatory publishing is a serious threat to the scientific record, a minor irritant, or an elitist misunderstanding. 
Courtesy Azizofegypt CC BY-SA
Thus, while some argue that predatory publishers represent “the dark dangerous force” of scholarly publishing, others insist that, by contrast, they have introduced valuable low-cost journals that have levelled the playing field for less privileged members of the research community. As such, the latter say, the journals they publish would be better described as “new wave journals” or examples of “innovation in publishing”, not predatory journals.

Others argue that any harm predatory publishers do is small and has been significantly overblown by the enemies of open access, or that the problem is “not as big now as it once was.”

Yet others maintain that the real predators of scholarly publishing are legacy subscription publishers, who have been robbing the research community blind for years and are now corrupting open science.

These complexities point to a central problem in any discussion of predatory publishing: no one is able to adequately define (or agree on a definition of) the phenomenon. And yet however one defines it, it is clearly casting the research community in a bad, bad, bad light.

Hugely controversial

Whatever the truth (and likely predatory publishing is some mix of the above) the topic is a hugely controversial one and engenders bitter disputes. For instance, the person who coined the term predatory publisher –  Jeffrey Beall – has been the recipient of a constant stream of verbal attacks and legal threats, not least because he created the foundational blacklist of what he calls “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers”. Beall also regularly publishes articles (e.g. here) in which he maintains that predatory publishing is a direct consequence of open access, and that OA has as a result thrown scholarly publishing into “crisis mode”.

Many were not surprised, therefore, when last year Beall’s site disappeared overnight. And shortly afterwards he left his post at the University of Colorado without explanation (that I am aware of). 

[Update 22nd July: On the same day I posted this an interview with Beall was published in the Indian Express in which he offered his explanation as to why he left his job.]

To add to the confusion, as concern grew, and both blacklists (e.g. Beall’s list, now Cabells) and whitelists (e.g. the Directory of Open Access Journals) began to appear, a new problem emerged: even if an OA publisher tries to be honest and straightforward and has the papers submitted to it assessed in a diligent manner, it may at any point (and for whatever reason) be deemed by the community to be predatory. As a result, all those researchers who have published with it can expect to suffer reputational damage.

Given these complexities, I plan to use the term predatory publishing in this article in a very specific way. I will be referring to those OA publishers who clearly and deliberately trick researchers – essentially, by failing to provide the promised (or even a meaningful) service and/or deceiving them about the nature of that service, simply in order to extract money from them. I will not name any publishers, or journals, but simply refer to some of the deceptive practices they engage in that I know take place. I know they take place because I am regularly contacted by the victims of such unethical behaviour, and these victims share with me the details of what has happened to them.

So, for instance, the publishers/journals I am talking about often do not inform authors at the point of submission that they will be charged an APC if their paper is accepted. And they often tell them (or imply) that the papers they publish are properly peer-reviewed where in reality they are not.

It’s true, there are also some dishonest researchers who deliberately seek out predatory publishers in order to bulk up their CVs. Nevertheless, I have been contacted by a sufficiently large number of scholars who have been tricked by unscrupulous OA publishers that I am confident there is a serious problem out there. And it leads me to believe that a great many of the researchers who publish in these journals are hapless victims of a scam.

In my view, predatory publishing (or whatever you choose to call it) is a serious problem and a solution will eventually have to be found. Here, however, I am concerned primarily with the victims of predatory publishers.

The consequences can be serious

When authors fall victim to a predatory publisher the consequences can be serious. Not only will they be conned into handing over (usually public) money for a service that is never (or very inadequately) provided, but (more seriously for them) their reputation (and likely their career) may be negatively impacted as a result. Unsurprisingly, therefore, victims of predatory publishers experience a great deal of anguish, anger and resentment.

What surprises me is that while no one can agree on what predatory publishing is, or how prevalent or damaging it is, there nevertheless appears to be a consensus that if anyone falls victim to one of these publishers they have only themselves to blame. In other words, it is viewed as an individual failure.

By contrast, I view predatory publishing as a community problem. And, as such, I believe the community has a responsibility to come up with a solution for those researchers who become victims. After all, as I pointed out three years ago, predatory publishing could not exist without the co-operation of the research community – e.g. by universities and funders encouraging researchers to engage in pay-to-publish gold OA, and by (often senior) researchers agreeing to join the editorial boards of journals they know little or nothing about, in which they are unlikely ever to publish themselves, and for which they will probably never do any reviewing or editorial work. (Yes, I know, some researchers say they are listed on EBs without having opted-in, but many clearly do volunteer, if only because it adds another line to their CVs)

To my mind, the communitys apparent lack of concern for the victims of predatory publishing represents a moral failure on its part. Certainly, that was the conclusion I reached recently when – during the same week – I was contacted by two different researchers from two different continents (neither, by the way, were from the global South, which is commonly said to be where most victims of predatory publishing are based).

In both cases, the researchers (and their co-authors) had inadvertently submitted papers to predatory publishers. As a result, both had quickly discovered that if you mistakenly submit a paper to a predatory publisher it can be difficult to extricate yourself from what is inevitably a distressing situation.

It is difficult because the victims of a predatory publisher are likely to discover what has happened only after their paper has been published, or when they receive an invoice (for sometimes thousands of dollars) with a demand that they pay up ASAP. The realisation that they have been conned will, of course, make them angry. But the more distressing moment comes when they realise that their name and reputation are now forever linked to a predatory publisher – unless they can persuade the publisher to take their paper down again.

The first researcher who contacted me realised something had gone wrong when the manuscript that he and his co-authors had submitted was returned to them with no peer review reports attached and no suggested changes. There was, however, a note to say that it had been accepted, and could they please pay the attached invoice. They later learned that the paper had already been published.

Quickly realising what had happened, and desperate to recover the situation, the authors agreed to pay the publisher the journal’s full APC (over $2,000) – not for publishing their paper, but for taking it down.

Even then, they discovered that several copies of the paper had been posted on the publisher’s site and one was still publicly available. In addition, copies (with the publisher’s name attached) were proliferating across the Web, including on a number of paper sharing sites (Oh the joys of CC BY!). They had emailed me in the hope that I could offer some advice, and perhaps approach the publisher on their behalf.

The second author who contacted me had likewise realised that he and his co-authors had submitted their latest paper to a predatory journal. And even though they refused to pay the publication fee, their paper was published. In addition, they discovered that the publisher was seeking to get it indexed on PubMed. Since the journal in question is listed in PubMed, as are a number of the publisher’s other journals, this was a real possibility.

Fortunately, after I became involved the first paper was fully removed from the publisher’s web site, and the second one had a retraction notice attached to it.

As I say, I know these things go on because over the past 7 years I have had many researchers like these contact me with tales of the nefarious deeds that predatory publishers engage in. Interestingly, sometimes they turn to me only after their university’s counsel has failed to resolve the situation.

I have always been happy to try and help, but I have also always been aware that even though I am often able to resolve the situation, I cannot provide a scalable solution. It is a time-consuming process and I am just one person working on their own.

That is one reason why I believe a community solution is essential, but it is certainly not the most compelling one. The more important reason is that since it is the wider research community that has created the monster that predatory publishing has become the community has a responsibility to help the victims. 

Aside from the fact that many members of this community are willing to sit on the editorial boards of predatory journals, the community supports and promotes the pay-to-publish business model that created the conditions for predatory publishing. And when the problem became apparent the community either denied there was a problem or simply sat on its hands and allowed the problem to grow.

But who should organise a community solution?


One organisation that could surely play a useful role is the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). This is an organisation, after all, that says it is “committed to educate and support editors, publishers and those involved in publication ethics with the aim of moving the culture of publishing towards one where ethical practices becomes the norm, part of the publishing culture.”

As it happens I discovered last year that in 2016 COPE published a case study exemplifying the kind of deceptive practices predatory publishers engage in, and in which it mooted a solution.

The COPE case study points out that because, as a rule, predatory publishers do not ask for copyright to be assigned to them, authors are able to demand that their paper is taken down. Once they have done that, the case study adds, they can then resubmit the paper to a “legitimate journal” with an editorial note explaining what had happened.

COPE goes on to explain how the author highlighted in the case study wrote to the predatory journal that had tricked her to say, “Immediately remove my article from your website. If you do not do so immediately, I will take legal action”.

When the publisher asked for the name of the article and the journal in which it had been published, the author provided the information and repeated that she would proceed with legal action if the article was not removed from the journal’s website by a given date.

The case study concludes by saying that the author, “will now proceed with submission to a legitimate journal, and the editor of the legitimate journal is comfortable that duplicate publication is no longer a problem.”

Leaving aside the fact that predatory publishers are routinely robbing the public purse, this might, at first sight, seem a practical solution for victims. After all, the sole objective of a predatory publisher is to make money, not “to advance knowledge and share new scientific and research findings following an established and rigorous peer review process”. Having been paid an APC, the publisher will have achieved that objective. And if an author refuses to pay up the publisher can hold the paper hostage until a withdrawal fee is paid. Ironically, the worse the publisher’s reputation the more leverage it has in demanding a high withdrawal fee since the more desperate researchers will be to dissociate themselves from it.

However, having a predatory publisher take down a captured paper only solves half the problem for the victim; in order to recover the situation the author also needs to find an alternative journal willing to republish it. The case study might seem to imply that this is a formality. But is it?

Curious to find out, I suggested to one of the researchers who contacted me that he try the method proposed in the COPE case study.

“Your current submission cannot be considered further”

A few weeks later the author reported back to say that he had sent his paper to a widely recognised OA publisher, and had received the following reply: “Unfortunately, once a paper has been formally published anywhere, even in a predatory journal without the author’s agreement, it still counts as a double submission and therefore your current submission cannot be considered further by us.”

Part of the problem may have been that the author contacted the legitimate journal before his paper had been removed from the predatory journal. Nevertheless, if the editor who replied had read the COPE case study (and accepted its argument) a more helpful reply would surely have gone along the lines of, “I am sorry to hear that this has happened to you. Can I suggest you ask the predatory publisher to take down your paper? Once that has been done I would be happy to consider sending it out for review.”

So, I emailed the editor and copied in COPE. I referred to the case study and asked whether the publisher of the journal was a member of COPE. I also asked why the editor seemed unwilling to help authors who have fallen victim to a predatory publisher (in contrast to the publisher in the COPE case study).

The editor replied that the publisher he represented was indeed a member of COPE and “follows COPE guidelines in dealing with cases of publication ethics.”

He added, however, “the COPE advice to which you refer was given at a COPE forum in response to a specific case submitted by a member and reflects the discussion at that forum. This advice is not necessarily applicable to other cases, as stated on COPE’s website”.

Again, this did not seem to be a very helpful response. Sadly, however, when COPE replied it simply echoed the journal editor. “The intention behind posting Forum case discussions is to provide a guide on how to manage a similar case, but we do note that advice on a specific case may not necessarily be applicable to other, even similar, cases. COPE attempts to reflect all of the discussion of that case when we post Forum case discussions online which, quite often, present and explore opposing opinions and viewpoints. We’d advise anyone reflecting on records of cases discussed at COPE Forum to consider all the points of discussion noted to see whether it is applicable to their own case.”

Personally, I could see no difference between the situation I had contacted COPE about and the situation described in the case study, but it is possible I am not privy to all the facts.

I responded by asking to be pointed to COPE’s advice to editors and publishers on how to deal with situations like the one discussed in the case study. To this COPE replied, “COPE is a founding partner and active participant of the Think.Check.Submit campaign and we actively support and promote that initiative when responding to the conversation around predatory publishing.”

Unfortunately, that did not answer my question.

COPE also sent me a copy of a report it had published and helpfully highlighted for me areas in the report that discussed predatory publishing. Again, however, this was a discussion of the issues of predatory publishing, not practical advice to editors and publishers on what to do when a victim approaches them looking for a legitimate home for their paper.

“What continues to puzzle me,” I replied, “is that COPE appears to have no published policy or advice for editors or journals on what to do when a researcher finds him/herself in the position outlined in your case study (which you say is not advice). I am sure the Think. Check. Submit idea is a good one, but it is of no use whatsoever for researchers who have been (for whatever reason) entrapped by a predatory publisher.”

I added, “Does COPE really not intend to publish specific advice on what editors/ journals/ publishers should do in this situation, which I know is very common because many authors contact me who find themselves in it.”

I also copied the journal editor into the email and informed him that I had been in contact with the predatory publisher, who said he was going to take down the paper from his site. Would the editor be willing to reconsider the paper once it had been taken down?, I asked.

Beginning the dialogue

The editor replied, “I am unable to discuss individual manuscripts with anyone who is not an author on the manuscript, therefore I cannot comment on the specifics of this case. However, in light of this information, we will be reaching out to the authors to investigate further.”

Shortly afterwards, the author who had asked for my help emailed me to say that the publisher had agreed to reconsider a revised submission of his paper “on a semi-urgent basis.”

Separately, COPE emailed me to say, “COPE recently held its biannual meeting where this issue was raised and discussed further. It has been agreed to consider what advice COPE can provide in these circumstances and we are beginning the dialogue with our members to decide how best to approach the issue.”

It is hard not to feel that such a dialogue should have begun long ago, but better late than never perhaps.

With luck, COPE will eventually fashion a solution, or at least publish some advice for editors and journals, if only to encourage them to treat the victims of predatory publishing with more sympathy than they currently experience.  

From a selfish point of view, it would certainly be useful if every time a researcher contacted me for assistance and/or advice I could point them to the COPE web site for the help they need. If nothing else this could avoid my having to spend my time emailing publishers on behalf of individuals whom (so far as I can see) no one else currently seems willing to help.

A community solution would also be timely as I am finding it increasingly difficult to get the attention of predatory publishers – I assume because they are having to put more and more effort into handling complaints from their victims!

What frustrates me is that people are happy to rail against predatory publishers, to argue over whether blacklists or whitelists are preferable, or to dismiss predatory publishing as no more than an anti-OA slur, but they continue to insist that the victims are the authors of their own fate.

As I say, my view is that the wider research community should not be leaving these people hanging in the wind but helping them. After all, it is a wind that the community set in motion the day it embraced and promoted pay-to-publish gold OA.

I also find it somewhat high-minded and hypocritical for publishers to parrot Think.Check.Submit every time the topic of predatory publishing comes up. How many researchers know about this initiative? Of those who do, how many can say that using it prevented them from being stung, or that its advice is as useful as claimed?

It is worth noting, for instance, that the Think.Check.Submit site says that one sign of a journal’s legitimacy is if it is “indexed in services that you use”. As I noted, one of the journals I was approached about recently is listed in PubMed. Indeed, it would appear that other predatory journals are still listed in PubMed too, as may be the case with DOAJ (despite it having delisted thousands of predatory journals from its service in 2016).

As further evidence of how difficult it is to navigate the world of predatory publishing, we could note that the University Grants Commission (UGC) in India has struggled to weed out predatory journals from its whitelist of approved journals. (See also here)

Half solution

More importantly, Think.Check.Submit is of no use to those unfortunate enough to discover that they have been already scammed. As such, it is a half-solution at best.

Clearly more needs to be done.

The COPE case study suggests one possible way forward. However, its solution requires more work than should surely be necessary. More importantly, it requires the co-operation of the scammers, making it a morally suspect solution, and a somewhat fragile one at that.

Surely there is a better way? I think so. Earlier this year, for instance, it was suggested on Twitter that papers captured by predatory journals “could be published a second time in [a] legitimate journal once [a] scam [has been] proven, and CrossRef could consider changing the DOI to the legit later one.”

The appeal of this approach is that there would be no need to go through the time-consuming and painful process of persuading predatory publishers to take down papers, or in fact to engage with them at all. As I understand it, the idea is that an appeal would be made to, say, CrossRef or COPE, and if that appeal was successful the paper could be republished in a legitimate journal, at which point the article DOI would be re-assigned to the version published in the latter version.

Such a solution would be another timely development since both the research community and publishers are currently grappling with the issue of versioning in the online environment, particularly as the preprint movement gathers pace (see this for instance, and this).

The point is that there is only ever one “version of record” (VoR) and (as I understand it) this is signalled by means of its DOI. In the case of predatory publishing, therefore, presumably the DOI could (as suggested on Twitter) be re-assigned to the VoR and the predatory publisher’s version left to fester. Perhaps the DOI assigned to the predatory version could even be deactivated or turned off in some way, leaving it to wallow in relative obscurity.

But I am no expert in these matters and no doubt more thought would need to be given to the matter by wiser heads than mine. Either way, the DOI, CrossRef and COPE would seem to me to be essential partners in any solution.

Let us hope that COPE will indeed take this forward and finally begin to offer hope to those isolated and lonely individuals who discover they have been conned.

These people are the collateral damage of the pay-to-publish business model devised and promulgated by influential publishers like PLOS and BMC and subsequently endorsed and promoted by the research community. It’s time for the community to hold out a helping hand to the victims of predatory pubishing. If it cannot do this I do not think it can justifiably call itself a community any longer.


David Wojick said...

In each case it sounds like the publisher published the article. How then are they predatory? This is not explained.

Klaas van Dijk said...

Richard wrote: "The point is that there is only ever one “version of record” (VoR) and (as I understand it) this is signalled by means of its DOI".

See for an exception on the rule that 'there is only ever one “version of record” (VoR)'.

Richard Poynder said...

In the above post I link in the second paragraph (“innovation in publishing”) to a tweet from Ginny Barbour. I had interpreted Barbour’s tweet as indicating that she takes the view that many publishers classified as predatory are in fact examples of innovation in publishing, but that they have been wrongly classified.

It was pointed out to me that this was a misunderstanding on my part.

In the subsequent Twitter exchange, Barbour said, “Of course I didn’t say I support predatory journals … I find it hard to believe you think what you wrote could represent my opinions given all the initiatives I’ve been involved in OA @C0PE etc. For the record I don’t support black lists; I do support initiatives that enhance integrity & innovation.”

In fact, I did not say that Barbour supports predatory publishing. I did not mention her. However, in linking to her tweet I was implying that she thinks some publishers classified as predatory have been misclassified. My assumption I now understand was wrong. Moreover, re-reading that paragraph I can see that I could have worded it better.

With regard to Barbour’s reference to COPE: a reading of my post would show that I do not think COPE’s position on predatory publishing is as clear as Barbour implies, and I feel they should be doing far more to help the victims.

One issue that presents itself with statements like those made in the Twitter exchange I refer to is that they often beg as many questions as they answer, not least what a predatory publisher is. For this reason, I asked Barbour for her definition of a predatory publisher. I have yet to receive a reply but will post it here if I receive it.

I think this reminds us once again that everyone has a view on predatory publishers, but there is rarely agreement on a definition, on how prevalent predatory publishing is, and on what to do about it. Indeed, as I indicated, some appear to believe that there is no such thing as predatory publishing. In light of this, it does not help if people are shy about offering a definition, even as they say that predatory publishing is a problem/is not a problem.

It was for this reason that I began my post by providing the definition I was working to in writing it.

Victor Venema said...

Interesting article. I must admit that I had always assumed that authors know what they are doing when submitting their manuscript to a predatory journal. Part of being a scientist is knowing the publishing landscape of your field. On the other hand, a 1% error rate easily happens.

We need to find a way to retract articles by the authors themselves when the authors notice they were conned. Otherwise they can be held hostage by the predatory publishers.

If the title of the real article is the same as the one of the predatory article it would be hard to put both on your CV/article list. The publishers could be a bit more lenient there. A retraction notice of the predatory version in the acknowledgements of the real version should be "shameful" enough that people do not game the system, first publish predatory and then look for a real publisher.

I am open for any other solution.

Marc Couture said...


First, I agree with your proposal to restrict the discussion to journals to those that could more properly be called “deceptive” or “fraudulent”. I understand however that you have chosen to stick to the widely known p-word, but I would really like to see it fall into disuse.

As you point out, there are many other practices in the scholarly publishing world that could be qualified as predatory, which means “inclined or intended to injure or exploit others for personal gain or profit”. Furthermore, the word “predatory” has too closely and uncritically been linked to Beall’s lists, usually without including the “potential, possible, or probable” disclaimer. Thus, on could say that Beall’s list was at the same time too limited and too encompassing. While many other journals, including non-OA ones, could be suspected of exploiting authors for profit, the journals on the lists didn’t necessarily engage in fraudulent activities. Nevertheless, most papers on the subject, including the often-quoted Shen & Bjork paper that estimated the number of papers published in predatory journals, have simply made the equation Beall’s lists = predatory. I will therefore use the term “deceptive”.

Let’s now address the main issues of your blog post.

I must say first that I disagree with your statement that the research community “has created the monster that predatory publishing has become” or, put in a more nuanced way, that it bears a responsibility in the existence of deceptive publishing because it “supports and promotes the pay-to-publish business model that created the conditions for predatory publishing”. First, if one defines a community as a group whose members share common values and goals, and try and agree on strategies to implement or attain them, then the “research community” is a very loose one, and I don’t see it as “supporting and promoting” a particular OA publishing business model. There is much discussion, and certainly no agreement, on this issue. Even if one considers a much smaller community, built upon the values put forth by the promoters of open science (of which open access is a part), I don’t see many supporters of this model, quite the contrary. But even if one could find a community promoting this model, saying that it would be responsible of the existence of deceptive publishers would be like saying that because of their online activities, companies bear a responsibility in phishing frauds.

This is not to say that the community shouldn’t do anything to help its members who have fallen into the traps you describe. But it wouldn’t be out of guilt, but simply because this is what a community is supposed to do (at least if empathy and solidarity are among its values).

(To be followed...)

Marc Couture said...


The solution you propose, inspired by the COPE case study, seem interesting at first glance but I find in it a major problem. As you point out, many journals that were on Beall’s lists, or are in Cabell’s, are not deceptive, but simply imperfect. Take for instance the journal Oncotarget, which was on Beall’s list, and was recently removed from indexes like Clarivate (that provides the “official” impact factor) and MEDLINE. When they became aware of the situation, researchers that had published in that journal stated that they regretted having published there and would not consider doing so in the future, even when reporting a perfectly satisfying experience, including peer-review (See this blog post).

Thus, one can easily imagine that allowing authors to resubmit an already published paper – withdrawned or not – because they think, or someone has stated that it’s “predatory” could lead to a new phenomenon, that is trying to “upgrade” the status of a paper by resubmitting it to a higher-rated journal. In your post, you suggest that it could be done “once a scam has been proven”, but I don’t know how this would be done in practice. What would constitute a proof, except in rare cases where the situation would be settled by the courts (OMICS could be one of these)? Should all Oncotarget authors be allowed to resubmit their papers? And to what extent are we sure that the acceptance by another journal, supposedly non-deceptive, is a guarantee of the quality of the paper?

I see this as the exact opposite of the current situation where one first submits to a “prestigious” journal, then, upon rejection, to a lower-rated one (and so on), with the difference that in this case only one version of the paper is published (if one doesn’t take into account preprints; more on that later). The deleterious effects of these cascaded submissions, notably the excessive use of scarce resources (reviewers), have been well discussed; one should rather try to limit than to increase them.

As to the possibility of redirection of DOIs, this would mean that CrossRef would have to judge if there is merit to the statement (by an author?) that there was a fraud in the first place.

In brief, though I have empathy for researchers who have been duped, I don’t think the solution you outline is appropriate.

However, it has been pointed out that various changes in publishing practices proposed by the open science community could greatly improve the situation. I think here of two.

(1) Ceasing to evaluate the papers based upon the journal where they appear. This is normally seen as not favouring papers in prestigious, or high impact factor (IF) journals, but should logically be applied conversely: not discounting papers published in less prestigious journals (which could mean low, or even no IF, local journals, etc.).

(2) Generalizing all aspects of open peer-review, starting at the time of submission (preprints) and going on well after publication. This way, the quality and thoroughness of peer-review (or its mere existence!) for any given paper, irrespective of its publishing venue, could be attested.

As a conclusion, I would say that the only thing I could suggest to these unfortunate researchers (assuming they were really duped) would be to deposit their preprints in a repository, explaining (there is normally a field to give this kind of info) that though the article has been published, it hasn’t been peer-reviewed. This would prevent any disruption of availability if the journal ceases to appear but hadn’t a long-term preservation plan (which is more likely to happen if the journal is indeed deceptive). Obviously, the content of the preprint would be identical to that of the published version; otherwise this would imply that the paper did indeed improve upon publication. However, I understand that not all preprint servers (biorXiv, for instance) accept preprints of already published articles; this should be changed.

Richard Poynder said...


Thank you for your thoughtful comments Marc. Let me respond.

Personally, I am not concerned about the use of the term predatory publishing, certainly in the context of this discussion. After all, what I talk about in the post would seem to fit your dictionary definition of predatory pretty well. I also suspect it may be too late to change the term, although time will tell.

Please note, I was not so much suggesting a solution as arguing that a solution is necessary. Perhaps I could have made this clearer, but my examples were meant to be no more than that: examples. As I put it, “I am no expert in these matters and no doubt more thought would need to be given to the matter by wiser heads than mine.”

As I understand it, you are arguing that rather than seek a solution to the problem of authors being duped by predatory publishers we should wait (and hope) that the situation will be ameliorated by changes you expect to see in publishing and evaluation practices – assuming of course that the research community takes the advice of those advocating for these changes.

Personally, I do not think this treats the matter with sufficient urgency. I also worry that some of the proposed changes you mention may not have the positive benefits you expect them to have, as I will explain later.

But perhaps the key point for me to address is your rejection of my claim that the research community (and/or the open access community) has supported and promoted pay-to-publish OA. You say: “I don’t see many supporters of this model, quite the contrary.”

This is not what I see. What I see is that every time an OA advocate recommends publishing in a pay-to-publish OA journal they are supporting APCs; every time a researcher pays an APC they are supporting APCs; every time a funder pays an APC they are supporting APCs; every time a library creates an OA fund it is supporting APCs; every time a library offers to “give away” an APC to students and describes it is “a one-time deal to promote open access” it is supporting APCs.

You go on to say that to suggest that the research community (and/or OA community) is responsible for predatory publishing is “like saying that because of their online activities, companies bear a responsibility in phishing frauds” This does not seem to be an apt analogy to me.

But let me put a question to you: why do you think APCs are the primary means of providing OA today?

I am aware that one strategy OA advocates adopt when faced with claims that OA is responsible for predatory publishing is to seek to deflect the issue. One way of doing this is to argue that predatory publishing is a product not of OA but of the larger dysfunctions in scholarly communication (which I agree have become real, pressing, and serious). However, I believe APCs have worsened many of these dysfunctions and embedded them into the new OA environment.

Yes, I know one can generalise the issue of predatory publishing to cover other activities where open access does not feature – by arguing, for instance, that the pricing practices of subscription publishers are predatory, but this is to deflect attention away from the problem not to resolve it. Personally, I cannot help but conclude that if there were no such thing as pay-to-publish gold OA then the predatory behaviour I discuss in my post would not exist.

Richard Poynder said...


With regard to allowing duped authors to resubmit their papers to another journal, you refer to Oncotarget and say, “one can easily imagine that allowing authors to resubmit an already published paper – withdrawn or not – because they think, or someone has stated that it’s ‘predatory’ could lead to a new phenomenon, that is trying to ‘upgrade’ the status of a paper by resubmitting it to a higher-rated journal.”

You add: “to what extent are we sure that the acceptance by another journal, supposedly non-deceptive, is a guarantee of the quality of the paper?”

Actually, my post was about deception, not quality. While I do point out that some journals may have been erroneously classified as predatory what I am interested in is the situation where authors are deceived by a publisher. These authors I believe should be able to withdraw their paper and submit it to another journal. I am not familiar with the Oncotarget case. Are you saying it was removed from Clarivate and MEDLINE because it deceived authors, or because of some other issue?

So, to be clear: I am not calling for researchers to have a right to upgrade to a more prestigious journal after their paper has been published in a less prestigious journal. My proposal is that those who have been deceived should be able to resubmit their papers, not those who would like to upgrade themselves. Again, this has nothing to do with quality; it is about deception and lack of review.

As to whether CrossRef should be the judge in such cases, that again was a suggestion rather than a definite proposal. But why should not CrossRef and/or COPE take on this role? Sure, proof would be needed. Here I would think that email invitations that do not mention an APC, or evidence that no peer review has taken place would be a starting point. Of course, there needs to be clear evidence, but I do not believe it would be hard to produce in genuine cases. The fact is that if the community wanted to fix this, it could.

That was the point I was making about community responsibility. To stress, I am not talking about “guilt” (as you seem to imply), but about responsibility, collective responsibility – which is surely implicit in the notion of a community.

I do find it dispiriting that you seem to be suggesting there is really no solution for researchers duped by predatory publishers, other than to deposit their papers in an IR, and hope that possible changes to publishing practices may ameliorate the problem in the future.

One doctor who contacted me for help over a predatory journal said, “I have taken a lot of time and effort doing this piece of research, taking time out as a clinical doctor, and every single publication is critical to an early career researcher like myself.” As a result of the problems of being duped by a predatory publisher that doctor faced a situation in which it would not be possible to publish the paper. This kind of situation is a bad thing not just for that doctor, but for the wider research community, and indeed for society at large if it means that a doctor has taken time out from treating patients to conduct research only to discover that they cannot publish that research properly.

I believe that something should be done for these victims, and it needs to be done today not at some point in a possible future.

Richard Poynder said...


As I understand it, the changes you suggest are a) researchers should be judged by their individual papers not by the journal in which they are published b) open peer review should become the norm and it should start by posting a paper as a preprint.

Open peer review would doubtless be a positive step, although of course not everyone agrees, so it is by no means certain that it will become routine.

I am not entirely clear whether you are recommending widespread use of preprints. If you are, I would say that I personally have started to wonder whether sufficient thought has been given to the implications of the practice and whether it might have unwelcome unintended consequences. Today we can see wild excitement about preprints within the OA community, but (in my view) too little critical assessment of the possible consequences.

True, there was a cautionary commentary published recently in Nature. As often happens when OA ideas are critiqued, of course, it immediately attracted some anger and pushback from OA advocates.

And in May an article was published that (rightly I think) concludes, “[A]ny new innovation entails risk and uncertainty. Using preprint archives is no different. However, ignoring its potential concerns is na├»ve at best, and irresponsible at worst.”

Preprints are worth discussing in this context if only because we are beginning to see similar concerns being raised about them that are raised about predatory publishing. The article above, for instance, suggests that if preprints are not quality controlled, “Bad science could flood open access repositories. This would dilute the already rapidly growing body of scientific literature”.

And while I am entirely sympathetic to your point about the Impact Factor (IF) and the need to stop treating the journal in which a paper is published as a proxy for quality it occurs to me that even if the world signed up to DORA, and if the IF was thrown away, researchers would still want to publish in prestigious journals, much as most people want to drive prestigious cars, eat in trendy restaurants and live in an upmarket neighbourhood.

Essentially, when we talk about the IF we are talking about the power of brands as much as metrics. Take away the metrics and researchers will still want to be published in prestigious journals, and so benefit from their brands. And they will continue to judge each other by those brands, regardless of whether recommended assessment procedures promote or sanction doing so.

In other words, even if official evaluation procedures asked assessors to read researchers’ papers and ignore the journals in which they were published, the brand value of the journals in which they were published would continue to be highly influential in P&T decisions. (As UK experience with the REF has demonstrated).

Richard Poynder said...


Let me end by making a point about the larger problem of predatory publishing. To my best recollection, Jeffrey Beall first used the term in The Charleston Advisor in 2010, and (judging by the Wayback Machine) he did not start his blog until 2012.

As a matter of historical record (as Wikipedia notes), I was one of the first people to draw attention to the problem (in 2008). And since then I have on a number of occasions suggested that unless the open access movement addresses the problem it will bring OA into disrepute and (in the process) undermine the public’s trust in science.

Unfortunately, OA advocates have in the main responded to warnings about predatory publishing by repeatedly denying, dismissing, and downplaying the problem. Today most will concede that there might be a problem but still devote most of their energy to arguing over the cause and scale of it, while doing next to nothing to stop it.

Now, a decade after the problem was first flagged, mainstream journalists have begun to take an interest and are telling the world that predatory publishing is casting doubt on the whole process of science. As one put it recently, “That is the problem with the predatory publishers in the end: eroding trust in science. A slowly creeping poison.”

This is very dangerous place for science to be, not least because it plays into the hands of those who peddle false science and snake oil, as well as those who engage in denialism. If the public cannot trust science, they are more likely to believe politicians like Trump and Pruitt when the topic of climate change comes up rather than listen to scientists. Is that a good thing?

At this point all the logic chopping and arguing we see about the causes and scale of predatory publishing will not remedy the situation, only action will. We seem to have a clear case of fiddling while Rome burns.