Predatory Publishing: The Dark Side of the Open-Access Movement
Last Updated Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017
In October 2016, we dived deep into the open-access (OA) movement – a publishing model in which a scientific article is made freely available – examining the benefits and the drawbacks of this approach to research (“Public Access: The Pros and Cons of Open-Access Publishing”). This month, we take a closer look at another, darker side of scientific publishing: predatory publishing.
This segment of the OA publishing movement is characterized by publishers that “unprofessionally exploit” the gold OA model (in which the final version of a manuscript is made freely available on publication), primarily for profit, according to Jeffrey Beall, MSLS, one of the most vigilant watchdogs of predatory publishing, and operator of the website Scholarly Open Access.
Sometimes called “vanity presses,” these entities publish practically any materials that come their way, as long as authors are willing to pay a submission and publication fee. Critics – and they are legion – claim that predatory publishers’ main motivation is monetary profit, not advancing science or making the research landscape more equitable. In addition, while predatory publishers generally do not provide any of the services (including editorial support or peer review) traditionally offered by legitimate scientific journals – online, OA, or otherwise – they often falsely claim that they do, and will tell authors that their work has been perused by reviewers who simply do not exist, or has been approved by a “dummy” editorial board.1
An Unexpected Consequence
How did predatory publishers come into being? Unfortunately, the tremendous success of the OA movement opened the door for predatory publishers, explained Eduardo Franco, MPH, DrPH, the James McGill Professor in the Departments of Oncology and Epidemiology & Biostatistics; director of the Division of Cancer Epidemiology; and chairman of the Department of Oncology at McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine, in Montreal, Canada.
“About 16 years ago, when OA was a new concept and still growing, I had never heard about predatory publishers,” said Dr. Franco, the editor-in-chief of Preventive Medicine, a journal that supports OA, and who serves on the boards of other OA journals. “There were certainly low-quality journals out there, but there was not a particular predatory business model like the ones we see today.”
That changed around 2006, when a prominent publisher decided that, because of its stringent selective criteria for submitted manuscripts, it was rejecting too many perfectly good papers, Dr. Franco stated. The solution was to launch an OA journal that would still publish relevant and sound science, but allow for more novel or experimental theories.
“As the prominence of this OA journal grew, predatory publishers took note of this business model, and saw an opportunity to turn a profit,” Dr. Franco said. “So, the success of this OA journal is that traditional journals started to loosen their reins and offer some level of OA, but the downside is that predatory publishers began to invade the existing market.”
And predatory publishers have certainly made their mark in the OA field. According to a 2015 longitudinal study, predatory journals have rapidly boosted their publication volumes from 53,000 articles in 2010 to an estimated 420,000 articles in 2014, published by around 8,000 active journals.2
Catching A Predator
Predatory journals have also made a splash with regulatory agencies. In August 2016, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed its first complaint against an alleged predatory publisher. The publisher came to the attention of the FTC after potential authors realized something was amiss with the publication process. (See the SIDEBAR for more about this case.)
“The people we spoke with thought they were supporting a new journal, and that it was legitimate and above-board,” Ioana Rusu, JD, an attorney for the FTC, told ASH Clinical News.
“Then, the red flags started going up. For instance, their articles were approved for publication in a matter of days or even hours. The authors asked themselves, ‘How is it possible that in-depth peer review was done in such a short period of time?’”
Predatory publishers have a number of tactics for appearing as authentic academic publishers. They have been known, for example, to “grab” lists of editorial board members from established journals’ websites (both OA and traditional) and transfer them to their own websites, thus giving them an air of legitimacy.
Checking the names on the editorial board, and of published authors, can help distinguish a predatory publisher from a genuine one. For example, content written by an author with a number of articles published in a short period of time or on a wide range of topics irrelevant to the journal’s stated area of interest may identify someone who responded to one of the blanket solicitation emails that predatory journals send out to potential authors or editorial board members.
In general, Mr. Beall, who also is associate professor at the Auraria Library at the University of Colorado in Denver, Colorado, is not the OA movement’s biggest fan. In a 2013 article, he decried OA as “an anti-corporatist movement that wants to deny the freedom of the press to companies it disagrees with.” He went on to say that “the movement is actively imposing onerous mandates on researchers, mandates that restrict individual freedom. … They don’t like the idea of profit.”3
For Mr. Beall, one of the OA movement’s biggest flaws is that it portrays “big publishers as the enemy, with some [OA journal editors] writing blog posts proclaiming themselves heroes for refusing to publish in or carry out peer reviews for its journals,” he told ASH Clinical News. “At the same time, the OA movement largely refuses to acknowledge the weaknesses, problems, and threats caused by the system of payments from authors – the system used to finance most OA publishing.”
Mr. Beall highlights these “problems and threats” on his website, Scholarly Open Access, which, according to the website description, engages in “critical analysis of scholarly open-access publishing.” This includes name-checking publishing groups and standalone journals that may be engaging in predatory publishing practices – all of which are collected into “Beall’s List of Potential, Possible, or Probable Predatory Scholarly Open-Access Publishers.” The list comes with the recommendation that “scholars read the available reviews, assessments, and descriptions provided [on Scholarly OA], and then decide for themselves whether they want to submit articles or serve as editors or on editorial boards.”
Even under such scrutiny, predatory publishers continue to proliferate, according to Mr. Beall, who noted that, in 2011, the blacklist consisted of less than two dozen publishers, but by February 2016, there were more than 900 possible predatory publishers. Other agencies try to safeguard potential authors from being taken advantage of, but most take a different tactic by keeping “whitelists” of legitimate OA publishing outfits. These include the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), the Global Open Access List (GOAL), and the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).
Follow the Money
Aside from the ethical concerns of publishing data or information that have not been peer-reviewed and/or deemed scientifically valid, predatory journals can also be identified by their steep article processing charges (APCs).
In the traditional journal model, the end-user pays for access to papers, either through subscription fees or on a pay-per-paper basis. In the OA model, the cost of publication is shifted from the consumer to the producer, through APCs. Essentially, authors pay for OA.
Legitimate OA publishers also charge APCs, but those fees financially support editorial services, the peer-review process, and housing those articles (either through website hosting or printing). And, overall, the APCs for above-board OA journals are deployed honestly, and the charges they levy are not exactly usurious, according to a 2015 study by Heather Morrison, MSLS, PhD, assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Ottawa in Canada, and colleagues.6
Dr. Morrison and co-authors analyzed the APCs charged by journals listed in the DOAJ in 2014, for a dataset consisting of more than 1,400 journals. The average APC among journals was $1,221, and the average APC for an individual article was $937, with prices ranging from $1 to $4,114. “The vast majority of journals (80%) were found to offer one or more variations on pricing, such as discounts for authors from mid- to low-income countries, differential pricing based on article type, institutional or society membership, and/or optional charges for extras such as English language–editing services or fast track of articles,” they reported.
At the San Francisco-based Public Library of Science (PLOS), APCs range from about $1,500 to $3,000, and researchers with financial hardships can apply for fee support from the organization; APCs netted a revenue of $42,604,000 in 2015.4 At the Molecular Diversity Preservation International and Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI), an OA journal platform based in Basel, Switzerland, APCs vary depending on the specific journal; for one journal, the APC runs around $1,800, while, at others, there is no APC.5
Martyn Rittman, PhD, chief production officer for MDPI, explained that APCs at MDPI are calculated based on how established a journal is. For a new journal, there is no APC, while journals with a longer track record, and a higher impact factor, will carry an APC. “The average APC at MDPI in 2015 was less than $1,000, which is very competitive when compared with other large OA publishers.”
Somewhat surprisingly, predatory journals usually charge much lower APCs than legitimate journals: a 2015 analysis found that the average APC among a sample of predatory journals included on Beall’s list was $178 per article.7 However, because predatory journals tend to publish articles indiscriminately and accept higher volumes of articles than legitimate journals, the fact becomes less surprising – it is a question of quantity over quality.
The Blacklist: Good, Bad, or Both?
Scholarly OA is often called a “blacklist.” Writing about “Beall’s List,” Richard Poynder, moderator of GOAL, pointed out that the list is maintained by a single individual, who has been “frequently (and often bitterly) criticized for including publishers without sufficient evidence that they are indeed predatory.”8
In 2013, for example, MDPI came under fire from Scholarly OA for allegedly engaging in predatory publishing practices. Among several charges leveled at MDPI were claims that the OA publisher added Nobel Prize winners to its editorial board without their approval, and that it regularly published “controversial articles” to boost the citations to its journals.
In a lengthy 2014 memo posted on its website, MDPI refuted all of Mr. Beall’s charges against it as a predatory publisher, including a note that OASPA had confirmed MDPI met its criteria as a legitimate OA publisher.9
In 2015, MDPI was removed from the Scholarly OA website list and, to date, has remained off the list.
In that same memo, MDPI declared, “We wish to conclude by expressing that Mr. Beall’s blacklist in its current form is unnecessary and unreliable. On the one hand, there are professional indexing databases operating as watchdogs of journal quality. Professional databases such as the Web of Science, Scopus, or PubMed can be used as whitelists of good journals.”
When asked for his specific thoughts on the blacklist set-up, Dr. Rittman referenced the 2014 MDPI memo, but he also told ASH Clinical News that his organization holds that “the majority of [OA] publishers are acting ethically and to accepted standards, and most scholars are able to distinguish between ethical and questionable publishers.”
The reality is that any successful enterprise is going to have people who will try to take advantage of that success. Catriona MacCallum, PhD, senior advocacy manager at PLOS, questioned how widespread predatory publishing is, commenting that, as with any business, there are always going to be “bad apples” whose impact is inflated relative to their numbers. Should OA be subject to greater scrutiny because of those few bad actors?
“Predatory publishing is a valid concern, but one that is totally out of proportion to reality,” she said, adding that there are also instances of bad papers being published in paid, peer-reviewed journals. “You can see that in the number of articles that are retracted because of fraudulent data, manipulated figures, ghost authorship, or peer-review rings.”
“All industry and businesses are open to such scammers, whether it’s publishing or banking,” Dr. MacCallum said, “but the existence of these bad actors doesn’t mean you should stop banking. The thing to do is to know what you are looking at – bad publishers are remarkably easy to spot.” (See the SIDEBAR for tips on how to spot a predatory publisher.)
“There is always a possibility that someone goes into a relationship with a predatory publisher knowing what’s going on; they are looking to game the system just as the predatory publisher is,” Ms. Rusu noted. “That’s something that we keep in mind. For some people, there is that motivation.”
Preying on “Publish or Perish”
The mere existence of an APC is the factor that has allowed predatory publishers to thrive, according to Mr. Beall. He added that young or marginalized researchers may be particularly vulnerable to predatory publishers as they seek to establish themselves in the scientific and medical community.
“Payments from authors are what have led to the proliferation of predatory publishers, a problem abetted by academic evaluation systems that merely focus on one’s number of published papers,” he said.
The publish-or-perish environment in academia “is the primary reason that predatory publishers continue to do well, particularly in developing countries,” Dr. Franco said. “I recently spoke at a symposium in Brazil on best practices in publishing, and a lot of the attendees told me that they feel there is prejudice in the legitimate publishing community against researchers whose mother tongue is not English. As a result, they find it very difficult to get published in the journals that they are familiar with.”
“Greetings for the day!” So begins a frequent email solicitation from one predatory journal.
Cameron Neylon, PhD, former advocacy director at PLOS and a professor of research communication at the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University in Bentley, Australia, commented that researchers who get caught in the predatory publishers’ snare are often viewed as the “hapless victim, ‘hoodwinked’ into parting with money. But really? I’ve no intent to excuse the behavior of these publishers, but they are simply serving a demand. A demand created by researchers under immense pressure to demonstrate their productivity. Researchers who know how to play the game.”10
Of course, some researchers may be more amenable to the “come one, come all” invitation from predatory publishers. Chances are, for every author who is taken in by a predatory publisher, some authors are knowingly engaging with suspicious journals simply because publishing is preferable to not publishing.
As Dr. Neylon urged, researchers need to divest themselves of the idea that they are the victims, either of predatory publishers or of the highly competitive aspect of academia, and be more proactive about curating their researcher careers.
Dr. Franco noted that the acceptance letters predatory publishers send tend to be very laudatory in tone, thus appealing to a potential author’s ego. “People are flattered when they receive these email solicitations full of adulation. They don’t realize that these letters are generated by software programs and sent out by the hundreds to potential authors. They don’t recognize that it’s a spam invitation.”
He also pointed out that young researchers aren’t the only ones who can be lured in by predatory publishers; more established scientists and clinicians can also take the bait. “I’ve seen emeritus-level professors who receive invitations to serve on an editorial board and [they] feel honored.”
As department chair, Dr. Franco requests that all of his colleagues forward invitations to join editorial boards to him for vetting. In the long run, getting published in less-than-reputable journals could harm a person’s career trajectory.
“Over time, you don’t want your name, or your institution’s, to be associated with these publications. Publishing is a market of ideas, and it requires a selection process,” he said. “The reality is not all research will pan out or should be published, so we need the selection process provided by legitimate publishers. Otherwise, we run the risk of being overwhelmed by junk science. And is that junk science something that a person wants to be associated with?”
If a researcher suspects that he or she has been duped by a publisher, Ms. Rusu advised shining a light on the publisher through as many outlets as possible – the FTC, OA associations, professional societies, and even local media.
Dr. Rittman directed people to the OASPA’s website, thinkchecksubmit.org, as “an excellent place to start” learning more about a potential publisher. This campaign is designed to help researchers identify trustworthy journals through a simple checklist to assess their credentials.11
Dr. Franco advised that researchers (particularly those for whom English is a second language) read as many scientific papers as they can, both good and bad, “to start appreciating a scientific article as a piece of literature. The more you read, the more you recognize the flaws in science and in language. Remember, many predatory publishers don’t do any editing to the papers.”
The OA movement’s growth shows no signs of stopping, but some research scholars predict that predatory publishers will have a tough time maintaining their ground. The authors of the 2015 longitudinal study, for instance, predict that predatory publishing will soon meet a bitter end: “We found that the problems caused by predatory journals are rather limited and regional, and believe that the publishing volumes in such journals will cease growing in the near future,” they wrote. “Open-access publishing is rapidly gaining momentum, in particular through the actions of major research funders and policy makers. This should create better opportunities for researchers from countries where predatory publishing is currently popular to get published in journals of higher quality.”2 —By Shalmali Pal
- Scott Memorial Library, Thomas Jefferson University. “What is Predatory Publishing?” Accessed December 1, 2016 from http://jefferson.libguides.com/predatorypublishing.
- Shen C, Björk BC. ‘Predatory’ open access: a longitudinal study of article volumes and market characteristics. BMC Med. 2015 October 1. [Epub ahead of print]
- Beall J. The open-access movement is not really about open access. TripleC Journal. 2013:11:585-97.
- PLOS. Publication fees. Accessed November 15, 2016 from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/s/publication-fees.
- MDPI. APC information. Accessed November 10, 2016 from www.mdpi.com/about/apc.
- Morrison H, Salhab J, Calve-Genest A, Horava T. Open access article processing charges: DOAJ survey May 2014. Publications. 2015;3:1-16.
- Shen C, Bjork B-C. ‘Predatory’ open access: a longitudinal study of article volumes and market characteristics. BMC Med. 2015;13:230.
- Poynder R. Predatory Publishing. A Modest Proposal. Open & Shut. Accessed November 12, 2016 from http://librarylearningspace.com/predatory-publishing-modest-proposal.
- MDPI. Update: Response to Mr. Jeffrey Beall’s Repeated Attacks on MDPI. February 24, 2016. Accessed November 10, 2016 from www.mdpi.com/about/announcements/534.
- Neylon C. Researcher as Victim. Researcher as Predator. Science in the Open. Accessed November 21, 2016 from http://cameronneylon.net/blog/researcher-as-victim-researcher-as-predator/.
- Think. Check. Submit. About. Accessed November 10, 2016 from http://thinkchecksubmit.org/about/.
On August 25, 2016, the FTC filed a complaint (Case No. 2:16-cv-02022) in Washington, DC, District Court against the OMICS Group, Inc., of Hyderabad, India, and two affiliated companies (iMedPub LLC and Conference Series LLC) for engaging in “predatory” publishing practices. OMICS publishes a number of hematology-related journals, including Blood & Lymph, Blood Disorders & Transfusion, Haemotology & Thromboembolic Diseases, Leukemia, and Clinical & Experimental Oncology.
Charges leveled at OMICS by the FTC included:
The publisher does not make it clear that a “significant” APC will be required until after accepting an article. OMICS will not allow the individual to withdraw the article, thus making the paper ineligible for publication elsewhere.
The publisher describes its journals as having a high impact factor, but is alleged to calculate its own impact scores, which are not disclosed to consumers.
The publisher claims that its journals follow “rigorous peer-review practices” overseen by editorial boards that are manned by prominent academics; however, many articles are published with little to no peer review, and numerous individuals cited as editors have not agreed to be affiliated with the journals.
Lawyers for the OMICS Group submitted a letter denying any deceptive or predatory behavior. According to the case filing, OMICS claimed that:
It is made clear on their website that an APC will be charged (which range from $350 to $2,719). The publisher also states that articles can be withdrawn free of charge if the request is issued within a 10-day submission period. After that time period, “withdrawal-related APCs are only requested when an article passes through the processing … and authors are requested to pay to cover the expenses that are incurred by the publisher.”
They follow a “single-blind peer-review process for most of the journals,” and that “the peer review is done by the esteemed scholars who work voluntarily.” Also, they obtain consent letters from any and all editorial board members, and those letters are available for public review.
The OMICS group uses “other metric/measures for journal credibility [than impact factors],” including the Index Copernicus values and H-Index.
The FTC receives numerous complaints about predatory companies through individual consumers, investigative articles in newspapers, referrals from state agencies or other federal agencies, or organizations such as the Better Business Bureau. The complaints are then taken in aggregate and reviewed before the FTC decides to take action.
“Like many federal agencies, we have a limited amount of resources, so we have to decide if a case rises to a level of problematic activity to which we can dedicate those resources,” Ms. Rusu explained.
“Predatory publishing is a new phenomenon for us. They are taking something that is inherently based on good principles, and manipulating it in such a way that their primary goal is profit.”
What the FTC cannot do is create a policy as to how OA publishing can and should operate. “We can’t set up a system for weeding out good versus bad journals or set up standards for how the peer-review process should work – that’s not our role,” she said. “We can tell a publisher, ‘You told your authors that the articles are peer reviewed, and they are not, so that’s a lie. You can’t deceive consumers.’”
On September 22, 2016, OMICS filed a motion (Case 2:16-cv-02022-GMN-VCF) to dismiss the FTC’s preliminary injunction, but Ms. Rusu was not able to comment on ongoing litigation.
Here are some factors that can help determine if you are working with a predatory publisher, adapted from Jeffrey Beall’s “Criteria for Determining Predatory Open-Access Publishers” and the Committee on Publication Ethics’ “Code of Conduct”:
Editor and Staff
- The publisher’s owner is identified as the editor of each journal published by the organization.
- The journal does not identify a formal editorial review board.
- Two or more journals have duplicate editorial boards.
- No academic information (such as institutional affiliation) is provided regarding the editor, editorial staff, or review board members.
- demonstrates a lack of transparency in publishing operations
- provides insufficient information or hides information about author fees, offering to publish an author’s paper and later sending an unanticipated “surprise” invoice
- has no policies or practices for digital preservation, meaning that if the journal ceases operations, all of the content disappears from the internet
Other Questionable Journal Standards and Practices
- The publisher falsely claims to have its content indexed in legitimate abstracting and indexing services or claims that its content is indexed in resources that are not abstracting and indexing services.
- The publisher sends unsolicited requests for peer reviews to scholars unqualified to review submitted manuscripts (the specialties of the invited reviewers do not match the content of papers sent to them).
- Papers from other venues/outlets are re-published without providing appropriate credits.
- On its website or in its email, the publisher claims impact factors that are unverifiable through independent auditing, or are false.
- The publisher asks the corresponding author for suggested reviewers and then uses the suggested reviewers without sufficiently vetting their qualifications or authenticity.