Cover story in Lab Times 03-2015.

Publish, publish, and publish, lest you perish. In this Darwinian struggle in the academic world, selection pressures come from our competitors, reviewers, editors, and so on. But topping them all, is the growing pressure of predatory publishers – ones that seek to endanger not only our careers but also the very credibility of scientific research.

In the summer last year, two e-mails popped up in Alex Smolyanitsky’s inbox. Like most invited paper requests that the materials scientist receives, these letters, from two scientific journals, directly addressed him. They used a language that Alex describes as “impressive,” and lured him into submitting a paper. So, he prepared a manuscript in less than 15 minutes and sent it off to both journals. Within a few days, he got great news. Sure enough, the paper was accepted for publication.

acceptance letter_spoof

The funny spoof paper received a funnier acceptance letter

The manuscript “Fuzzy, Homogenous Configurations” was a joke, admits Alex. In fact, the authors are cartoon characters from The Simpsons, affiliated to a fictitious university. “I never wrote that paper. It’s all from SCIgen,” he says, referring to an online research paper generator. The text is a bunch of gobbledygook. The figures are a child’s doodles. Had even a high-school student sat on the review panel, the paper would have been rejected. Yet, both the Journal of Computational Intelligence and Electronic Systems and Aperito Journal of Nanoscience Technology promptly approved the manuscript. They even published it on their websites and kept invoicing Alex for hundreds of dollars.

Alex’s prank is outright hilarious. He had an intuition that the e-mail invitations were bogus and exposed the tricksters. But unlike Alex, many scientists worldwide fall for the stunts of spurious publications – dubbed predatory journals – and send off their research data. Their manuscripts are not peer-reviewed but instead uploaded on public portals as is. They are charged exorbitant fees for services not offered at all. The situation then becomes far from funny, if not even alarming. It means that, if things go unchecked, scientific and medical research will soon be infested with low-quality, or even, fake science, and disreputable scientists.

Parasites of open-access

Jeffrey Beall, an academic librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, first caught sight of bogus publishers in 2008. He noticed a sudden surge in emails soliciting him to submit articles or serve on editorial boards. “The emails were ridden with grammatical mistakes,” he says. They often redirected to publisher websites which were clearly amateurish and touted instant publishing. For instance, the home page would say: “Urgent publishing for post or graduate student. Or MBA student.” The agencies usually cloaked their location and could only be contacted electronically.

Beware of phony publishers who offer “urgent publication.”

That was when Beall started curating a collection, now called Beall’s list, of potential predatory publishers. The frighteningly long list is regularly updated on his blog, based on input from victims of predatory publishing. It has about 700 entries today.

What makes academia, today, an attractive market for fake publishers? Beall’s answer is the rise of open-access publishing. He says, “The goal of phony publishers is to make easy money by charging authors, by exploiting the open-access model.”

Open-access publishing has changed the way we learn about new discoveries. Introduced in early 2000s, the system seeks to cut down on journal subscription costs to make publications instantly and freely available. It has offered tax-payers better access to research, in other words, their money’s worth. It has enhanced scientific reach in developing countries. Lastly, by accelerating visibility and spread of latest research, open-access has benefited the scientific community. But this approach relies on an “author-pays” model, which predatory publishers can capitalize on.

“Earlier, institutional libraries bore the subscription charges for journals,” says Beall. “If a journal contained bad quality science, people would cancel their subscriptions and the journal would die.” In open-access publishing, however, the authors or their affiliated institutions foot the bill once their paper gets accepted. Since authors are the customers in this model, publishers make their deals author-centric to attract more submissions. Readers, on the other hand, have no voice here, as there are no subscriptions to cancel. So, the publishers disregard them and run their business publishing junk science. Beall writes in a perspective: “[open-access] publishers pay insufficient attention to value-added features that benefit readers – such as automated reference linking – preferring instead to focus on authors’ needs, such as super-fast review process.”

In most cases, predatory journals offer little or no peer-reviewing as they want to avoid rejections. Their aim is instead to accept as many submissions as possible to rake in the most profit. As a result, these journals are fraught with dubious research articles, such as Fuzzy, Homogenous Configurations.

Vulnerable or wise?

It is hard to believe that some of the world’s smartest minds can be deceived. How and why would scientists be carried away by disingenuous submission requests?

The story of Aline Noutcha, a biologist at a Nigerian university, lends us some perspective. In 2012, Noutcha submitted a paper to an open-access journal run by Scientific and Academic Publishing Co. (SAP). She was shocked to learn, after her manuscript was accepted, that she owed SAP a huge sum towards publishing costs. But SAP offered to slash the fee by 50% on nationality grounds. What kind of a genuine publisher withholds information about their policies, leave alone haggle over publishing costs? Funnily enough, when Science journalist John Bohannon probed into Noutcha’s case, he discovered that SAP’s headquarters, as per the address on their website, appeared to be at the intersection of two highways in Los Angeles, USA. Bohannon was intrigued and contacted the agency. Months after persistently e-mailing SAP, he heard back from one Charles Duke who reiterated the American address. Duke wrote in “broken English”. The supposedly “local” email arrived at 3 AM, Eastern time (USA). Another wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It turns out that Noutcha had tried for over a year to get her paper published at other journals. She was unaware of the SAP journal until then. Was desperation to publish the reason why Noutcha checked out newer journals? Was she an early-stage researcher who had little knowledge of publishing platforms? Did coming from a developing country make her an easy target for SAP? It is hard to say which of these is true.

“It can happen to anybody,” Beall remarks. “I know a professor emeritus who became victim of a predatory journal. People are busy and don’t have the time to read these emails. They make mistakes. They submit articles or even agree to serve on [journals’] editorial boards,” he says.

Besides calling for submissions, questionable journals also send out requests inviting scientists to their review panels or editorial boards. Since board memberships add to academic success, some scientists are tempted to sign up for them. In 2013, The New York Times covered the experiences of researchers Thomas Price and James White with two bogus journals The Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics and Plant Pathology and Microbiology. Both scientists had agreed to be part of the editorial boards unaware of the nature of the journals. They were repeatedly badgered to bring in submissions from their colleagues as well as publish their own work at these sites. When the academics realized that the journals were counterfeit, it was too late as the journal websites already listed them as members of staff.

It is shocking to think that scientists can be tricked into playing “agents” for predatory publishing. “Predatory publishers often want to have experts on their editorial boards to project themselves as legit publishers,” Beall explains. But this comes at the huge cost of the scientists’ reputation.

On one hand, there are scientists who unknowingly fall into the clutches of untrustworthy publishers. But on the other, there are researchers who give into tenure pressure, and willfully publish in questionable journals to pad their CVs. “[Some scientists] take unethical shortcuts and pay for publication of plagiarized or self-plagiarized work,” Beall says. This has introduced newer challenges in hiring scholars for academic positions. For one, universities find it harder to assess candidates’ résumés – are enlisted publications original or counterfeit? To address such problems, recruiters may have to be more stringent in their evaluations and pay special attention to publication portals. But if this becomes the case, then honest researchers who “got trapped” stand to lose the most. They are likely to be blacklisted and suffer as much as their disreputable peers.

Blowing the lid off

Although Beall had been jotting down the infamous names on his list since 2008, it was not until 2012 that the scientific community caught up with the issue of fake publishers. “2012 was the year when the number of predatory journals really exploded,” he says. That April, his one-page perspective on predatory publishers appeared in Nature and garnered a lot of attention. He founded his new blog and slowly started getting help from academic institutions. Forwarded messages of suspicious e-mails and victims’ experiences started pouring in from all over the world.

Every time he receives a forward, Beall scans the publishers’ websites for telltale signs of forgery which include sloppy portfolios, lack of transparency such as undisclosed fees, poor editorial structure, insufficient contact details, and so on. All this information then goes into deciding whether a certain publisher or journal can be trusted. Besides, Beall keeps a close watch on open-access start-ups.

When Beall’s list kept growing in 2013, journalist Bohannon launched an unprecedented fishing expedition to catch predatory publishers. So came about the famous open-access sting operation that, for the first time, exposed the miscreants. In January that year, Bohannon, backed by his Science team, picked his targets for the operation – a large cohort of open-access publishers – from Beall’s list as well as the Swedish Directory of Open Acc­­­­ess Journals (DOAJ). Among them were the publishing giants PLoS and Elsevier, as well as the Dutch publisher Wolters Kluwer, and the American Sage. He then laid out the bait. Bohannon fabricated a spoof paper, one describing the mode of action of an anti-cancer drug extracted from a lichen, using a computer program. He interjected the text and figures with “fatal flaws” which he expected should stand out conspicuously to a competent reviewer. To top it off, he invented African names and affiliations for the manuscript’s authors.

For the next ten months, the journalist took to a submission spree. He sent out ten different versions of the paper each week, to each of his targets, totaling 304 submissions.

Bohannon’s “wonder drug paper” was accepted by 157 of the journals and rejected by 98. The paper went out for review 40% of the time and was accepted in 74 out of these 106 journals. Journals published by Elsevier, Wolters Kluwer and Sage all accepted the bogus paper. PLoS ONE was the only journal that identified ethical problems and swiftly rejected it.

The results of the sting operation imply that poor quality control is a major shortcoming of the open-access publishing model and that predatory journals exist in reality. But beyond these unsurprising results, perhaps the most interesting findings of Bohannon’s sting were about the geographical location of predatory publishers. Many fake journals go by westernized names such as the American Journal of Medical and Dental Sciences, or the European Journal of Chemistry, but IP address traces in the headers of their e-mails, and bank accounts on invoices, ratted out that they are in fact mostly based in the Asian side of the world. About a third of the journals that were part of the sting are based in India, making it the single largest base for open-access publishing. Other countries include the United States, Pakistan, Turkey and some West African nations.

Developing countries are probably hosts to large networks of predatory open-access publishers. According to Beall, in countries such as India, the pressure to publish is often intense and many researchers are attracted to vanity presses. “The most notorious on my list is Omics publishers. They are based in Hyderabad, in India. They are the ones I get the most complaints about,” he says.

Trusted verdict

The results of the sting operation reinforce the reliability of Beall’s list. Eighty-two percent of publishers on Beall’s list accepted Bohannon’s concocted manuscript. Although not exhaustive, Beall’s list is well-controlled for misrepresentations. For instance, in deciding whether a journal is trusted or not, he employs a set of the criteria which comply with the standards of organizations such as the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association.

Yet, not everyone embraces his views. Lars Bjørnshauge, managing director of DOAJ expressed concern that Beall overestimates the number of predatory journals. In 2013, he told Nature that questionable publishing probably accounts for only 1% of open-access papers and not the 5-10% that Beall then claimed. Matthew Cockerill, Biomed Central’s MD, also said that Beall’s approach to picking on publishers may or may not be justified.

From an author’s perspective, it is important that we use multiple sources to identify genuine publication platforms when our manuscript is ready. Instead of solely relying on blacklists, we may want to cross-check with “whitelists” too, like the ones maintained by DOAJ. Besides, it may also be worth looking at newer indexing portals, such as JournalGuide, which use a whitelist versus blacklist strategy to assign “verified” statuses to journals.

Spreading the word

Predatory publishers are a growing nuisance to our community. Once they entice an author and acquire his manuscript, fake journals quickly proceed to upload the paper on their websites. They later bill the author. At this point, the author cannot withdraw the manuscript even if he wishes to because most journals ask scientists to sign over their copyright to the work during the submission process. Also, since online search engines, such as Google Scholar, immediately index the new publication, the author cannot submit the same piece to another journal. Now, that’s checkmate!

“Victims often ask me what can be done once a paper is published in a predatory journal. I only advise that they use it as a learning experience,” Beall says. “It is really not worth the trouble to withdraw the article and try to submit it elsewhere.”

What’s worse, fraudulent publications are getting better and better at masquerading themselves as genuine ones. They sport more convincing profiles, thanks to technology, and even fake their impact factors. They tip “impact factor suppliers” – enlisted on Beall’s website and that include International Impact Factor Services, Global Impact Factor, among others – to add their names to contrived lists in which the numbers only grow every year, and never shrink.  But unfortunately, little can be done to curb their actions. “Freedom of the press includes freedom to be a low quality publisher,” Beall says. “It is hard to fight them legally since they are not breaking any law.” But then, science operates on ethics, and not on laws.

Anything that can be done against predatory journals should come from within the scientific community. “It is important to educate people as much as possible,” he says. “Scientific literacy must include the ability to recognize publishing fraud.”

Institutional heads are beginning to recognize the gravity of the issue, and regularly organize briefings to educate their faculty. There are numerous websites which provide pointers to young investigators exploring publishing platforms. Nature reporter Declan Butler’s “Buyer Beware” proposes a handy checklist to identify honest publishers. Monica Berger, academic librarian at the City University of New York, offers a comprehensive list of predatory red herrings on OpenAccess@CUNY.

buyer beware_predatory journals

Besides checking these portals, it is also important that we stay connected with our peers through scholarly social networks such as Connotea and Mendeley, and help each other out in the onerous publishing game. And finally, it is as important to resist temptations to take shortcuts in academic publishing. After all, scientists are not in the profession just for themselves but to enlighten the world about the mysteries of creation and perhaps even help protract its success.

Featured image: Michael Newman via Creative Commons

2 Comments on “Know Thy Publisher

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