Jocalyn Clark: More on predatory journals—a bad dream turning into a nightmare

Jocalyn_Clark1In a sort of karmic backlash, predatory publishers seem to be redoubling their efforts since my last blog on predatory journals to swamp my inbox with pesky emails promising quick publication for hard cash. In the last week alone I’ve (addressed as Dr J or just “Colleague”) been asked to be an honorary speaker (as you probably have, too) at 11 different bogus-sounding international conferences with a promise of related publication, and received countless invitations to submit manuscripts to suspicious looking journals.

An editorial assistant called Amanda from the Journal of Pigmentary Disorders cheerfully closed her solicitous email saying: “Please provide me your acceptance for the same! I will be waiting for your positive mail. Have a nice and healthy day ahead!

Yesterday came an email straight from the annals of irony: Dylan from Knowledge Enterprises Journals said he had a few extra slots available in his next issue and wondered if I “might be able to submit a research or review article on [my] recent research,” which he said he’d come to know by reading my BMJ editorial “Firm action needed on predatory journals.”

The solicitation emails are not the only confounding things. When a colleague attempted to “retract” her paper from a predatory journal she got a response from “Judy” declining the request:

As for your inquiry, we think you have read comments about us, and then you could see what’s real on our site. We believe you have your own discernment. Only what you see is the real. We have no any (sic) deceitful action. With SciencePG developing at extraordinary rate, there are probably some malicious talks on the road, this pronominal is inevitable as well as a new Empire set up. You would see there are so many experienced persons who join us, not each person is a fool, and they all have their thought. Seeing is believing. Till now there are a number of outstanding author cooperate with us, if our journal is a hoax, why do they choose us.

I’m happy to continue to delete, delete, delete the flood of spam emails. But I do worry the problem is worsening—with these publishers preying especially upon developing country researchers who experience the same pressure to publish but haven’t the training, mentoring, and oversight of high-income country scientists. The latest scam of fake peer review, which saw BioMed Central retract 43 papers last month, is another indication that the publishing business is now a minefield. As the famed bioethicist Arthur Caplan argued last week, science and medical journals have become full of “publication pollution” partly due to predatory publishers.

Recognising there are no easy or legal remedies as of yet to stop predatory journals, I’ve nevertheless heard from many readers and colleagues in response to our BMJ editorial and my previous blog, sharing their experiences. Here are a few new things I’ve learned that may help others:

1. Predatory publishers are not cooperative with attempts to “retract.”

This will come as no surprise to many, but it shouldn’t stop us from trying and from documenting our efforts. I’ve assisted colleagues in their attempts to withdraw or remove papers from predatory journals, crafting an email and helping them negotiate with so-called editors who peddle rhetoric such as:

As we have seen this publishing industry grow manifolds (sic), we have certainly seen many ups and downs in bringing what we have really wanted to. And all these facts are assertive. The industry will seek competition and these competitors will try to subjugate your reputation through online reserves, which masses have commonly started in believing more. I do not envy them, nor does my organization, but we have seen this in the past many times, have gone through various embankments, but without fail have stood up every time and to the fact: we are not giving up.

When a colleague contacted an OMICs journal to withdraw his paper, he got the above reply and was told that OMICs have filed a million dollar lawsuit against Jeffrey Beall, the librarian who first coined the term predatory journal and maintains Beall’s List. “If there are appreciators then there are also the back barkers,” said OMICs.

Predatory publishers by their nature are unsavoury so their lack of cooperation is predictable. Indeed, their marketing and growth strategies depend upon leveraging the gullibility of their victims – OMICS, for example, keeps a running list of articles they’ve published reporting research funded by the US National Institutes of Health.

Still, when faced with the realisation that one’s research was mistakenly published in a non-legitimate journal, one must act, not least when the research is publicly funded. The unfortunate consequence is that research tricked into predatory publication is lost, and can’t legitimately be subsequently published in a real journal.

2. It can be hard to distinguish legitimate and non-legitimate journals.

Speaking of “real” journals, it’s become clear to me that there is no stark black and white between non-legitimate and legitimate journals. As one respondent said, we must be mindful of the “the gray area, the borderline cases, the false positives.” Some suspicious looking publishers have been exonerated, such as MDPI, which was investigated by the reputable Open Access Scholarly Publishers’ Association and found to be up to standards. MDPI said in a recent email to a colleague that they have been hurt by the allegations.

Others have pointed out that predatory publishers are not the only ones profiteering. Reed Elsevier profits are in the billions, for example, and many publishers now offer hybrid or other forms of open access publishing for a fee, which is supplying a grossly healthy revenue stream often without transparency to readers.

And even the marketing tactics can obscure. In the past month I’ve received emails advertising new BioMed Central journals and from the reputable Taylor and Francis publishing group announcing for authors an “opportunity to choose the price of article publishing charges in line with their ability to pay”—on first glance these emails looked terribly similar to the spam emails from so-called predatory journals.

3. Some institutions have developed “acceptable journals lists.”

I favour this approach. This could be done at the departmental level, where senior-level researchers produce journal listings to help junior colleagues choose target journals and know which journals to read to learn the field. Others respondents suggest that communities of scholars or learned societies endorse legitimate journals within their fields, in a sort of expert vetting process, such as the directory of nursing journals. Some countries develop national lists of acceptable journals such as the Norwegian Scientific Index, the Brazilian Qualis, and the South African DHET List of Approved Journals, which are used to aid governments’ funding of universities and incentives for publication. Stellenbosch University provides to their researchers a list of accredited journals and the criteria for inclusion.

As with most things, there is no panacea here. Many questionable journals are unfortunately indexed in PubMed, and there are still journals simultaneously on the Directory of Open Access list (“whitelist”) and Beall’s List (“blacklist”). Most predatory journals will falsely say they are indexed or endorsed by various legitimate entities. Which leads me to my penultimate lesson:

4. Assume the journal is predatory until you find evidence it is not

Sadly, when faced with a new journal option, one has to simply assume it’s bogus. The best advice is to stick with the best journals in your field, known to be reputable and with a clear track record of excellence and interest in your area of research. This is perhaps easier said than done, especially for those of us who work in publishing and take for granted that the quality and integrity in journals can be easily discerned. Still, in this new wild west of publishing most claims cannot be believed. Good journals do not email researchers promising publication for money—as I say to my students, when was the last time the New England Journal of Medicine emailed you requesting an article?

5. Finally, everyone needs to be better accountable

Frankly, the predatory journal problem is a shared responsibility. Everyone must be held better accountable to their journal choices and provide evidence that the journal is appropriate. For some researchers, the cash-for-easy-publication will be too tempting even if they suspect the journal is not legitimate. The temptation be will exacerbated when the research lacks quality. Others will uncritically accept claims of journals about the experts on editorial boards or the robustness of peer review processes. Many will balk at the legwork needed to ensure a chosen journal is legitimate and the best place for the research to be published. This seems no longer acceptable. For institutions and funders, who appear still largely unaware of the predatory journal problem, they too need to be held accountable to the highest standards of quality and integrity for the research they support.

Jocalyn Clark (@jocalynclark) is executive editor of the Journal of Health, Population and Nutrition, and other external publications at icddr,b (a global health research organisation in Dhaka, Bangladesh). She was a senior editor at PLOS Medicine and assistant editor at The BMJ.