Jocalyn Clark: Predatory journals debate raises controversies—but they’re not going away

Jocalyn_Clark1I think it’s fair to say that the topic of so-called predatory journals was the hot one at the recent World Association of Medical Editors (WAME) conference.

The meeting coincided with the publication of new evidence of the enormous growth of the market of predatory open access journals. Shen and Bjork reported in BMC Medicine last week that the predatory journal market had grown in just five years to the level of the legitimate open access publishing business. Science Magazine led with a headline that “predatory publishers earned $75 million last year.

The new estimates say 420,000 articles were published in 8,000 journals by 963 predatory publishers. This compares to about 10,000 journals in the Directory of Open Access Journals, which vets legitimacy. (By comparison the global publishing business is said to be worth $244 million for genuine open access journals, and an astonishing $10.5 billion annually for scholarly subscription journals.)

I summarised the new findings during my talk on predatory journals at the WAME conference to support my argument that this is a growing problem that urgently needs more attention. I also urged delegates to demand more accountability and responsibility for the problem from multiple stakeholders—authors, institutions, funders, and professional bodies including WAME.

Much discussion ensued. Delegates agreed this is a real problem, and particularly in Asia—perhaps up to 27% of publishers and 35% of authors in predatory journals come from India alone. That research in predatory journals is (increasingly) being cited by articles in legitimate journals means the whole literature is getting polluted.

Where delegates disagreed was on the value of “Beall’s List,” which dominates the discourse on predatory journals but has many limitations and controversies. While a useful tool, it should not be used uncritically and additional solutions are needed.

Others argued for a wider view of the predatory journal problem than merely developing “blacklists” and “whitelists.” A wider view sees the drivers for the market of predatory publishers as the incentives within the research enterprise. Because publications are the key currency—for career advancement, grants, and prestige—they are more important to authors and institutions than the quality of science. Because authors struggle to get published in good journals, predatory publishers are simply capitalising on the needs of authors to publish. This situation is worsened in developing countries.

It’s in fact an extreme case of waste in research—and has a place in the movement toward “increasing value, reducing waste” in biomedical research.

There were no solutions to the predatory journal problem agreed at the WAME meeting. But the clear growth of the predatory journal markets means we need to accelerate our discussions about how best to act.

Jocalyn Clark (@jocalynclark) is a long time member of WAME, and former editor at The BMJ, PLOS Medicine, and Journal of Health, Population and Nutrition in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Competing interests: The author has no further interests to declare.