Predatory Journals – Enemies or Inspiration?

Science – unlike deranged, furious cursing – is not best cloistered behind closed doors, in the dark, with no audience. Dissemination of medical evidence is critical to refinement of practice and the generation of future research hypotheses. Yet, most evidence resides behind electronic publisher paywalls, accessible only for a fee, or to those with specific institutional access.

Those of us in academics take such access for granted – yet, the other 7 billion on Earth, many of whom toil in conditions with a lower standard of living, have a much higher barrier to entry. Many journals offer free access to visitors from certain countries, a generous, but incomplete, solution to the free flow of information. A growing alternative, however, to traditional publishing are “Open Access” journals. Such electronically published journals are free to access for all, and in lieu of the typical advertising + reprint business model used to support editorial and typesetting functions, the authors pay fees to support the costs of publication.

Some of these, such as PLOS ONE, have grown to become the largest journals in the world – publishing 31,000 articles in 2013 alone. At USD$1,350 per publication, the revenue associated with such a model is substantial. And therein lay the critical issue – the promise of such riches has attracted the usual unsavory crowd.

Now, we have the phenomenon of the “Predatory Publisher”, a faux journal whose primary function is profit. These publications, masquerading as legitimate science, have grown from 18 in 2011 to at least 477 in 2014. Most academics are likely familiar with the near-daily spam e-mails soliciting article submission, editorial positions, or conference speaking roles. In many cases, the journals are indistinguishable from reliable publishers, and well-meaning authors, hoping simply to increase the audience for an article, are sucked in.

Despite the shoddy or non-existent peer-review – in which nonsense articles by such renowned authors as Ocorrafoo Cobange pass through with nary a critical eye – these articles are entering the scientific ecosystem in ever-increasing numbers. One of the largest for-profit open-access publishers, MedKnow, from Mumbai, India, claimed over 2 million article downloads each month. In an academic professional reality where publication means promotion, and open-access publishing means unfettered distribution – it is no wonder such journals are thriving.

This phenomenon, of course, massively dilutes the scientific literature with a locust swarm of substandard evidence. Traditional journals, with strong reputations and robust Impact Factors, are holding strong for now. But, at the fringes – if funds are available, why would one risk rejection in a more rigorous, but low-impact journal, where the study would lay hidden behind a paywall?

While these journals are certainly the enemy of reliable evidence, and transitively, the public good, they represent an interesting lesson – and possible inspiration – for how traditional academic publishing might evolve.

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