The world of predatory publishing: what is it, and what might it mean for tobacco control?


Raymond Boyle

ClearWay Minnesota

If your email inbox is anything like mine, you receive a near constant stream of requests to send a manuscript to the next new journal. Most researchers are familiar with this type of academic spam: the journal name might sound familiar, but these requests usually appear as a generic template.

While such requests are straightforward to detect and delete without response, a colleague recently received a request that sounded interesting. It was an email thread from an editor expressing strong interest in an update of his research from six years ago. How flattering it would be for an editor to not only pay such attention to the work, but also consider it worthy of an update! Except…this marketing ploy had been identified in a recent blog devoted to the misbehavior of predatory open access publishers. The blog, posted at Scholarly Open Access was written by Jeffrey Beall, a librarian and associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver.

Jeffrey has been a critic of the practices employed by predatory open access publishers since he started tracking the industry in 2009. I asked Jeffrey if he would be willing to help us understand this variant of open access publishing.

Jeffrey, many thanks for agreeing to share your knowledge. My first question:  What is going on – why are so many people asking in email if I’m having a good day, and would I send them my next manuscript, or join their editorial board?

They want your money. These people are representatives of open-access publishers and standalone journals using the gold (author-pays) open-access scholarly publishing model. While some open-access publishers are honest and ethical, many are not, and these have come to be called predatory publishers. Now, becoming a scholarly publisher is quite easy — all one has to do is get a website, name a few journals, and he or she is in business. This low barrier to entry has enabled the creation of hundreds of unethical publishers seeking to profit from researchers. Because there are now so many, the competition among them is intense, so they spam incessantly, hoping to be the one that grabs your interest and your manuscript submission.

Next is a multi-part question: I have been casually following the changes in publishing for a few years, but you have devoted some significant effort to the topic. Can you talk about your motivation, the creation of Beall’s list, and your top 5 markers that a publisher is a predatory publisher?

My initial interest was as a researcher myself. I was on tenure track and was always alert to new publishing opportunities. At the same time, the gold open-access model began to become popular and some of these open-access publishers began spamming. I initially created lists of such publishers merely as a curiosity. Now the mission of my lists is to help researchers avoid submitting their work to these exploitative publishers, to help protect them from the predators.

In the broadest terms, predatory publishers are not honest, not transparent, and do not follow scholarly publishing industry standards. They use deceptive spam emails to attract article submissions, and many of them give false information about their journals’ metrics, specifically claiming that they have impact factors when they really don’t. These publishers do a fake peer review, or they don’t do it at all. Peer review, as you know often ends with papers being rejected, but this is contrary to the mission of predatory publishers, who hope to accept as many papers as possible so they can earn the revenue from the authors.

In recent years your efforts as a critic have been met with resistance from a few academics and the publishers you are shining a light on.  The term “predatory” appears to bother some of your detractors.  Are we living in a post predatory publishing time?  Is predatory still accurate?

The terminology isn’t as crucial or worrisome as the threats to researchers and the threats to science that the predatory publishers pose. I coined this term over six years ago, so it’s natural that the usage might not fit as well now as it did when the concept was new. I’ve also learned that the term doesn’t translate well into some other languages. I am not arguing that we keep the term, just that we continue to alert researchers to the perils of these unethical, low-quality, and parasitic publishers.

For those of us conducting research in the field of tobacco control, should we be concerned about the proliferation of open access publishing?  What are your concerns for the future of OA publishing?

You should be concerned about the proliferation of predatory open-access publishing, in my opinion, and about the negative influences it is having on the scholarly publishing industry as a whole. Standards are being lowered across the board and peer review is being devalued. Moreover, scholarly indexes are including predatory journals among those they cover, meaning much junk science, activist science, and conspiracy theory science is being mingled in the indexes with legitimate research. Science is cumulative, with novel research built on the foundation of science as recorded in the scholarly record. But this record is slowly filling with unvetted research, threatening the future of science itself.

Finally, has anyone used the automatic acceptance offered by predatory journals to publish ‘research’ showing that smoking is harmless?

No, but some have used predatory journals to make many unscientific claims about health issues, so a research finding that tobacco is safe for humans cannot be far behind.

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