As the saying goes, when no one is talking about money, you can be sure that it’s really all about money. We assume that organizations involved in scholarly communication, primarily publishing and conferences, aim foremost to share and promote good research. However, journals and meetings are big business, and financial viability is a key concern. This inherent conflict of interest, as highlighted in an Editors’ Vox post that published today, deserves more attention and awareness.
Unfortunately, as open access publishing has expanded, some people have realized that they can profit from scholarly communication while shirking on quality. Recent news stories, stings, and probes have revealed practices ranging from mild deception to serious fraud.
Unscrupulous journals have been caught accepting nonsense papers, placing scientists on editorial boards without their knowledge, falsely implying that they provide certain editorial processes such as indexing content, or manipulating journal metrics. In other cases, copycat journals have mimicked genuine journals by adopting almost identical titles (perhaps with just one word different) and logos with minor variations. In addition, some predators charge authors for services, such as editing or translation, that may lack quality and rigor.
Predatory meetings have also been on the rise, offering participants opportunities to present a paper at an “international conference” followed by rapid publication in conference proceedings, neither of which pan out as expected.
Books have fallen victim to this trend as well, compounded by the fact that in book publishing, the relatively few standards and greater variability around indexing, formats, distribution, author fees, and royalties leave more room for deception.
These scams have victimized some innocent people. On the other hand, some authors or presenters have gone along with the shoddy practices of illicit journals and meetings to achieve goals such as proving publication in an international journal for a tenure application.
Supporting the Integrity of Science
During the past decade, many publishers have been developing practices to secure the scholarly literature that forms the record of scientific knowledge and progress, even more so as electronic publishing has evolved. These practices include providing for secure archives; supporting widespread indexing (in GeoRef, for example); developing and expanding links and identifiers to other papers (such as Digital Object Identifier (DOI) numbers), underlying data, funding information, people, and samples; enriching papers online in multiple formats; opening references and supplements for data mining; and more.
Publishers have also helped to develop and support organizations and initiatives that support this record of knowledge, such as CrossRef, which registers the DOIs that enable citation linking across publishers; Open Researcher and Contributor ID (ORCID), which assigns persistent digital identifiers to individual researchers; the Clearinghouse for the Open Research of the United States (CHORUS), which provides public access to peer-reviewed publications that report on federally funded research; Portico, an electronic archiving service; and the National Information Standards Organization (NISO), which sets industry standards nationwide.
Some of the publishers that engage in fraudulent activities participate less or not at all in supporting this larger infrastructure around research integrity. They also don’t promote best practices (although some will say they do). Of broader concern, the growth of predatory publishers erodes the integrity of the whole of publishing, and open access journals in particular. These unethical actors and their growth normalize irresponsible and illegal behavior surrounding scholarly communication. Recent surveys support this concern.
What Can You Do?
Distinguishing opportunities associated with legitimate journals or conferences from unprincipled come-ons can be a challenge. Although hallmarks of predatory publishers include actively soliciting papers and promising rapid publication, many mainstream publishers, such as the American Geophysical Union (AGU), do the same. Whereas illicit journals often offer low publication costs, some high-quality, open access journals similarly offer free submissions to authors, thanks to support from foundations or institutions. So how do you separate bona fide solicitations for journal articles, book proposals, or conference papers from those that are not? In addition to carrying out your own search about a publisher to assess factors such as quality, discoverability, and indexing, here are some other suggestions.
Refer to blacklists and whitelists (although neither are infallible)
- Until recently, Jeffrey Beall, a librarian in Colorado, kept a list of predatory journals and publishers. His list of suspects grew by several hundred each year, documenting the worsening problem. Although the list drew criticism for including some legitimate publishers and others that have improved their practices, the list could serve as a starting point for further scrutiny. The site with the list shut down in early 2017, but an archive remains. However, it will become increasingly out of date from a lack of updates. Beall recently published an article giving his overview of the history of predatory publishers as part of a special issue on predatory publishing in the journal Biochemia Medica.
- Several organizations evaluate how well publishers meet particular standards. For example, the Directory of Open Access Journals provides a vetted list of open access publishers. Clarivate (formally Thomson-Reuters) now runs the Web of Science, which also provides a vetted list of journals. However, its vetting process, which is neither transparent nor public, takes time, so newer journals from legitimate publishers may not be included for several years. Meanwhile, Cabell’s Directories, which aims to list reputable outlets for publication, has launched a reevaluation initiative since the removal of Beall’s list, with new, more stringent criteria (their selection policy is public).
Talk to your librarian and colleagues
- Check with your department or institutional librarian. Many closely follow scholarly publishing developments, including open access journals, and are obviously invested in assessing subscription journals. They are an exceptional and generally underused resource in helping authors throughout the publishing process.
- Look for your colleagues on editorial boards, and check with them that their journal listing is legitimate. AGU editors, for example, welcome inquiries regarding potential submissions.
Support best practices and good governance
- Look for journals that follow best practices in scholarly publishing. Give them your support, promote them, and help them develop.
- Get acquainted with governance practices. In the Earth and space sciences, many of the leading society publishers provide open governance around journals and publishing. For example, at AGU, the organization’s Publications Committee and its journals’ editors in chief oversee publications operations. AGU’s Council and Board set key policies. This structure provides for input from members, authors, and reviewers.
The number of predatory publishers is increasing, and the types of fraudulent behavior are expanding. This issue will likely persist for the foreseeable future. The scientific community must respond collectively, with a focus on raising awareness among authors (including students and early-career researchers), readers, editors, and librarians.
You can set an example through your choices of where you submit and review papers and where you volunteer your publications-related time and effort. Many researchers approach publishing by focusing solely on their own interests and career development. However, becoming more aware of best practices in publishing and supporting publishers that foster those practices will help strengthen the integrity of science, as you provide visibility and credibility for your own scientific work.
—Brooks Hanson (email: [email protected]), Senior Vice President, Publications, AGU; and Jenny Lunn, Program Director, Publications, AGU