Open Access Science and the Rise of Predatory Publishing

Following our summer hiatus from the blog Roger and I thought we would kick off this academic year with a piece on the changing nature of peer review and science publishing.

Like most professors we are finding our mailboxes more and more full of academic spam. If it is not companies trying to sell me transgenic rats, monogrammed lab coats in stylish colours or bioassay systems, its now invitations to present papers at conferences in exotic locations or publish with new journals I have never heard of (and usually well outside of my discipline). It’s enough to make me long for the days when I simply won the Nigerian state lottery a couple of times a week.

New technologies have arisen that now allow academics to publish more directly than ever before. Traditionally scientific work has been presented to the world for consideration of its merits and for challenge. The principle being that ideas and claims are independently examined, become refined, and bad ones rejected. This is a central part of the skeptical nature of scientific inquiry and remains a firm part of academic training, with PhD. candidates being required to defend their theses in robust discussion with their peers.

The peer review process for scientific papers prior to publication is an embodiment of this principle. The value is that the process is self-critical, and the conventional wisdom is consistently challenged. Modern science is pragmatic in that it presents ideas for peer review and openly invites opportunity for anyone to challenge the dominant theory if they can come up with alternative results or better explanations supported by evidence. Nevertheless, we know this culture is not value free as we have discussed previously, and there are costs associated with the dissemination of scientific information that are traditionally passed on to the end-user. Hence, the large publishers tend to be driven more by circulation and sales goals rather than more altruistic motivations, especially with books. For example, you can have an innovative well written book but still get it rejected by major publishers as it goes against the flow and is considered unlikely to sell in any volume. Despite their expertise and peer-review systems publisher’s often still get this spectacularly wrong (J.K. Rowling being a case in point in the world of fiction)! If we look at the number of retractions in scientific journals too, we also see some evidence of flaws in this traditional system.

So, with the advent of desktop publishing and mass circulation using the web, alternative models for dissemination have now arisen in all forms of academic publishing. Open access (OA) is one such innovation, and supports unrestricted online access to peer-reviewed scholarly research. A declaration on the principles behind OA were made at a 2003 Berllin Conference.  Although primarily intended for scholarly journal articles,it now also encompasses a growing number of theses, and book chapters too.This is hardly new though, and John Brockman noted there was a culture, of scientists communicating directly with the public about their work in media back in 1995 (Brockman, 1995). Nevertheless, the ideas behind OA publication reflect a desire to provide faster and more open access to scientific work.

Basically OA comes in two flavours, gratis open access, which is completely open and free online access, and libre open access, which is free online access plus some additional usage rights. These additional usage rights are often granted through the use of various licensing agreements such as Creative Commons. Authors have two options with OA publication. They can either  self-archive their papers in an open access repository, also known as “green” OA, or publish in an established OA journal, known as “gold” OA. Central repositories such as PubMed Central are examples of green OA, whilst gold OA usually use a fee-for-service model that tends to range from $1000 to $3000 per paper (depending on the open journal). This is justified on the basis of the editorial support and peer-review services involved in the publishing process.

Struggling academics looking to raise the profile of their work are often encouraged to use OA services to increase their citation rates (I have been advised of his on several occasions in my career), and some granting agencies require OA publication in any proposals submitted. So, overall there is growing pressure for academics to use these new publishing models, and gold OA seems to offer a robust peer-review process on a par with established traditional journals.

However, what is becoming more concerning is that the fee-for-service model has become a boom industry and entrepreneurs have recognized good money can be made here. This has led to the rise of the predatory publishing tactics which we are now seeing. The term was conceived by University of Colorado Denver librarian and researcher Jeffrey Beall upon noticing the large number of emails inviting him to submit articles or join the editorial board of previously unknown journals. Here is a classic example from my mailbox last week:

Pharmacology and Alternative Medicine Therapeutics

Dear Dr. Garrett,

Scholoxy Publication‘s journals are International Journal of Education and Research welcomes and acknowledges high quality theoretical and empirical original research papers, case studies, review papers, literature reviews, and technical note from researchers, academicians, professional, practitioners and students from all over the world.

We coordinately invite you to submit your papers to Pharmacology and Alternative Medicine Therapeutics an Open Access (Gold OA), peer reviewed, international online publishing journal which aims to publish premier papers on all the related areas of advanced research carried in its field.

The Journal has strong Editorial Board with eminent persons in the field and carries stringent peer review process.

It all sounds very genuine and scholarly, apart from the fact I don’t know anyone in the pharmacology department who has heard of them (in a positive way), and I am not even a pharmacology or alternative medicine professor! This unsolicited invite is actually from a pay-per-publication service whose peer-review process is completely unverified, and I am certainly a little suspicious as to how “stringent” the peer review process is when each publication is accompanied by a cheque.

More subtly these new publishers are also engaging academics to join their editorial boards, or become reviewers on their prestigious journals. Another tactic reflecting these practices is the use of what seem like personal invitations to present at conferences (in reality they are mail-merged bulk mailings to spam lists). To highlight these issues, I see the Canadian Association of Witch Doctors recently submitted and got a spoof paper approved at one such peer-reviewed  OMICS conference. Again, for academics beginning their careers (or even established academics) these may seem like great opportunities to develop their profiles or get their work to a broader audience.

So how can we discern the predatory publishers from genuine scholarly OA providers? Luckily, there are some resources that can help.Jeffrey Beal provides an extensive list of dubious OA outfits on Scholarly Open Access. Worth a look as it’s amazing how many there are!

There are also several sites that provide journal rankings, so academics can check out the status of their chosen journal. E.g., in my discipline (nursing) there are the following examples:

Many disciplines also have lists of established journals in their field, such as INANE’s list of nursing journals. However, even these lists are not foolproof in terms of establishing the academic credibility of journals. For example  Nursing Science Quarterly (incredibly still published by Sage – note my earlier comments on publishers motives) makes several of these lists and although not a predatory publication, is hardly a paragon of scientific excellence, self-citation or rigerous peer-review practices. I think Roger would see this one fit his “isn’t that like asking your mum to review your papers?” category.

Overall, the rise of predatory publishing and how it will impact the broader scientific community and influence the public understanding of science is something of a concern. It seems the best advice for scientists everywhere is buyer beware. There is nothing wrong with traditional journals, and we should remember there are a good many reputable OA journals. However, the usual practice is you send them a paper: not you receive an invite from them. Sometimes good journal editors do solicit work from established researchers and theorists in the field. But, if an offer comes your way to join an editorial board, present at a conference or publish in a venerable new journal and it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Onwards and upwards



Beall J. (2012) ON Predatory Publishers 

Brockman, J. (1995). The third culture. New York: Simon & Schuster