‘Predatory’ journals: the situation is urgent, so why don’t we fight back?

The solutions to the predatory publishing problem are known, we just need to implement them, say Larissa Shamseer and David Moher

September 6, 2017
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Stings about predatory journals are exciting to read. They get us riled up against a common enemy – the predators of publishing. Such stings outline the shoddy practices of some journals that have come to be known as “predatory” and question whether such entities contain any scientific content at all.

Stings are relatively straightforward to conduct. Large, scientific evaluations of predatory journals, however, are typically more complex to conduct; they are underutilised to investigate predatory journals. Very few funders have invested in research on the area of “journalology”. 

Today, we published an externally unfunded scientific study in Nature, exposing the true content of biomedical predatory journals and who and what is filling their pages. Among the many descriptors we collected from nearly 2,000 research studies (published in 238 journals), a few stand out:

  • Data from millions of humans and thousands of animals
  • Several high-profile organisations fund the research
  • Authors from upper-middle and high-income countries dominated our sample (56 per cent)
  • Some authors are from high calibre institutions (including Ivy League and global equivalents)
  • Only a fraction of the research that should have ethics approval report having it 

These findings may work to put to rest some of the suppositions circulating about predatory entities, as well as help to direct efforts to curtail predatory publishing. Some studies have implicated developing nations, such as India, as hotbeds of predatory activity – where both journals and their authors are based. We have found that to be untrue, at least for biomedical research. More than half of the journals in our sample were based in “low-income” countries, but the content is frequently populated by authors from “upper-middle” to “higher” income countries (56 per cent of corresponding authors). 

Is the predatory journal problem fixable?

From our perspective, the situation is indeed urgent. Our research uncovers an entirely new problematic dimension about predatory journals. Their failure to peer-review research mixed in with other opaque publishing practices (such as undisclosed publishing fees) have been acknowledged as their primary detriment, and the reason that we want rid of them.

We found what looks to be research containing real participants and animals published in these journals. These journals, in turn, are nearly impossible to uniformly identify on the Internet (they are not indexed in traditional databases). 

Where does this leave us, as a scholarly society, on trying to stop predatory publishing? Are authors publishing in these journals as a last resort or succumbing to the pressures of institutional publish or perish? Are traditional open access publishing models too burdensome to bother with, or are their article processing charges (APCs) too expensive? Does the cost of standard open access publishing make it inaccessible? These are difficult questions to answer without further investigation. 

What is the solution?

Our work also begs the questions of who will – and who should – do something about predatory publishing. Collectively, tens of millions of dollars are being spent annually to publish in these journals. These monies are being driven away from research institutions, funders, and mainstream open access publishers. 

One thing that institutions can do is to start rewarding their faculty and research staff for depositing data and preprints of their studies in repositories, so that these actions count towards hiring, promotion and tenure decisions in the same way that legitimate journal publications do. This may remove some of the burden on researchers to publish (anywhere) or perish.

Legitimate open access publishers can address this issue in their own way, as can funders. Many authors are priced out of traditional open access journal publishing. While some publishers offer APC waivers for open access, authors from upper-middle or high-income countries (who we now know constitute a large part of the problem) are typically ineligible because they do not live in a qualifying country. This leaves the door open to anyone willing to fill this gap for a lower fee. 

What’s next for predatory publishing?

To date, our thousands of hours of research in this area have been carried out largely through the efforts of volunteers. Yet content and money continues to be fed into predatory publishing by authors and unknowing funders, respectively.

The knowledge, skills, tools, and science needed to start implementing large-scale, coordinated solutions are known and available but they are underfunded and thus, underutilised. We need collective leadership willing to take on predatory publishers. Are you willing to step up to the plate? 

Larissa Shamseer is a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa and a senior research associate with the Centre for Journalology at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. David Moher is a senior scientist and director of the Centre for Journalology.

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