Are we entering a new phase of predatory publishing?

The volume of Covid-19 publications raises questions of legitimacy and risks public trust in science, argue Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva and Peter Tsigaris

六月 13, 2020
Fake nose and moustache eye glasses placed on table
Source: iStock

The race to find a coronavirus vaccine and effective treatments for Covid-19 has resulted in a huge number of scholars exploring the pandemic. Science technology firm Digital Science estimates that up to the end of May, more than 42,000 scholarly articles have been published on aspects of Covid-19, “a volume that surpasses the total yearly output of even the largest research institutions”. More than 8,000 organisations and at least 70,000 individual researchers have been behind the activity.

But the deluge of preprints and journal publications are mostly opinions, letters, editorials or superficial descriptions. The volume of content makes the discovery of truly important results, such as those from well-executed clinical trials, difficult to detect in a sea of noisy viewpoints.

And there is evidence that many peer-review and editorial decisions may have been rushed, even in “legitimate” indexed and metricised (eg, carrying a Clarivate Analytics journal impact factor) journals. Many of these papers are now highly cited, suggesting that some journals may be gaming the system and/or exploiting the Covid-19 era to increase their journal impact factor.

Poor editorial judgement, incomplete or superficial peer review, and journals employing unscholarly tactics to absorb Covid-19-related research to fortify their own publishing profile may be ushering in a new form of predatory publishing, threatening science with a new replication crisis.

What is already becoming evident is that a massive post-publication peer review (PPPR) effort will be required to correct erroneous Covid-19-related literature, to cleanse it of hype, bad science, pseudoscience, unfounded postulation and misinformation that could risk poor decision-making around public health.

Abuse in publishing can stem from authors as well as publishers. In this new phase of predatory publishing, new markets will likely be created to absorb millions of rejected papers that could go on to be accepted by some other publishing venue; barriers to entry may be lowered; strict rules loosened; or no academic screening (in the form of peer review) might occur. Ultimately, the motivations won’t change: the unscrupulous objective of predatory publishing is to extract intellect and fees while authors might engage in questionable research practices in an effort to gain professional clout.

Such practices can cause the public to lose trust in science. Preprints (non-peer-reviewed documents), often touted as a solution to the replication crisis, carry risks. The rush to be the first to report Covid-19 findings, staking a claim of intellectual ownership, has led to an explosion of preprints that have not been sufficiently scrutinised by peers. However, the media have, on occasion, also rushed to spread news of new “discoveries” to the public without verifying the science behind the paper. The resulting risk is that public authorities may make the wrong decisions.

Amid the quick publication of Covid-19 research, we mustn’t forget that a predatory publishing pandemic has been occurring in academia for years, but it receives less attention from scholars and the media.

US scholar Jeffrey Beall raised awareness, via a blog and two now well-known blacklists, of the issue of predatory publishing. However, Beall’s list had many limitations, including exclusively targeting open-access journals.

With the publishing system under greater pressure now, the risks of predatory publishing have increased with Covid-19-related research, and the overlap between unscholarly, predatory and exploitative behaviour is now greater. However, with the volume of research and Beall’s list closed since 2017, scrutiny and awareness of the issue are difficult.

Regular issues related to publishing integrity must also not be ignored right now, especially as editors’ eyes become wary and distracted by Covid-19. Fake peer review, predatory peers, fake authors, guest authorship, data fabrication and a whole host of publishing-related ills that were already plaguing and overwhelming science, need even stronger vigilance.

Firm obedience to stated ethical principles by editors, or by ethics organisations, as well as rigorous and critical PPPR, may correct the flawed literature, be it related to Covid-19 research or any other field. One big hurdle will be destigmatising the correction of the literature.

Dealing with science’s and publishing’s reproducibility crisis also requires willpower from academics, editors, journals, publishers and the media. Public trust in science is at risk, so now more than ever it is critically important to have a robust and transparent academic publishing system.

Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva is a retired researcher and Panagiotis (Peter) Tsigaris is a professor in the school of business and economics at Thompson Rivers University.



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