No heroes and villains in academic publishing

Jeffrey Beall’s blacklist of predatory publishers has disappeared, and so too should ideas about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ journals, argues Martin Parker

January 26, 2017
Toy cops and robber on keyboard
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Last week’s as yet unexplained decision by Jeffrey Beall, the University of Colorado Denver librarian, to take down his well-known online blacklist of what he calls “predatory” open access journals will no doubt be lamented by many.

Such journals exploit the fact that academics need to get published. It matters for our salaries, our careers and our self-esteem, but what we write is less important than the number of lines it takes up on our CVs. That logic results in lots of academics endlessly submitting lots of paper to lots of journals.

But the publication process can take years, often only to result in rejection. This presents a clear market opportunity for a less onerous process, with a guaranteed happy ending. No wonder, then, that I get daily emails from journals that promise speedy publication in return for a fee.

One journal by which I was spammed recently is typical of the breed. Its website is a mess: full of spelling mistakes and awful typography. It publishes papers in anything from Asia studies to “chaos and dynamical systems”. In other words, it specialises in everything. In reality, most of the papers are bizarrely specialist: they have clearly never been meaningfully peer-reviewed, and will never be read by anyone. The journal is like a satire on knowledge production in the 21st century. But its “article processing fee”, better described as the price, is a mere $150 (£122): not bad for a guaranteed line on the CV, because you won’t be rejected.

The journal has an international standard serial number, an editorial board and an archive going back seven years. It even has an impact factor – except that the company that provided it also operates on a “pay and display” model. In exchange for a very small amount of money, the journal gets a number and a logo to display on its website. Fake quality control for fake journals: it’s a virtual world in which cash animates a kind of shadow play of intellectual labour.

Predatory journals produce predictable outrage among people such as Jeffrey Beall and myself. They prey on vulnerable, desperate academics from the Global South and damage the integrity of the publication system by publishing rubbish. They also make a lot of money. The latest monthly issue of the journal I mentioned consists of about 400 papers. If that were repeated every month, it would amount to an income of $720,000 a year. And that is for just one of the hundreds of journals that Beall included on his list. We are talking about a big industry here.

But it is not nearly as big as the regular journal industry, dominated as it is by some gigantic and highly profitable corporations: both publishers and those offering services to them, such as impact factors and editorial workflow software. In 2013, the English language science journal publishing industry alone generated revenues of about $10 billion, according to the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers, with the whole “STM information publishing market” worth more than $25 billion.

It would be comforting to think that the work that goes up on mainstream publishers’ websites with my name attached to it was widely read, intelligible, even influential, and wasn’t just following the money. But, of course, it’s not true. Predatory journals may publish some awful rubbish, but so, if we are honest, do mainstream journals: it is just that more money is involved and the universities whose research they publish happen to be in the Global North. The only real difference is that I get rejected more often than those who opt for the “predators” instead.

The loss of Beall’s list will certainly not improve the quality of published research, but it might at least eliminate the false dichotomy between “good” and “bad” journals. In reality, all journals are driven by the same combination of market and need: an identical alchemy of self-promotion, driven by a profound emptiness.

So the next time I get an email from publishing’s so-called dark side, perhaps I should just cough up the money and get off my high horse.

Martin Parker is professor of culture and organisation at the University of Leicester.

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Print headline: No heroes, no villains

Reader's comments (1)

It's pretty sad that the publishing industry has been relying on one solitary (and valiant) librarian at a US university to keep an eye on predatory publishers. Sector really needs to find a way to distinguish the good from the bad that doesn't involve over-reliance on an individual who might retire, lose interest/funding, get cyberattacked, etc.

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