Beall: ‘social justice warrior’ librarians ‘betraying’ academy

Creator of controversial predatory journals blacklist says some peers are failing to warn of dangers of disreputable publishers

August 10, 2017
Jeffrey Beall, associate professor and librarian at the University of Colorado Denver

Jeffrey Beall divides opinion: the now-defunct blacklist of predatory journals created by the librarian at the University of Colorado Denver was as much decried as it was celebrated. Now he has taken aim at some of his peers, claiming that they are “social justice warriors” who are pushing the open access agenda solely to “kill off” the big publishers.

It was in January that Professor Beall abruptly shut down his blacklist website. In an article published in Biochemia Medica in June, he said that he took the decision to close the site because of “intense pressure” from his employer and fear of losing his job. In the same paper, he had some choice words for members of the academic community who had attacked him during the five years that he ran the website.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Professor Beall opened up again about his experiences, suggesting that some scholarly librarians put their personal feelings about open access before their job, and are “betraying” the academy by not alerting patrons to the problems of predatory publishers.

“They’re more like social activists. What they really want to do is kill off the big publishers – Wiley, Elsevier, Taylor & Francis. They seek to be heroes and make everything open access,” he said. “So many are social justice warriors and [are] failing to alert the patrons, the faculty and the students at their university about the problems of predatory publishers because they just want to kill off Elsevier.

“All I did was point out the weaknesses of the open access model, and they are significant – because you have to pay to publish in most cases.”

While “not opposed to open access”, a format in which he has published, Professor Beall said he felt that “someone has to alert people to the weaknesses of it”. His concerns focus on how directly linking publication to profit has led to peer review safeguards being abandoned and consequently the value of measuring an individual's scholarly output for use in employment and promotion decisions being undermined.

Professor Beall claimed that there was a “tacit understanding in the academic library community” not to discuss publicly the problems of open access, and that he “violated that by being frank and open”, alerting researchers to “very serious problems that are affecting science communication itself”.

He accused some academic librarians of “putting their politics before their job”, likening them to citizen activists who campaign against multinationals such as McDonald’s or Monsanto.

“They just don’t like the big, successful corporations. They just want to tear it down and then proclaim themselves heroes for helping the little guy,” he said. “They’re pretending like all open access is great, when it’s really not. It’s completely chaotic and full of deception, lack of transparency and corruption.”

Saying that academia needed to move to an open access model in which authors did not need to pay to publish, Professor Beall nevertheless argued that scholarly publishing has a “very grim outlook”.

“I think it’s a complete disaster right now. Predatory journals and academic librarians are threatening the future of science communication and scientists, because predatory publishers are bringing the whole system down,” he said. “They’re putting pressure on the legitimate publishers to speed up peer review.

“Sometimes I get peer review requests from journals, and they’re asking for me to turn around the paper in one or two weeks – that’s not enough time to read the paper several times and contemplate the errors. Legitimate journals are pressured to act more like predatory publishers and skimp on peer review. That’s bad for science, because science is cumulative and new research builds on [existing] research.”

Although Professor Beall conceded that there were some well-received, functioning open access journals, there was not yet any clear evidence of their long-term sustainability, he said.

Additionally, he continued, the drive to open access was “damaging scholarly societies around the world”.

“[Take] the American Psychological Association. It has a number of subscription journals, [which] it makes a profit on. It is a non-profit society, so it takes that profit and throws it back into the functions of the society – organising conferences, providing grants and scholarships to graduate students,” he said. “But if all these societies are forced to go open access, which is a lot of what the movement wants them to do, they won’t have any extra income.”

Professor Beall said that he did not regret starting his list and would do it again, despite noting that he “made a lot of mistakes…it wasn’t perfect”. So how did he feel about all his detractors – did he worry that they would hold their grievances?

“Most of these social activists live in Twitter, and memories are short on Twitter,” he joked. “They’ll soon forget about me and that’s fine.”

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Reader's comments (10)

Yes, there are problems with some OA journals, just as there are (different) problems with some subscription journals. It's the subscription publishers' arrogance, price rises and high profit margins that annoy librarians. They are not motivated by a wish to destroy said publishers, rather by a wish to get affordable access to all who need it. Beall is an obsessive who should be ignored.
Completely agreed with Charles's comment. IMO, Beall does much more harm than good. See this detailed dissection of his paper "The Open-Access Movement is Not Really about Open Access"
Some perspective on predatory journals from a different librarian perspective:
Until Beall provides evidence to back his assertions, I'll consider this to be more Fake News from librarianship's most special snowflake.
A quick survey of Beall's Twitter interactions with those who criticized him will show that he responds to legitimate questions and criticism with ad hominem (often sexist) attacks and irrelevant inferences. Any coverage of his "work" that does not address his inability to interact with those who disagree with him is woefully incomplete.
As usual, Beall's opinions are so totally at odds with all I learned in the last 10 years + from extensive readings and participation in online discussions on Open Access that I don't know how to begin. Most OA journals being deceptive; some being "functioning" at best? An "understanding” among librarians not to discuss publicly the problems of open access? Librarians promoting OA not for its virtues, but just to kill Elsevier? Journals reducing the time allocated to peer-review? At one point in the article, Beall is said to ask for "clear evidence". Quite strange for someone who never bothered himself to provide much evidence, if any, to support his bold statements. Once upon a time, I used to praise Beall for having single-handedly revealed the phenomenon of deceptive OA journals. Now I can only wish to stop hearing from him, and be able to forget him (and his rants).
Beall makes some very legitimate points. In our rush to adopt open access, we may be blind to some of its very big problems (just how much will I have to pay to get an article published?). Good, reliable open access is not going to be free or even cheap. I suspect that a good deal of the hostility towards him is that he does not hew to the "SJW" party line.
No, the hostility towards him is because he provides no evidence to support his claims about the motivations of librarians.
"Good, reliable open access is not going to be free or even cheap." Well, nobody knows exactly what the OA future will be. However, alternative OA publishing funding models with an overall cost-reducing potential do exist, and more are being proposed or experimented. In fact, the majority of legitimate OA journals (i.e. accepted in DOAJ), including among the 600+ published by Elsevier and Springer, are free for authors (source : data available on DOAJ and Elsevier websites).
I think there is great similarity here between the academic publishing model and the music industry of the 1990s. Consumers got fed up with excessive prices for a product that the artists didn't see much return, also with a streamlined, minimal publishing process people became aware of the profit margins gained in the industry. This resulted in the rise of Napster, Pirate Bay etal - in research it has resulted in resistance from librarians and the rise of Sci Hub and #CanIHazPDF. Academics and the public are unable to access tax-funded research, academics are not properly rewarded for peer review and institutions have to buy back their own content. This is not fair in the slightest - giving everything away is not the answer, and publishers do have value, they have systems in place and esteem, but being tied to that esteem is like being tied to nostalgia. A new way that works for all needs forging, else publishers will find themselves increasingly under attack, not by the librarians, but growing numbers of academics - once that happens, publishers will really need to buck their ideas up.