Predatory publishing is a curse for individual academics and universities, and a blight on the landscape of academic publishing generally.
We are all familiar with those “greetings” emails asking about our health and promising to publish online any manuscript we submit in double-quick time, for a small fee.
But it is not enough to just laugh at the amateur approach and then press delete. Some of these operations are outright fraudulent, vacuuming up as much money as possible over a few weeks before simply disappearing. Their websites are increasingly being made to look identical to those of existing journals, or of ones that have closed (even reactivating their old URL). I once saw one passing itself off as the nursing journal that I edit.
Many of the people behind them are also involved in other fraudulent activity, such as running non-existent academic conferences.
This is why the disappearance of Beall's list of predatory publishers earlier this year was so momentous. It left us without an easy reference list to refer to if in doubt about whether a publisher was legitimate. The list, maintained by University of Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beall, may have lacked specificity in some instances (and some journals did manage to get themselves removed from it) but, even if all the journals listed were not predatory, the majority were certainly of questionable quality.
The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) offers a list of open-access journals that meet certain minimal criteria, but it isn't as user-friendly as Beall’s list. The journal information company Cabell’s International has also stepped in with its own blacklist, but that is behind a paywall.
More clearly needs to be done. It is patently obvious that some academics continue to fall for the false claims of predatory publishers. Some may even remain blissfully unaware of their existence. Others may be making deliberate use of them to boost their CVs or meet the open-access requirements of research funders. It is time for universities to get serious and to stop relying on outside organisations and individuals to educate their academics and do their policing of publication ethics.
Education could be implemented via the better promulgation of good practice in research and the implementation of effective integrity policies. These should, in any case, contain a section on publication practice, including information on avoiding predatory publishers. They should also include a statement to the effect that academics who publish with predatory publishers may be disciplined.
Universities should also oblige their organisational units to draw up annually revised lists of journals to which submissions may be sent, and to provide the criteria whereby those journals are included. Units will have their own criteria, but a good starting point would be to include journals in the DOAJ and ones that have established impact factors or appear on Clarivate Analytics’ Emerging Sources Citation Index for new journals.
Funders and assessment bodies should also require publication in respectable journals. For instance, in the UK, any outputs from predatory publishers could be disqualified from the research excellence framework. You might argue that no one in their right mind would submit a paper in a predatory journal anyway, but in my wide experience of working on REF panels and consulting for other universities, I have seen some very poor-quality papers submitted to make up the numbers by people with a couple of good ones.
Given the nature of the organisations behind predatory publishing and their far-flung locations, it is unlikely that any kind of direct legal action against them would be effective. The only way they will go out of business is to be starved of manuscripts and, thereby, starved of funds.
Individual universities and even countries taking action may have little effect. But universities are now operating and competing globally, so surely international coordination would not be beyond the wit of man – especially if global university ranking systems adopted explicit policies to disregard papers in predatory journals.
Publishing in such journals is not a matter of academic freedom. Predatory publishers are frauds and criminals. To knowingly use them is to engage in fraudulent and criminal activity.
Roger Watson is professor of nursing at the University of Hull.