Open to abuse

As the traditional academic publishing model comes under pressure from legitimate criticism, austerity and alternative forms, firms are springing up to exploit the uncertainty. Iain Stevenson investigates

October 4, 2012

Are you an early-career researcher who would like to polish your CV? Are you facing a promotion panel or a tenure committee? Do you fancy introducing yourself as editor-in-chief of an international journal at the next faculty cocktail party? Then a recent mass email from Mehta Press in India may be the answer to your prayers.

The company is currently seeking editors-in-chief for an impressive list of almost 50 journals from the 77 it offers in the medical science field, from the Journal of Breast Issues, through the Journal of Dental Fixtures to the Journal of Pediatric Nutrition. Each has a (fairly minimal) webpage that displays a cover design and a generic statement of intent that the journal is committed to "rapid publication of original and significant research" that will be "rigorously refereed".

Any intending editor-in-chief will find that their responsibilities, set out in a fairly draconian 15-point statement, include (or did at one stage include - the relevant pages have now mysteriously disappeared from the Mehta website) ensuring the quality of content, selecting manuscripts, setting up and managing an editorial board, arranging and controlling peer reviewers and overseeing editorial processing. There are also subsidiary sets of responsibilities towards readers, reviewers, authors and the company. Apart from a slight and passing reference to the editor-in-chief role in assessing "staffing needs", there is no indication in the email or on the main Mehta website of the company's responsibilities to its chief editors, what it will do to support and enhance the publications, and, crucially, what remuneration or other financial resources there might be to pay for all this scholarly activity.

Mehta Press offers an impressive mission statement claiming to be a "premier publisher of academic, technical and scientific work, reaching around the globe to collect essential reference material and the latest advances and make them available to researchers, academics, professionals and students in a variety of accessible formats". (This in itself is eerily similar to the mission statement of CRC Press, part of the Taylor and Francis Group.) A few of Mehta's journals appear to be "live", such as Current Chemical Research, which has reached its second volume. Despite an extensive internet search, however, it seems impossible to discover who its editor-in-chief actually is - although it had an editorial board of 54 academics from the US, the UK, Canada, Romania, Italy, France, Singapore and China (which has now been reduced to 20).

I emailed the board members but only two replied. One confirms that he is indeed on the board but could not recall whether he had ever been contacted to review papers. He did not know the identity of the chief editor.

The other, Silvia Díez-González, a lecturer at Imperial College London's department of chemistry (who has given me permission to quote her), is more to the point: "The only reason I am on their webpage is because they have ignored all my emails asking them to remove my name. I have no relationship whatever with them and I certainly did not agree to be on one of their editorial boards. In consequence, I avoid any interaction with Mehta Press as a disease." She adds: "After ignoring me for months, they had the brilliant idea of sending me a manuscript to review for the next day...That was not even a request but an order!"

Her name has now been removed from the website.

It seems that the vast majority of more than 250 journals under the Mehta umbrella in the biological, medical, physical and social sciences and the humanities have yet to be launched. Many have titles that are very close to established journals and cover a bewildering array of topics, from spirituality and social and cultural geography through space exploration and "stastics" (I assume this means "statistics") to pharmacology and genetics. It also offers two "Art histroy" titles: the Journal of Art Histroy & Criticism and the Journal of Art Histroy & Theory, no doubt attractive to the world's pre-eminent "art histrorians".

All are offered to libraries at a uniform subscription rate of $1,200 (£750) print only or $1,600 for print and online for a volume containing four issues. (These prices are slightly out of date, since the website refers to 2011 and there is no indication of journals' size or content.) Sample copies do not seem to be available.

Mehta Press may be a totally bona fide publisher committed, as it says, to the dissemination of research of the highest quality at no cost to readers or authors but it does seem extraordinary that it is planning to launch quite so many journals across the entire academic spectrum all at once, many of which might easily be confused with titles already well established and well regarded. Apart from the virtually identical generic statements of purpose, the journals do not have prospectuses or vision statements, nor do they explain how they will differ from or supplement the existing publications with (very) similar names. And is sending out mass emails indiscriminately to invite applications really a credible way to recruit the best editors? Whether naive or otherwise, Mehta Press seems to be embarking on a project to inundate the academic world with an enormous flood of new publishing vehicles. The benefits for those who will shape them or publish in them seem questionable to say the least.

To observers of the great changes overtaking academic publishing, the timing of the venture is also interesting. Many of the leading commercial publishers of scientific and scholarly journals - Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer - are under attack from librarians and the authors of academic papers for their perceived profiteering and "price gouging". For example, there is a well-articulated campaign to boycott Elsevier journals in particular because of the publisher's market dominance and high prices.

Elsewhere, the rise of the open-access movement is changing research publishing's financial model. Cuts in library budgets and research grants mean that expensive journal subscriptions and the purchase of high-priced monographs is not automatic even for the most prestigious institutions, and for many publishers the economics of continuing such publications look very precarious. It is hardly surprising that in a time of financial stringency, with the need to demonstrate "value for money", cheaper alternatives may look attractive - and less-than-scrupulous new entrants to the business may seek to take advantage.

One well-documented example of a new publisher seeking to exploit the distrust that exists between academics and established publishers is Verlag Doktor Mueller, based in Saarbrucken in Germany but with outstations in Latvia, Moldova and Mauritius. Founded in 2002, it has produced more than 150,000 titles using print-on-demand (PoD) technology for sale to academic libraries and individuals through e-commerce bookshops.

A team of editors sends emails, mainly to recent graduates and young researchers, soliciting their theses, research reports and other manuscripts, and offering to publish them free of charge. VDM is not obliged to pay royalties if the author's royalties average 10 euros or less per month, and if royalties average 50 euros or less per month authors receive book vouchers instead of money. The manuscripts are not refereed, copy-edited or proofread, nor are copies sent out for peer review. All the preparation work is done by the authors: VDM simply lists the title as "available" and then sits back and waits for orders. Promotion, marketing and after-sales service appear to be minimal. To supplement its output, VDM also harvests articles from Wikipedia, which it assembles under titles that do not betray their origins and which are reprinted via PoD.

Despite VDM's aggressive approach and lack of service, many unwary academic authors have been flattered by its approach and have agreed to have their work taken on. Promotion panels and tenure committees have been less impressed, although some may be bamboozled by the presentation of a publication under one of the many hundreds of imprints VDM operates. The Higher Education Research Data Collection in Australia - the equivalent of the UK's research excellence framework - explicitly warns that VDM publications are not acceptable for submission, and a notice on the website of Australian Catholic University advises staff and research students to "consult their supervisor or Associate Dean (Research) before publishing" with companies such as VDM, as doing so "may adversely affect your academic career".

The company's founder, Wolfgang Mueller, is, however, unrepentant - in 2009, he stated: "We make an approach to our authors offering to publish their work. That's not good manners in the distinguished publishing sector. On the other hand, our customers are totally satisfied with our publishing service."

Whatever the truth, VDM is clearly making a substantial turnover from its less-than-conventional approach to academic publishing. In 2011, it claimed to produce more than 50,000 new titles a month: based on output, it could be described as the largest publisher in the world. Its sales figures and profits are (perhaps not surprisingly) unavailable but it employs 70 staff in Germany and perhaps several more elsewhere. Each acquisitions editor handles perhaps more than 2,000 titles at a time. The quality of its products becomes apparent only once the purchaser has received and paid for them. While not strictly vanity publishing (the author does not pay), it seems fair to ask whether VDM is exploiting credulous academic authors who may do a great deal of work for little career or professional benefit.

Mainstream academic publishers have been criticised - sometimes justifiably - for their pricing, author relations and aggressive marketing, but they provide refereeing, editing and marketing systems that have ensured the dissemination of high-quality research and the creation of journals and monographs of integrity.

Of course, commercial academic publishers seek profit and are not immune from lapses in judgement, but in the main they have established and maintained a robust quality system that delivers academic publications that are scrupulously judged, carefully edited and well presented, forming the bedrock of the academic enterprise. Academics would do well to remember this the next time they receive an unsolicited email from India or Mauritius.

The VDM approach to publishing

VDM Publishing Group defended its approach to publishing in a statement to Times Higher Education.

Thorsten Ohm, chief executive officer, admitted in the statement that manuscripts published by VDM "typically are not peer-reviewed by other academics" and that copy-editing and proofreading are "not usually conducted" by the company.

"Our authors are academics, so we rightly suppose that they learned to structure and formulate their texts in a sophisticated way," he said.

"In our opinion the academic standards of universities should generally be enough [...] for the publication of academic works as books."

Ohm agreed that the company does not promote individual book titles but claimed that this would not be "cost-effective". VDM has "strong brand presence" and sends book catalogues to distributors worldwide as well as offering review copies to the press and attending book fairs, he said.

On the company's print-on-demand model, Ohm argued that this is "the only way to work successfully in this business", adding that "anyone who believes that this is so 'simple' is warmly invited to do the same".

Ohm acknowledged that the company has been criticised for publishing Wikipedia articles in book format but said that this activity takes place under a different brand and that the books are clearly labelled: "We believed that the quality of the Wikipedia articles was so good that it was worthwhile creating books with them," he said.

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