by Dan Strempel
October 11, 2016
Steady increases in journal subscription costs have given rise to a movement to create free, unfettered access to scholarly research. This movement has the broad support of researchers, governments, private research foundations, college and university faculty and librarians.
But disruption of a scholarly publishing ecosystem that traces its roots to the 17th century has given rise to a new breed of publishers with questionable business practices.
The latest report from Simba Information, Open Access Journal Publishing 2016-2020, delves into the emergence of such predatory publishers and how the industry is combating it.
Under the traditional model, institutions were willing to pay for journal subscriptions because their users were assured that the research published was top notch, that it passed rigorous standards in order to make it into that journal. Publisher’s touted article rejection rates as a selling point for their journals.
In the prevailing open access (OA) model, an author or his or her institution pays an article processing charge (APC) in order to make the paper free for anyone to access once it has been published.
But APCs create an inherit conflict: lower editorial standards lead immediately (if temporarily) to increased sales. Researchers around the world have an imperative to publish, so there is no shortage of article submissions. It’s incredibly easy for a small operation to pop up and give the appearance of a legitimate scholarly journal, accepting APCs and publishing articles for free on the Web.
Enter Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado Denver. Beall maintains an online newsletter Scholarly Open Access and an annual list of predatory publishers that he recommends be avoided because they “are corrupt and exist only to make money off the author processing charges.” Central to his criticism is that such journals “unprofessionally exploit the author-pays model of open access publishing (gold OA) for their own profit.”
Since Beall’s list started in 2009, the overall number of publishers labeled as predatory has grown rapidly from 23 suspect publishers in 2012 to 923 today.
But identifying predatory publishers isn’t always cut and dry. Beall himself has been criticized as too quick to judge. In 2015, he created controversy by branding the Brazilian repository SciELO and Mexico’s Redalyc as “favelas,” a derogatory reference to a Brazilian slum. Individual target companies and journals have pushed back that his list too often makes its judgment without formal criteria.
But real abuses in the gold (author pays) open-access model do exist, including abusive APCs, misleading or made up metrics, plagiarism, journals or publishers made to appear to be websites of other legitimate journals or publishers, spam e-mail promotion practices, and pseudo-science.
Virtually every open access publisher has faced a credibility problem at some point. In late 2014, a-half dozen OA publishers including BioMed Central and Hindawi disclosed systemic abuse perpetrated by external reviewers in a number of their journals.
In May 2015, Frontiers fired 31 medical editors who complained that Frontiers’ policies “are designed to maximize the company’s profits, not the quality of papers, and that this could harm patients.”
In spring 2014, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) expanded the questions asked of journals from 6 to 56, recognizing that inclusion in DOAJ brought a certain standing to journals that might not deserve it. Ninety-nine percent of the 9,770 journals in the DOAJ faced re-examination and nearly a-third were dropped, mostly for not having a working website or a lapse in publishing.
Much of the criticism of OA journals concerns the peer review process. Relaxed standards not only cut out a major component of publishers’ costs, but give a direct bump to revenue. This creates temptations not only for publishers, but for authors, editors and reviewers.
Whether or not OA journals live up to their peer review claims was put to a formal test in 2013 when a fake article was submitted to 304 open access publishers. The article should have been rejected immediately for deliberate scientific errors, but the article was accepted by Bentham, Dove, Scientific Research Publishing, among others. But Elsevier, Wolters Kluwer (through its Medknow division) and Sage were also caught in the sting. When the results were published in the journal Science, more than half the publishers had accepted the paper and less than a third rejected it.
Even the highest impact publishers of all, New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, Nature and Science have all published articles that later had to be withdrawn for various reasons.
One of the ways open access publishers are addressing skeptics is by brand association with membership groups like the International STM Group, acceptance into indexing and abstracting services or quality measures like impact factors. By being more transparent, particularly using metrics, they aim to reassure customers about their integrity.
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