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How Ottawa’s Centre for Journalology is tackling the scourge of predatory publishers

Last year, the centre led a historic meeting of research stakeholders that ended with a consensus definition of predatory publishing. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

BY ALEX GILLIS | MAR 20 2020

A few years ago, Kelly Cobey, an investigator at the Ottawa-based Centre for Journalology, was talking to a professor who had never published in a predatory journal but who said they were good places for graduate students to get started. Dr. Cobey was alarmed.

“Students can find more credible, open-access journals, or they can publish pre-prints,” she told the professor, adding that predatory journals could actually be detrimental to an academic career.

Predatory journals deviate from accepted editorial procedures (by not doing peer reviews, for example) and engage in unethical practices (such as neglecting to archive studies). To bring attention to the problem, Dr. Cobey and her colleagues at the centre recently published a definition of predatory journals, and kicked off a series of initiatives that will make publishers and academics’ published research more transparent, ethical and open. In a world where predatory or deceptive journals likely outnumber legitimate journals, scholars will need all the support they can get: worldwide, there are about 13,000 deceptive journals – and that number is rising.

Based in the clinical epidemiology program at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI), the Centre for Journalology was started in 2014 by David Moher, the centre’s director. “I was aware of the substantial problems with the quality of biomedical research,” says Dr. Moher, who is also an associate professor in the school of epidemiology and public health at the University of Ottawa, where he holds a university research chair. “I wondered why researchers were able to advance their careers when it was clear that they weren’t practising best publication practices, or their institutions weren’t asking for best practices. I wondered whether this had anything to do with the perverse incentives in place at institutions to promote the careers of researchers.”

Journalology, a relatively new field of research, is the scholarly study of academic publication practices – and it cuts to heart of some of these “perverse incentives,” including a publish-or-perish culture in universities. “Publishing in the so-called highest impact-factor journals is one of the main metrics used for career promotion,” Dr. Moher explains. “But the quantity of publications doesn’t really tell us anything about the quality and impact of research. And the journal impact factor certainly tells us nothing about the quality of the research article being published.”

The centre, with start-up funding provided by OHRI, tackles such issues. It also plans to develop a training and education program about how predatory journals operate, and implement a broad-based research program in journalology.

How to face a predator

From the outset, the centre has tackled the issue of predatory publishing, starting in 2014 with an examination of unsolicited emails from presumed predatory journals. In 2018, the centre published a literature review of major studies about the problem, and conducted a Delphi survey to reach consensus on a definition of “predatory journal.” Last summer, 43 people from 10 countries met in Ottawa to finalize that definition and to address unresolved concerns that arose from the survey, such as an apparent lack of transparency around ethics and publishing practices among legitimate journals.

“The process was important, as it used evidence from research, and it included diverse voices from the community,” Dr. Cobey explains. She notes that participants included representatives from Canadian postsecondary institutions and research-funding agencies like the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, policy-makers, journal editors, scholarly publishers, academic librarians, professional associations and patients.

“In the absence of consultation and inclusion of diverse stakeholders, we didn’t think it would be likely that our definition would be used readily by the community to develop interventions to stop predatory journals,” she says. (One notable absence, however, was Cabells International, a company that sells what’s likely the world’s most sophisticated analysis of predatory journals. Dr. Cobey says the company wasn’t invited because access to its blacklist and whitelist is prohibitively expensive for many scholars, while the group prefers to support open-access solutions to predatory publishing.)

The group jointly published a definition, including an explanation of the process, in Nature at the end of 2019: “Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterized by false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial and publication practices, a lack of transparency, and/or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices.”

The centre is now working to “operationalize the definition to create policy and [free] resources to support stakeholders in avoiding predatory journals,” Dr. Cobey says. It’s also helping journals that aren’t intentionally predatory but lack appropriately transparent or rigorous review and publishing practices. Another goal is to support funders and institutions in somehow penalizing researchers who send manuscripts to predatory journals or who list these journals on their CVs.

Parallel to this work on predatory publishing, in 2019 the centre developed the Hong Kong Principles, a list of practices to increase rigour and transparency among academics and institutions, principles that explicitly recognize and reward behaviour that leads to trustworthy research. Dr. Cobey points to the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, at McGill University, as an example. The Neuro practices open science by collecting biological samples, clinical information, and imaging and genetic data from patients with neurological diseases, and making it all available to research teams around the world.

Artificial intelligence in aid of academic intelligence

The Centre for Journalology is also developing a portal for educational resources in multiple languages; tracking the number of publications in predatory journals by discipline and geography; and creating a digital tool to determine the likelihood that a journal is predatory.

This last tool could be particularly powerful. Using nearly $100,000 in grant money, the centre is working with experts in artificial intelligence and application programming interfaces to create a webpage or browser plug-in that can analyze software and digital data, such as the content of journal websites, to create a composite measure of the likelihood that a journal is predatory.

“It will take a user-centred design approach, so that users will inform how the tool functions,” Dr. Cobey says, noting that versions of the tool will be developed for patients, researchers, publishers and other stakeholders. “We envision something that might provide an initial rating of a journal, and then, if it’s of interest, something to perhaps click to obtain details on how the rating was obtained,” she says. And, she adds, not only will it be free and easy to use, but its development, including updates, will be fully transparent.

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