Faculty members say they are being bombarded with spam emails from dubious publishers of online academic journals soliciting contributions for articles or inviting them to review manuscripts and sit on editorial boards.
Some publishers even send personalized emails to professors, praising their earlier published work and inviting them to submit an article. Scholars who do so are then charged article-processing fees that range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
“It’s a growing concern,” said Steven Liss, vice-principal, research, at Queen’s University who receives these types of emails at least once a week. A recent “ridiculous” one offered to feature a paper, which he had previously written and published elsewhere, on its website for $35. “The best solution in my opinion is to hit the delete button,” he said.
Yet, such overtures could place those less familiar with the publishing process, such as new graduates and junior faculty members, or even experienced researchers under pressure to beef up their publishing credits, at particular risk, he added. In Dr. Liss’s opinion, universities need to educate and advise faculty members, particularly young trainees, about these hazards.
Jeffrey Beall, associate professor and librarian at the University of Colorado Denver, has made it his mission to warn scholars about what he calls “predatory journals.” In 2010 he launched a list of questionable publishers and journals on his website with about 20 names. Today the website, Scholarly Open Access, lists more than 300 journal publishers. He maintains a separate list of stand-alone journals, numbering almost 200. Mr. Beall is quick to point out that the journals on his lists aren’t necessarily breaking any laws but that in his opinion, they are “low-quality publishers” with questionable practices that scholars should avoid.
In one email that Mr. Beall received and shared with University Affairs, a Canadian graduate student said he had agreed to submit an article to one of the journals on Mr. Beall’s list, only to be hit with a $1,800 fee after it was accepted. “I was not aware at all that I would have to pay for the privilege of publishing the most expensive paper I’ve ever written,” the student wrote. When he protested, the journal offered to reduce the fee to $1,600.
Mr. Beall says “predatory journals” are either outwardly deceitful or “non-transparent” in some way. Some deliberately misrepresent their location, claiming to be based in the U.S. or using “American” or “British” in their titles but are actually based in Asia, he noted. The majority of their editorial board members are located abroad as well. They often hide information about author fees or make it difficult to find.
Some journals contain numerous spelling and grammatical errors. Another red flag, say researchers, are journals that claim to carry out a double-blind peer review in two or three weeks; the standard peer review process usually takes months.
But none of these criteria is proof of wrongdoing, which is why several faculty members asked for anonymity in speaking about the topic, fearing legal action from a publisher or backlash from colleagues who have published in one of the journals. “It’s easy to show [a journal is] suspicious. It’s difficult to show it’s not legitimate,” said one professor.
Mr. Beall has been threatened with legal action by at least two of the publishers on his lists, the OMICS Group, based in India, and the Toronto-based Canadian Center (sic) of Science and Education.
Yet he remains undeterred. “I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong,” he said in an interview. The feedback he receives from colleagues thanking him for “saving them from submitting their good work to a bad publisher” also motivates him to keep going.
But “Beall’s list,” as it has come to be known, is itself not without controversy. Some have accused him of heavy-handedness and of bias against journals based in developing countries. In at least one instance, Mr. Beall placed a burgeoning publisher on his list and later removed it; he recently introduced a method of allowing publishers to “appeal” their inclusion on his lists.
Others say he has unfairly tarnished the whole concept of open-access publishing, which aims to make scholarly research freely available to readers and, in place of subscription fees, often charges authors article-processing fees to cover peer review and other costs.
Michael Eisen, a biologist at the University of California Berkeley and a co-founder of the Public Library of Science (PLoS), a prestigious publisher of open-access journals, dismissed the growing outcry over solicitations from sketchy publishers, writing in a recent blog post that they “are so obviously not legit, I can’t believe anyone falls for them … It’s science’s version of the Nigerian banking scams – something far more deserving of laughter than handwringing on the front page of the [New York Times],” he wrote in reference to a recent article in that newspaper.
Moreover, Charles Eckman, dean of library services at Simon Fraser University, noted that “bad intent was not invented by open-access publishers.” In an interview, he said the traditional pricing model used by large commercial publishers that profit by “selling back the product of academic research to universities in the form of subscriptions” is equally questionable. The best thing for academics to do when considering where to publish, said Dr. Eckman, is to ask questions, confer with colleagues, examine impact factors and other journal metrics – and yes, consult Beall’s list.
Brent Roe, executive director of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, said university librarians are well placed to play a bigger role in helping scholars evaluate appropriate publication options for their manuscripts and warn them against those they should avoid. “That’s the kind of the thing the average academic doesn’t have a lot of time for,” he said.
For some researchers, the shady journals can be more than a nuisance; they can also be a conduit for plagiarism. One Canadian professor who asked to remain anonymous said he was shocked to discover an article he had co-written was republished in a journal under someone else’s name. He contacted the journal and had the article removed from its website but he can still call it up with a Google search. “The reason this happened is because of how easy publishing is in those journals,” he said.
“I’ve heard that story many, many times,” said Mr. Beall. “Predatory publishing is enabling author misconduct and that is increasing, I think, because it is so easy to get your work accepted and many of these publishers lack an authentic peer review.”
Dr. Liss of Queen’s University said most Canadian universities don’t have formal policies or regulations stipulating where researchers can or can’t publish because such decisions are protected by academic freedom. But, he added, universities look for publications in respected and well-known journals when making appointments and tenure and promotion decisions. “We’re well beyond just counting papers,” he said.