The menace of ‘predatory journals’ and the future of journals and peer-review

Traditional science journals get their money from ads and/or individual and library subscriptions. You cannot pay to have your paper published and thus this system avoids obvious conflicts of interest for authors and journals. The catch is that this prevents wider dissemination of the articles since the subscriptions are expensive. The costs have risen so dramatically that even libraries cannot afford to maintain the range of journals they once had. Why these costs have risen so much and the role of for-profit publishing houses in pushing up those costs is a hot topic but not the issue I want to discuss in this post. What this is about is how an effort to find a solution to the cost and low accessibility problems has had unintended consequences.

The arrival of the internet has enabled professional societies and organizations to try another model of ‘Open Access’ (OA) journals where, unlike traditional journals that one or one’s library has to subscribe to access, are offered free on the internet. These journals cover the cost of publication by charging a fee to the author. Some OA journals (such as PLoSOne) are legitimate and do peer-review to maintain quality but many, as Alan Burdick writes, are just money making schemes that will accept anything and will even appoint anyone as editor, as long as you pay them.

In exchange for a hefty fee, these journals—with names such as Journal of Clinical Toxicology and Enzyme Engineering—offered quick peer review, which often meant no review whatsoever. “They were journals I’d never heard of,” Jeffrey Beall, an associate professor and librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, said. “Often they were based in West Africa or South Asia, with titles close to existing ones, and filled with grammatical errors. Basically, they were just pay-to-publish operations.” The barrier to entry couldn’t be lower, he said. “You just need a Web site and a journal title, and you can be in business in a day.”

Beall coined the phrase “predatory journal” to describe such outlets, and by 2009 he’d started blogging about them and keeping an online list of their names, as a public service to his colleagues. Between 2011 and this year, the number of suspect publishers on his list grew from eighteen to more than eleven hundred, and the number of stand-alone journals has jumped into the thousands. A Finnish study found that, between 2010 and 2014, the number of articles published by predatory journals grew from fifty-three thousand to almost half a million. Many predatory publishers also now run bogus conferences, often with names similar to existing ones, to dupe researchers into submitting papers for a nonrefundable fee. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission filed suit against the OMICS Publishing Group and two other companies, which together publish hundreds of open-access journals, for “deceiving academics and researchers about the nature of its publications and hiding publication fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.”

These predatory journals are a real danger to science because now anyone can submit a paper to them saying pretty much anything and then point to the ‘published’ paper as giving their ideas credibility. The above link gives many examples of people who have submitted total and obvious rubbish and got it published and even had a fictitious person accepted onto their editorial boards.

One other model that is coming into vogue, at least in physics, is based on an old system. In the old days, along with sending your manuscript to the journal, one would also send copies of it, called ‘preprints’, to other researchers working in the same field. This served two purposes. One was to inform others of your work and possibly get feedback. The other was to establish priority because it took a long time between sending a manuscript to a journal and it finally appearing in print.

Some famous papers never actually made it into print journals and their fame rests entirely on their preprint status. For example, in 1964 George Zweig arrived at a model that was very similar to the quark model (except that he called them ‘aces’) that was never published, although within the field of particle physics he and his preprint are widely recognized and cited. Richard Feynman even nominated him, along with Murray Gell-Mann, for the Nobel prize.

Zweig’s office was down the hall from me when I was working at Los Alamos National Laboratory and one day I asked him (he was a very nice accessible guy) why his paper was never published and he said that it was due to the absurd politics that existed at CERN where he was working then. He recounts the story in this interview.

I wanted to send a paper to the Physical Review, but the head of the Theory Division, Leon Van Hove, wouldn’t allow it. He told me that all reports from CERN had to be published in European journals, even though American institutions paid my salary, overhead, and publication costs. When I asked the theory secretary, Madame Fabergé, to retype the paper for publication, she politely refused, saying that Van Hove had instructed her not to type any of my papers. This was a real problem because I didn’t know how to type, and didn’t have a typewriter (remember, I was trained as a typesetter, not a typist).

I was scheduled to give a theory seminar at CERN titled “Dealer’s choice: Aces are Wild”. Van Hove cancelled the seminar, and I was not allowed to reschedule it. When Van Hove and Kokedee published a book four years later reprinting articles on the quark model they did not include either of the CERN reports. Van Hove deliberately and systematically tried to keep my work from public view.

His famous preprint can still be found on the CERN website.

Nowadays the manuscripts of physics papers are routinely sent to arXiv where they can be seen by anybody at the same time as they are sent to the journal for publication. While academic institutions still look for actual journal publications when weighing a scholar’s progress, the arXiv document is often the one that active researchers use in their own work.

The next decade or so is going to be a turbulent one in the field of science publications. It could be that due to the growth of predatory journals, a new system needs to be created. We could be reaching a stage where economic constraints eliminate print journals and formal peer-review altogether, and preprint sources like arXiv are all that remain. The quality of someone’s work will then have to be measured by whether other researchers in the field recognize that paper and use it in their work, kind of like with Zweig’s preprint.


  1. jrkrideau says

    Predatory journals are very great danger in many ways. From my point of view they provide a patina of respectability that can seriously mislead research consumers. Research results are often rolled into policy decisions and may form part of the basis of legislation.

    There is no way that the person reading those papers will have the expertise across several areas of a subject to adequately evaluate the research and must, to some extent, take it on trust that the authors, reviewers and editors have served as a basic quality control function. When this breaks down who knows what happens? Death, destruction and chaos?

    Not everyone knows of Beale’s List or other sources for checking the quality of the journal and publisher.

    There is enough poor research published in ‘respectable’ journals, as it is. But at least there is the intent to publish good research.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … “deceiving academics and researchers about the nature of its publications …”

    If even the specialists can’t sort out the authentic from the “fake news”, what chance does a layperson have?

    The above makes it sound like careerists, egotists, & crackpots drive much of this phenomenon, but what about the corporatists and political operators who could really make some hay from authoritative-looking lies?

  3. says

    These predatory journals are a real danger to science because now anyone can submit a paper to them saying pretty much anything and then point to the ‘published’ paper as giving their ideas credibility.

    Won’t this eventually (hopefully?) self-regulate? The peer review process has come under attack from pseudosciences and religion, as they attempt to pass their stuff off as more credible than it is. Ultimately I’d expect that’ll just increase skepticism across the board -- as has been happening with the fake news in politics. I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. For one thing, it’d break the hold that the costly publishers have: if nobody is trustworthy then what’s the point in paying for them? Plow the whole thing under!

  4. Mano Singham says

    Marcus @#4,

    Yes, at some point a new equilibrium will be reached. It is during the transition that there will be confusion.

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