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Predatory publishing: Open access on the prowl?

Image of a hand collecting green and blue bubbles.

If you follow science communications in general out there on the Web, you’ll have noticed last month’s Open Access (OA) Week, when the academic and research publishing world celebrates making knowledge available for all. Maybe you’ve wondered what OA is all about, and what makes it different from traditional research publishing. You may also have caught a whiff of the predatory publishing controversy that seems to dog the OA world.

First, open access means just that: no barriers to information. Under OA, research papers are freely available regardless of subscription, institutional alignment or membership. Anyone with access to the Internet can read the research without having to pay the hefty user fees to get behind the paywalls associated with traditional subscription-based academic publishing.

But publishing is expensive, so who carries the cost if there are no subscribers?

Traditional academic publishing relies on journal subscriptions from individuals and institutions who want to read papers hidden beyond the paywall, and also charges processing fees to authors once a paper is accepted. With OA publishing, the costs are recouped mostly from the authors, in the form of an author processing fee. Fees vary according to the publication for both traditional and OA journals, with some charging per page, per figure or per colour image. OA fees are not necessarily higher than in traditional publishing.

Why publish in OA? Individual researchers may believe strongly in freedom of information, or they may even be required to publish results in OA journals. For example, researchers accessing UK Biobank resources must make data public, and publishing in OA journals is strongly encouraged. For other academic authors, it’s the speed that attracts them: OA is typically faster to publish, with a potentially wider readership and greater visibility, since access is not hindered by expensive paywalls. Despite the lower impact factors of many OA journals, some academics prefer faster publication because research funding and university appointments are often based on publishing history.

And, unfortunately, this is where predatory (OA) publishing comes in.

Publishing for profit rather than dissemination of knowledge, predatory publishers take the author processing fee but seem to supply little else. Criteria for classifying a publisher as predatory (note: these criteria themselves are controversial) include fast acceptance, notification of fees only after acceptance, misleading claims of affiliations, impact factors or reputation, and aggressive campaigning to solicit papers.

Reputable journals, OA and traditional, provide editorial support to authors and a robust peer review process to examine the research presented, where scholars active in the subject matter scrutinise the submission for experimental design, accuracy, and feasability, among other parameters. Thus manuscript submission starts the editorial process: rounds of edits, textual tweaks and perhaps further experiments to provide confirmatory data to make a stronger presentation and strengthen the paper before publication. In addition, the extensive editorial process should weed out inaccurate studies and poor science.

However, with predatory publishing there appears to be very little oversight or peer review before papers are accepted and made accessible online, as demonstrated recently by Science writer John Bohannon’s 2013 exploration (again, note that this study itself drew criticism for its experimental design). It’s a heady and tempting offer for many researchers racing to get results online and advance careers, especially for those from developing countries.

So why does it matter?

In addition to giving OA a really bad name, predatory publishing circulates poor science and poor scientists out into public view without discerning oversight. The practice also preys on vulnerable researchers who can ill afford the fees to publish in questionable journals while potentially providing fraudulent scientists with a quick and easy route to build recognition and reputation.

As you can see, the cost to scientific veracity and credibility could be significant.

And this is why OA publishing is tackling the problem head on. Although there is Beall’s blacklists of possible predatory publishers to consult, some organizations take a different approach by compiling white lists of OA publishers, vetting each application for inclusion and regularly reviewing standards. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) indexes 10,655 journals from 135 countries worldwide, with a total of 2,106,093 articles on board. Moreover, the DOAJ takes note of “stings” such as Bohannon’s 2013 OA exposé, and is in the process of recertifying member publications.

Another, the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, which formed in 2008 to promote best practices in the newly emerging world of OA, gives researchers a toolkit called “Think. Check. Submit” to help them decide whether or not to submit to a publication.

Researchers may also be able to rely on advice from their institution, such as this advice from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, before submitting a research paper. Another source of help are national bodies such as Canadian Science Publishing, which has a handy guide for researchers on its site.

Although shoddy science isn’t the exclusive preserve of OA publishing—a quick scan through Retraction Watch will show that the traditional scholarly publishing world has its own problems with weeding out poor science (Andrew Wakefield, anybody?) and tackling peer review issues—there are steps that academics need to take. With problems in communicating science to a lay audience and maintaining trust, researchers and publishers have a duty to ensure that what reaches their eyes is reputable, valid and honest.

And how about the armchair scientist or science writer?

Well, that includes me. Even though I am not creating science these days, I do write about it and review primary research papers. I also read and then share what I see on my personal social media. As a science communicator, should I also be aware of predatory publishing?

Of course!

Although it is yet another point to consider when I’m choosing papers to review and will definitely slow down my pitching while I scan through the white lists for confirmation, it should increase the value of what I communicate. It’s a small step, but by choosing to ignore questionable publications, science communicators can avoid promoting them or giving them any sense of credibility.

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