Friday, October 11, 2013

Predatory publishers in science

In mid-2013 I was invited to be founding editor in chief of a proposed new journal, about climate change and global health, by a representative of Versita. This publisher is part of the De Gruyter publishing group, self-described as one of the world's leading publishers of open access scientific content, with over 300 journals. As I was then editing a book on this topic, for CABI (published in September 2014) I at first took this proposal seriously. I asked the Versita agent to skype me, as I had questions which I thought would be easier to discuss verbally than in writing.

The first hint of trouble arose when she ignored this part of my request. After all, I reflected, she was trying to recruit me. Editors need attention to detail and diplomacy. If she didn't think skype or phone was appropriate then she should tell me, silence was inauspicious. Worse was to come. She told me by email I would receive 10% of the processing fees for accepted articles; but nothing for rejected papers. When I pointed out that this created a profound conflict of interest it was sadly clear she had no idea what I was on about (i.e. what I meant). She instead apologised that I would not be paid from the first day, but would have to wait two years!

In 2007 with several colleagues, I published a letter in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, calling for publishers to declare their conflict of interest. Even prestigious journals such as Nature and Lancet have conflicts of interest.

Predatory publishers once were limited to Vanity Press books such as poetry anthologies and some editions of Who's Who. But it is now rife within science, for example see the journalist John Bohannon's expose of open access publishers published recently in Science. Unfortunately however, Bohannon himself made several errors. He failed to include a control group (i.e. he submitted fake papers to open access journals, but not to ones that charge the reader), he deliberately deceived numerous editors, and he concocted phony African-sounding authors, thus also creating an impression of racism.

So far his paper has attracted over 200 comments; many make good points, including those above, but many completely miss the main issue that at least some open access journals have a profound conflict of interest which can easily lead to a decline in their average scientific standard. But, paying for the production, reviewing and publishing of high quality scientific papers is a problem, and has no simple answer. I think all we can do, as readers, is rely on basic scientific principles, such as consistency and scientific coherence. It would be a mistake to assume science is a cacophony even though some fields may be, such as nutrition. Scientific principles do exist, and scientific progress is being made. Open access papers are not all bad; pay-walled papers are not all good. But, in general, journals with a good reputation take more care and publish more credible papers than those with poor reputations. A few open access journals (not many yet) have a good reputation. And some fee-walled journals have poor reputations.

My favourite comment (in response to the Science paper) concerns "me too" papers. As Mohammed Khaled Tumbi wrote: as apples fall from tree due to gravitational force, so too do oranges. (I've edited Mohammed's post a little.)

Postscript: In 2015 one of Australia's leading investigative radio programmes (Background Briefing) broadcast a documentary called Predatory publishers criticised for 'unethical, unprincipled' tactics”. Perhaps the worst example is a deliberately deceptive article written by David Mazières and Eddie Kohler which contains basically the words of the title repeated over and over. This article (caution: language warning) was said to be accepted by the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology.