19 June 2017

Beware simple narratives in academic publishing

NeuroLogica blog has an article examining the loss of Jeffrey Beall’s list of dubious publishers. This post presents a nice, clean narrative: a good guys versus bad guys story. Jeffrey Beall is the good guy and predatory publishers are the bad guys. You can practically here the movie trailer voiceover. “In a world where lawless predatory journals abound, one librarian has the courage to name and shame them. Fighting strongarm tactics from the publishers and spineless university administration, he fights to save the world from ever more dodgy science.”

But the reality is more complicated, I’ll argue.

The NeuroLogica post says:

Traditional journals earn their money from subscriptions and advertising.

This suggests that libraries – the main customers for traditional commercial publishers – are going in and making journal subscription decisions on a case by case basis (like you would with magazine subscriptions). But many libraries don’t have that option. Instead, most libraries get journals through “big deals” from publishers, where large numbers of journals bundled together in a single indivisible package. These “big deals” don’t have a standard price (plotted graphically here) and librarians are bound by confidentiality agreements not to discuss them.

Subscription publishers have incentives to create more journals to justify increasing the price tag on their “big deals.” It’s not clear that incentives to create more journals has substantially different results than incentives to accept more papers.

Many journals do not run ads at all. Some do, but don’t run many.

And, as one commenter noted, this description overlooks page charges entirely.

NeuroLogica continues:

In 2013 Science magazine published the results of a sting in which a fake and terrible paper was submitted to over 300 open access journals. Sixty percent of the journals published the bogus paper, which should not have made it past even the flimsiest peer-review.

The implication here is that zero percent of subscription journals would have accepted the fake paper. But we don’t know, because no subscription journals were sent the fake paper. But some of the journals that accepted the fake paper were listed in Web of Science, which is supposed to be a vetted database of “best of the best” scientific journals. This suggests more subscription journals might have fallen for this fake paper than we would like to think.

The game of “How did this get published?” is one that scientists played long before the phrase “open access” was coined.

Predatory journal contribute to a blurring of the lines between science and pseudoscience, essentially flooding the world with low quality and bogus studies and promoting the borderline academics who produce them.

One of the biggest academic publishers in the world, Elsevier, publishes a subscription journal called Homeopathy. It doesn’t get much more pseudoscientific than that.

Beall was providing an invaluable service by pointing out practices among some journals that violated the spirit and the process of quality control in science.

Granted, but we should not overlook that “Beall’s list” was written and maintained by one person. His decisions were based on criteria that were not objective or transparent. For example, Beall once included then new publisher Hindawi on his list of predatory publishers, then later removed it for no readily apparent reasons.

This seems like an opportune moment to note that there is a new service from a Texas company called Cabell’s that will attempt to provide both a journal blacklist and a journal whitelist. This is an established company (founded 1978), but their lists are new. I think this is a very interesting development worth watching.

External links

Open Access Predatory Journals

Cabell’s: ‘Our journal Blacklist differs from Jeffrey Beall’s’

Related posts
Open access of vanity press, the Science “sting” edition
How much harm is done by predatory journals? 
Time for a new list of junk journals

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