Librarian pioneers practice of unmasking publishers of bogus open-access journals

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

University of Colorado Denver librarian Jeffrey Beall
University of Colorado Denver librarian Jeffrey Beall
Open access research is a scientific publishing concept founded under the best of intentions, but it has come to harbor deceptive and predatory publishing practices, says an authority on the subject.

Jeffrey Beall, scholarly initiatives librarian at Auraria Library at the University of Colorado Denver has made it his business to track what he has identified as deceptive practices among certain online, open-access publishers based mainly overseas.  Beall’s research was quoted in a recent Science​ magazine article in which author John Bohannon submitted a bogus paper on lichen and cancer containing obvious errors that was accepted at more than 100 lower-tier journals which supposedly had submitted the paper to a peer review process.

Spam showed the way

Beall said the problem first came to his attention a number of years ago as these journals started to proliferate.

“I first noticed it from the spam e-mail that was being sent out by these publishers,”​ Beall said.

“They use a publishing model called gold open access.  It was founded with the best of intentions and those intentions were to make the research freely available,” ​he said.

Traditional journals make their money on subscriptions, grants, and, in some cases, on advertising.  Maintaining a high level of rigor and quality so that the results of the research they present is above reproach is what subscribers pay for, Beall said. But the open access journals make their money on author fees, so rigorously reviewing papers and rejecting those with errors doesn’t fit their business model, he said.

“As you can imagine, there is a conflict of interest,”​ he said.

List of predatory publishers

Beall maintains a blog​ in which he and his contributors detail the latest findings on the development of these journals, which now number more than 8,000 worldwide by some estimates.  Beall has a list of suspect publishers and standalone journals on his site.  The publishers list runs to more than 400 entries, and 200 plus journal titles are listed.  Some of the journals listed on the site have names like the International Journal of Ayurvedic and Pharma Research​, the International Journal of Life Sciences and Pharma Research​ and Oxidants and Antioxidants in Medical Science​.  He has maintained and updated the lists even under the threat of legal action, he said.

Beall freely admits that he is not qualified to judge whether the papers published within these types of journals have scientific errors in them.  Rather, he looks for what constitutes deceptive practices in how the journals present themselves.

“It’s very difficult sometimes.  The predatory publishers do everything they can to disguise their practices.  I look for deceit and lack of transparency. These journals often don’t list where they are located.  Or they list people on their scientific advisory boards who have not given their permission, or they make up names to put on the boards,”​ he said.

Beall said the problem with the journals cuts two ways; in some cases, legitimate authors are duped into submitting quality work to be published on the bogus sites, while in others authors with work they know is shoddy or perhaps even fabricated are looking for a way to legitimize their results.

“I do see a lot of plagiarism on the part of authors,”​ he said.

Hiding in plain sight

Beall offered a few hints for judging a journal. Referencing his blog is one, but the journals pop so fast he says he can’t keep up.

“It takes almost no investment to start one of these publishing houses,”​ he said. “Sometimes they start with 20 or 30 journals at a time.”

Looking for journals with a Thomas Reuters impact factor is another clue, he said, though he cautioned that the factor in and of itself is not a measure of quality.  But few if any predatory journals are rated in this way.  Fees that are out of line is another clue, as is the demand of fees for things like retracting papers.

Another thing to look for is how the journals show up in search.  A number of the predatory publishers leave meta tags on their articles blank, Beall said.  Their goal is not to make the paper freely available, but merely to collect fees for as long as they can before they are unmasked.  So hiding in plain sight, in effect, is part of the strategy, he said.

Related topics: Research

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