The Journal of Clinical Epidemiology is an international, peer-reviewed journal whose website features a staid font and splashes of orange. For a time it had an online doppelgänger– the Clinical Epidemiology Journal, whose website looked strikingly similar.
“When you’d go to the website, it looked exactly the same. They’d taken everything from ours to make it look legitimate,” says Jessie McGowan, an adjunct professor with the School of Epidemiology, Public Health and Preventive Health at the University of Ottawa, who is a member of the journal’s editorial board.
The main difference was that the second journal is what’s known as a predatory journal, set up to collect fees from researchers desperate to publish. It would forgo the usual scientific review process reputable journals stand behind.
The sham was convincing: researchers were fooled by spam sent from the second journal inviting submissions, McGowan says, only to realize later they’d played into the hands of a fake.
The site has since shut down, taking the research with it.
When a researcher submits a study to a legitimate academic journal, it normally undergoes peer review, a process that can take up to six months or longer and involves careful reading by independent experts in the field. These reviewers may request further study or clarifications or may suggest rejecting the article altogether.
“The whole point of publishing is to make research decisions. We need to know if the information is true, whether the information is valid,” McGowan says.
But when many legitimate academic journals moved to an open access model – providing readers with free online access to studies rather than charging hefty subscription fees – it spawned a new business model. Researchers were now asked to pay for their research to be published, sometimes with fees of $1,500 or more.
A cottage industry of unscrupulous but enterprising entrepreneurs soon emerged. Predatory publishers, as they’re called, are defined as those who use an exploitative open access model that involves charging publication fees to authors without providing the editorial and publishing services associated with legitimate journals.
Over the past decade, this has ballooned into a massive trade that some feel has fundamentally warped the academic publishing and peer review process. It has become increasingly difficult to tell real from fake.
‘The costs are huge’
“Experienced and inexperienced researchers are getting caught up in this,” says David Moher, a senior scientist in the Clinical Epidemiology Program and director of the Centre for Journalology at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.
A 2015 study in BMC Medical found that predatory journals published a whopping 420,000 papers in 2014, at an average cost of $178 per paper, with fees ranging from nearly $800 per article to as little as $83. The number of journals identified as predatory has exploded, growing from 1,800 titles in 2010 to more than 8,000 journals in 2014.
While the study found the vast majority of researchers falling prey to predatory journals are either from India, Asia or Africa, nearly one in five researchers were affiliated with institutions in Europe, North America or Australia.
In Moher’s own hospital, a publications officer has tried to help more than 100 researchers who’ve inadvertently placed their work with a predatory journal or are trying to revoke a submission to one.
Since publications can influence hiring and tenure decisions, they can affect the quality of a researcher’s credentials. Publicly funded research may also be lost to these journals, which are not indexed on sites like PubMed.
And while the aim of predatory journals is to turn a profit, these types of journals have been used to spread conspiracy theories, perpetuating myths about chem trails (a debunked theory about the vapour left by airplanes), for example.
Worse, patients may find themselves participating in trials that build on scientific findings that have not been rigorously assessed.
“The analogy to fake news is quite apt,” says Matthew Stanbrook, a respirologist and deputy editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal. “The more (predatory journals) grow, the more they fuel an ability for people to say whatever they want or whatever is useful to them.”
Open access open to corruption
Publications are an important yardstick for academic performance, particularly for researchers seeking tenure: the more publications and the more prestigious the journal, the more likely a candidate is to be successful. The pressure to churn out research is what led to the expression “publish or perish.”
“The problem is it’s been poisoned by this open access. Predatory publishers have realized that the more they publish, the more money they get paid,” says Jeffrey Beall, a research librarian at the University of Colorado and an expert on predatory publishing.
Until recently, he kept what was considered the definitive list of predatory publishers and journals on a personal website, a project that began in 2009 with only 18 names and now lists more than 1,000. His criteria – including 48 elements of questionable practices around transparency and adherence to established scholarly review processes – allowed for “potential,” “possible” or “probable” categorization.
“The only thing I’ve been able to do so far is try to educate people – and name and shame the operators,” Beall says. “It hasn’t been super-effective. There’s still a lot of people publishing in predatory journals.”
The list was unexpectedly taken down earlier this week.
On his blog, Beall recently wrote about legitimate Canadian journals being bought up by predatory publishers, only to start cranking out unvetted papers.
“It throws a roadblock into Canadian researchers being able to get their work seen,” Stanbrook says. “It also highlights the financial challenges of the publishing industry that has left Canadian publications vulnerable to this.”
Beall says many predatory publishers also trade on Canada’s scientific reputation, listing their company addresses as somewhere in Canada to gain credibility, when in reality the publishers are located in other countries.
“I think the predatory publishers are bringing down the entire industry,” Beall says. “All of scholarly publishing is being poisoned by this. There are calls to eliminate journals altogether. Things have become so corrupted by predatory publishers that the whole institution is being damaged by it.”
Publishing without review
Peer review is not a perfect process. One need only follow the disastrous fallout of Andrew Wakefield’s study linking the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism to know that even legitimate journals sometimes fail to weed out junk science.
But predatory journals skip that step entirely, or offer a rushed or questionable review process.
Ottawa Citizen science reporter Tom Spears has chronicled his attempts to test the limit of what a predatory journal will publish, first concocting a paper that was one part geology, one part medicine, accompanied by a picture of Mars and a graph lifted from a Google search. He made up a university and claimed his research had been done in the Nepean desert – Nepean being an Ottawa suburb. Of the 18 journals who received it, half agreed within two days to publish it – just as soon as Spears’ cheque cleared.
“I thought it was a one-shot story, maybe a couple days worth, then it would die down,” he says.
But then Experimental & Clinical Cardiology, a legitimate Canadian journal, was sold and flipped on to new owners who were thought to be purveyors of poor science. Spears tested the new editors by submitting a plagiarized paper on HIV, having replaced “HIV” with “cardiac.” When the journal asked for more details, he sent them a couple pages cribbed from a book about northern Italian landscapes circa 1850. Negotiations to appear in the once credible journal began at $1,200 US.
“Again, I thought that was it, but these clowns keep setting the bar lower and lower,” says Spears.
Spears has watched predatory journals morph from grammatically poor websites to polished imitators to hosts of phony, money-grabbing academic conferences. Lately the scam involves “start up journals” asking established researchers to join their editorial boards, he says. Respected researchers then find it very difficult if not impossible to remove themselves from the mastheads of these dubious journals.
Last year, Spears joined the editorial board for the Journal of Applied Molecular Cell Biology at the invitation of Consortium Publishing of Saskatoon, which is affiliated with OMICS International of Hyderabad, a publisher with a long-standing place on Beall’s list.
At their request, Spears sent a bio claiming he was a research chair in the phrenology of nematodes – an expert in the shape of a roundworm’s head, in other words – at the esteemed Chateau Lafayette campus, a nod to The Laff, the oldest pub in Ottawa.
His editorial on “Scientific Communication in an Era of Progress,” is a thinly-veiled attack on the journal itself, with special reference to the sucker fish, which reproduces at a rate of one every minute.
Starving out the predators
One way to shut down predatory journals would be to shut off the money flowing in for publication. And yet nearly a decade after these types of journals appeared on the scene, researchers are still sending their submissions.
Toronto geriatrician Jason Kerr surveyed about 100 researchers while studying the editorial behaviours of legitimate and predatory journals. For most, the biggest frustration with legitimate publications was the slow pace of review. Researchers told him the quality of peer review feedback had diminished significantly and, in some specialties, there were suspicions that work was being stolen or dismissed because of professional jealousy. Some felt the practice of mandatory blackouts until publication meant that important discoveries, data and information are kept out of circulation for too long. (While Kerr has presented his findings, because of time constraints he’s never submitted them for publication.)
“There are some authors who are dishonestly taking advantage of easy publishing,” Beall says. “And more and more [predatory journals] are catering to that – they’re quick, easy and cheap. But if you submit your work to a predatory journal, it’s going to have a bogus peer review. It’s not validated research, it’s just something you paid a criminal organization to put up on their website dressed up as a scholarly journal.”
Some academics are doing an end-run around academic publishing, Beall said, archiving their papers with pre-printing sites and then sharing them within their fields, skipping both peer review and publication altogether.
Almost everyone agrees that publish or perish is part of the problem.
“What you want, in general, is an incentive structure that rewards the right things, that rewards sharing data, that rewards being open about data, that rewards acknowledging error and that also rewards and reflects the incremental nature of science, as opposed to the ‘every paper is a blockbuster’ thing that we have now,” says Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, a site that reports on scientific integrity and fraud.
Beall says some American universities are moving away from a reliance on “bibliometrics,” the statistical evaluation of a publication based on its impact, including the number of times it’s cited and the impact factor of the journal in which its published. It too is a system that has been corrupted, partly because hiring committees lack the time to actually read publications, but also because of “citation stacking,” or researchers collaborating to cite one another’s work and artificially bump up their impact scores.
Instead, applicants are being asked to present only their top three publications, creating a more reasonable workload for tenure and evaluation committees to personally review for quality.
Moher and his team have developed guidelines for submissions and are undertaking an education campaign to keep researchers aware of the risks of predatory publishing and their responsibility to avoid it. They also recommend researchers visit Ulrich’s list and the website Think, Submit, Check before engaging with a new journal.
Ensuring researchers know how and why to identify suspicious publishers could lay the groundwork for labelling publishing with a predatory journal as grounds for academic misconduct.
“I think some of what gets to predatory journals is based on naivety and it’s the role of mentors to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Stanbrook says. “Most good researchers do that, good research units do that. This raises the stakes for researchers to know why you’re choosing a particular journal for you work. A lot more thought should be given to that.”
Using public research grants or funds to pay publication fees could also be banned.
In September, the US Federal Trade Commission launched a lawsuit against the OMICS Group and two sister companies, alleging they’ve deceived academics and researchers about the nature of their publications and hid fees until after articles had been accepted, then refused to release submissions.
A statement on the OMICS website refutes this.
“This is not a problem that’s going away,” Moher says. “It’s increasing. Closing one’s eyes and hoping it’ll go away – it’s not going to happen.”