Predatory journals: no definition, no defence

From Nature:

When ‘Jane’ turned to alternative medicine, she had already exhausted radiotherapy, chemotherapy and other standard treatments for breast cancer. Her alternative-medicine practitioner shared an article about a therapy involving vitamin infusions. To her and her practitioner, it seemed to be authentic grounds for hope. But when Jane showed the article to her son-in-law (one of the authors of this Comment), he realized it came from a predatory journal — meaning its promise was doubtful and its validity unlikely to have been vetted.

Predatory journals are a global threat. They accept articles for publication — along with authors’ fees — without performing promised quality checks for issues such as plagiarism or ethical approval. Naive readers are not the only victims. Many researchers have been duped into submitting to predatory journals, in which their work can be overlooked. One study that focused on 46,000 researchers based in Italy found that about 5% of them published in such outlets. A separate analysis suggests predatory publishers collect millions of dollars in publication fees that are ultimately paid out by funders such as the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

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Everyone agrees that predatory publishers sow confusion, promote shoddy scholarship and waste resources. What is needed is consensus on a definition of predatory journals. This would provide a reference point for research into their prevalence and influence, and would help in crafting coherent interventions.

To hammer out such a consensus and to map solutions, we and others met in Ottawa, Canada, over two days in April this year. The 43 participants hailed from 10 countries and represented publishing societies, research funders, researchers, policymakers, academic institutions, libraries and patient partners (that is, patients and caregivers who proactively engage in research).

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The consensus definition reached was: “Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterized by false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial and publication practices, a lack of transparency, and/or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices.”

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Since the term ‘predatory publishers’ was coined in 2010, hundreds of scholarly articles, including 38 research papers, have been written warning about them. Scientific societies and publishers (including Springer Nature) have helped to establish the ‘Think. Check. Submit.’ campaign to guide authors. But it is not enough.

More than 90 checklists exist to help identify predatory journals using characteristics such as sloppy presentation or titles that include words such as ‘international’. This is an overwhelming number for authors. Only three of the lists were developed using research evidence. Paywalled lists of quality journals and predatory journals show that there is an appetite for clear, authoritative guidance. But these lists are inconsistent and sometimes out of reach (see ‘No list to rule them all’). A journal’s membership of agencies such as COPE (the Committee on Publication Ethics), curated indexes such as Web of Science, or being listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) is insufficient to guarantee quality. Predatory journals have found ways to penetrate these lists, and new journals have to publish for at least a year before they can apply for indexing.

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Crafting a consensus definition was hard. Even reaching agreement on the use of ‘predatory’ was a challenge. Part of the group wanted a term that acknowledges that some authors turn to these outlets fully aware of their low quality; these scholars willingly pay to publish in predatory journals to add a line to their CVs. We discussed replacing the term entirely with language that recognizes nuances in publishers’ quality and motivation. Alternatives considered included ‘dark’, ‘deceptive’, ‘illegitimate’ and ‘acting in bad faith’. Ultimately, we concluded that the term ‘predatory’ has become recognized in the scholarly community.

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False or misleading information. This applies to how the publisher presents itself. A predatory journal’s website or e-mails often present contradictory statements, fake impact factors, incorrect addresses, misrepresentations of the editorial board, false claims of indexing or membership of associations and misleading claims about the rigour of peer review.

Deviation from best editorial and publication practices. Standards here have been set out in the joint statement on Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing issued by the DOAJ, the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, COPE and the World Association of Medical Editors. Examples of substandard practice include not having a retraction policy, requesting a transfer of copyright when publishing an open-access article and not specifying a Creative Commons licence in an open-access journal. These characteristics can be difficult to know before submitting, although such information is easily obtained from legitimate journals. An unprofessional-looking web page — with spelling or grammar mistakes or irrelevant text — should also raise red flags.

Link to the rest at Nature