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How to Screw up Scholarship -- The Predatory Journals

Most folks not involved in either doing research, which was what I did for over fifty years or paying attention to the progress others are making, which is what I’m reduced to since closing my lab back in ‘05, have probably never heard of “predatory journals.” Well, they’re screwing with science and other fields of scholarship so, a short essay on them:

Predatory journals are fake journals. They tend to be in fields of science but others exist in other academic disciplines. They are scams designed with one purpose, to make money for the people who claim to be the “editors.” The game goes like this:

a. The “journal” gets the emails of a large number of people in various field of scholarship. This is easy to do. They can be members of scientific organizations, students or faculty at colleges and universities, researchers in applied fields, corporations that have R & D programs, whatever, anywhere. It doesn’t matter.

b. They send batch emails announcing the “new cutting edge” journal with a name that sounds legit, like “Journal of Bio-medical Archeology.” The announcement invariably notes that this is an open-access, online journal. I get three or four of these in a typical month.

c. Announce that the new journal is seeking papers and that they are inviting you, because of your background, to submit. Of course, if it’s not your field you just hit “delete,” but anyone working in the area of the journal might be interested.

d. Couch the announcement in wording that makes it seem like the journal is edited and that all articles will only be accepted after peer-review. Legitimate scholarly journals only publish articles after review by experts.

If you bite, here are the next steps:

i. Suppose you have a paper you’ve been working on but are unsure which journal to send it to. Previous experiences have made clear how tough it is to get published in the existing main-stream outlets. So off it goes to this “new” journal.

ii. A note comes back, usually within a day or two, sometimes within 24 hours, saying “congratulations” your article has been accepted.

iii. A form is attached asking you to cover costs of publication and to fill out and sign a contract. The “cost” can be anywhere from $50 to $300 (and sometimes more).

iv. As soon as your check clears or your credit card payment goes through you get another email giving you the url where you paper can now be found.

So what’s wrong with this you might ask? Several things:

1. You don’t know if anyone at the journal has any background in your field or whether they read your paper, reviewed it, or did routine editing. Several investigative journalists have tested this by sending in mocked-up, deliberate junk and had it immediately accepted! 

2. Your paper is now available to anyone. It may or may not be a serious piece of research — and there’s no way for anyone who runs across it to know. But, any search engine that tags key words you used will find it.

3. There’s a distinct possibility that the paper contains all manner of errors. But again, the casual reader who chances across it won’t know that.

4. As the word gets out that researchers can get the number of publications on their vitae boosted easily, they start sending in papers based on weak, poorly done research — or worse, joksters start sending in deliberate nonsense just for the fun of it.

5. Others cite these papers and their findings without realizing they getting bamboozled by worthless, junk science and the misinformation cycle spins on.

6. The scam works most effectively with young researchers who need to “pad their resumés,” researchers in poor and underdeveloped countries who don’t have access to the standard publishing outlets, students looking to make their achievements while still training look impressive, busy folks who don’t want (or lack the time) to do the work of getting their findings or theories in the legitimate journals or ones tired of having their papers rejected — doing real scholarship is tough and things can get competitive.

And, because this scam is so easy to pull off, so cheap to run, and makes so much money doing basically nothing, it’s spread like wildfire — and grown. There are now conferences run on topics by people who have virtually no experience in either the field and, in some cases, actually running a conference. Again, all papers are “accepted” and all must pay for the privilege of presenting their work. Other outfits offer positions as “editors” or “reviewers” — again, you must pay to be listed on the journals masthead. Still others have gone big-time and set up entire publishing houses with dozens of these predatory journals.

Lately legitimate scientists and scholarly organizations have begun fighting back. The best resource is “Beall’s List” which is here. It lists over a thousand(!) suspect outfits that are engaged in this game and virtually all of them publish multiple journals.

The fight is particularly difficult because there are real, serious open-access journals that use the standard, peer-review model. I’ve recently published in one of these which is edited by a respected scientist and has an editorial board well-known researchers. There are ways an interested scholar can determine if a site is legit or not. The usual give-aways are how fast your article was accepted and whether there’s a publishing fee. 

There’s an even larger issue lurking behind this one: the pros and cons, the give-and-take nature of an open, free Internet. We’ll get back to this one in the future. It’s vitally important because politicians are looking to screw with “net neutrality.”

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