The number of so-called “predatory” open-access journals that allegedly sidestep publishing standards in order to make money off of article processing charges has dramatically expanded in recent years, and three-quarters of authors are based in either Asia or Africa, according to a new analysis from BMC Medicine.*
The number of articles published by predatory journals spiked from 53,000 in 2010 to around 420,000 in 2014, appearing in 8,000 active journals. By comparison, some 1.4-2 million papers are indexed in PubMed and similar vetted databases every year.
These types of papers have become a major problem, according to Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado Denver who studies the phenomenon:
Predatory publishers and journals continue to be a serious threat to the scholarly communication ecosystem.
Lately, most predatory journals are published by smaller publishers, which maintain between 10 and 99 titles. The average APC was $178 USD, and most were published within 2-3 months after being submitted.
Most predatory publishing is confined to a few areas, the authors note:
Despite a total number of journals and publishing volumes comparable to respectable (indexed by the Directory of Open Access Journals) open access journals, the problem of predatory open access seems highly contained to just a few countries, where the academic evaluation practices strongly favor international publication, but without further quality checks.
After an initial scan of all predatory publishers and journals included in the so-called Beall’s list, a sample of 613 journals was constructed using a stratified sampling method from the total of over 11,000 journals identified.
But based on their system of sampling, it’s hard to know whether what they selected is truly representative of these types of journals.
It would have taken a lot of effort to manually collect publication volumes and other data for all 11,873 journals, so the only practical solution was to make a sample of journals to generalize from…a fully random sample would probably have resulted in an underestimation of the total number of articles, since journals from the large publishers with large journal portfolios would have dominated the picture and very few journals from single journal publishers would have been included in the sample. Instead we chose a stratified multistage sampling based on the size of the publishers by first splitting the publishers into four size strata (100+ journals, 10–99 journals, 2–9 journals and single-journal) and then randomly sampling publishers within each of these strata.
Although their reasoning makes a bit of sense, it would have been nice to compare their analysis to one from a fully random sample of the journals. The authors themselves acknowledge the issues with sampling in their “limitations” section:
Due to the complexity of our sampling method, our results should be treated only as rough estimates showing the overall magnitude of predatory publishing and its central aspects.
Comparing the findings to a fully randomized sample would be nice, but difficult, corresponding author Cenyu Shen at the Hanken School of Economics in Finland told us:
Given our assumption that publishers of different sizes (in journal portfolios) have quite different average journal sizes, a fully random sample might have provided less reliable results. Also we would not have gotten the more detailed analysis we now have both for general and each stratified publisher group. If we had done a fully random sample in parallel to compare the overall results, this would have lead to a couple of more man-months of very tedious manual data collection.
Within the sample the authors chose, they looked particularly closely at where the publishers and authors were based. Here’s what they found for publishers:
The distribution is highly skewed, with 27 % publishing in India. A total of 52 publishers quote addresses in several countries, for instance, often a combination of the USA or a Western European country with a country from Africa or Asia. In order to establish how credible a USA/European address was, we took a closer look at the 3D street view of the address using Google Maps. If the result was a location that was not credible or, for instance, a PO Box, we classified the journal according to the alternative address.
And here’s for authors:
Figure 8 describes the regional distribution of the 262 sampled corresponding authors, which is highly skewed to Asia and Africa. Around 35 % of authors are from India, followed by Nigerian authors (8 %) and US authors (6 %).
We asked Shen if she was concerned these results might bias some readers against authors from these countries. She responded:
Our results show that compared with other geographic regions, Asia countries have a relative higher percentage of ‘predatory’ publishers. This doesn’t imply that all of journals from that region and papers published in them are absolutely ‘predatory’. To judge a journal, from our perspective, the emphasis should be put more on the quality of papers of that journal rather than where it is operating.
Although the growth in predatory journals has created a new market, it’s still a small fraction of what’s generated from traditional publishing, the authors note:
Using our data for the number of articles and average APC for 2014, our estimate for the size of the market is 74 million USD. The corresponding figure for OA journals from reputable journals has been estimated at 244 million USD in 2013. The global subscription market for scholarly journals is estimated to be around 10.5 billion USD.
Still, the rise is remarkable, and the authors hold many actors accountable for it:
Unlike many writings about the phenomenon, we believe that most authors are not necessarily tricked into publishing in predatory journals; they probably submit to them well aware of the circumstances and take a calculated risk that experts who evaluate their publication lists will not bother to check the journal credentials in detail. Hence we do not uncritically see the authors as unknowing victims. The universities or funding agencies in a number of countries that strongly emphasize publishing in ‘international’ journals for evaluating researchers, but without monitoring the quality of the journals in question, are partly responsible for the rise of this type of publishing.
The problem is also part of a bigger picture, they add:
The phenomenon should probably, however, be seen more broadly as a global North-South dilemma where institutions in developing countries are unable to break free from the increasingly globalized and homogenized view of academic excellence based on ‘where’ and how often one publishes, instead of ‘what’ is published and whether the results are relevant to local needs. In that sense, these authors and their institutions are part of a structurally unjust global system that excludes them from publishing in ‘high quality’ journals on the one hand and confines them to publish in dubious journals on the other.
We asked Jeffrey Beall for his take on the paper, given the reliance on his criteria for predatory publishing. He acknowledged that the dramatic rise in this type of journal is troubling:
…it’s very clear that the trajectory of the number of predatory journals is skyrocketing. The data was grabbed a year ago, and I can tell you that the number of predatory journals has continued to follow this trajectory since then. Predatory publishers and journals continue to be a serious threat to the scholarly communication ecosystem. Recent growth in the number of article brokers and the increasing amount of junk science being published underscore and provide evidence of the threat.
He also disagreed with the authors’ suggestion that the growth of predatory journals will slow down:
I was struck by this sentence in the conclusion: “We found that the problems caused by predatory journals are rather limited and regional, and believe that the publishing volumes in such journals will cease growing in the near future.” This statement is unwarranted because the study did not examine all the problems that predatory journals cause. The reported data don’t support the statement….Also, their attempt to minimize the problems caused by predatory publishers as “regional” is misleading. India has 1.2 billion people, and China has 1.3 billion. There are tens of millions of researchers in this region.
Predatory journals have made the news — this year, The International Archives of Medicine was delisted from the DOAJ after it accepted a bogus study claiming chocolate had health benefits within 24 hours. In 2013, the same author behind that chocolate study, John Bohannon, tricked more than half of a sample of 300 OA journals to accept fake papers submitted under a fake name and institution. Last year, the Ottawa Citizen tricked a cardiology journal into publishing a paper with a “garbled blend of fake cardiology, Latin grammar and missing graphs,” all for the price of $1200 USD.
*Note, 8 a.m. Eastern, 10/1/15: When we originally published this post at the scheduled embargo lift time set by the publisher, the DOI for the paper was not resolving, and the paper was not available on the BMC Medicine site, so we did not include a link. The paper became available at the journal site some hours later, so we’ve added a link.
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