“Common wisdom,” according to the authors of a new piece in Nature, “assumes that the hazard of predatory publishing is restricted mainly to the developing world.” But the authors of the new paper, led by David Moher of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, found that more than half — 57% — of the 2,000 articles published in journals they determined were predatory were from high-income countries. In fact, the U.S. was second only to India in number of articles published in such journals. We asked Moher, who founded Ottawa Hospital’s Centre for Journalology in 2015, a few questions about the new work.
Retraction Watch (RW): Your paper comes out on the heels of a Bloomberg story showing that Big Pharma researchers are also publishing in predatory journals. Does all of this suggest that our understanding of who publishes in predatory journals is incomplete, or even wrong?
David Moher (DM): I think this is likely the case. While we are now getting data and evidence to better understand some aspects of predatory journals there is much we still do not know. For example, there is almost no research that has interviewed a sample of predatory journal authors to ascertain their motivations for publishing in these journals. Funders really need to step up to the plate and provide funding to researchers to develop a broad range of investigations related to predatory journals. If we are to stop predatory journals we need evidence to guide us.
RW: You relied on Beall’s now-defunct list of predatory publishers and journals, which as you note was controversial. You also found that the “the title most favoured by US authors in our sample…does not have easily identifiable metrics that distinguish it from non-predatory journals.” How confident are you that the journals you looked at were predatory?
DM: It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between predatory journal and legitimate journals. We hope our 13 evidence-informed criteria will assist prospective authors differentiate predatory journals from legitimate ones. In our current study we are confident that the journals included in our sample are predatory. Only two of them were included in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ); very few mentioned adherence to reporting guidelines, etc. As such we believe the journals included in our sample were ‘truly’ predatory in nature.
RW: As you point out in the paper, prior studies have suggested authors using predatory journals come from low-income countries and may be taking advantage of low publishing fees. You write that “most authors hail from higher income countries.” Your study focused only on the corresponding authors. Had the other studies focused on the corresponding author as you did, would their results likely have matched yours?
DM: This is possible. One reason we focused on corresponding authors is that ultimately it is the corresponding author who is the guarantor of the research and the person submitting the manuscript to the journal. The corresponding author is often, although not always, the senior member of the research team submitting the manuscript to the journal. They hold some responsibility for vetting the journal for its appropriateness and authenticity.
RW: You found the reporting of research in the journals you looked at to be “atrocious.” What do you think was the most significant failing in these reports?
DM: The papers are missing several important best practice methods. For example, few of the included systematic reviews were registered even though the International prospective register of systematic reviews (PROSPERO) is such a registry and has more than 20,000 prospective reviews registered. As I mention below responding to another question, the randomized trials were missing key essential information about how they allocated participants to their treatment groups. Other examples included almost absent methods sections. In the vast majority of articles we felt there was insufficient information to replicate their methods. The quality of reporting of preclinical/animal studies is very low in legitimate journals and even worse in predatory journals. We had quite a few papers that were testing plant/natural remedies and stating that these have potential benefits. The reports claim potential clinical relevance despite being methodologically poorly conducted. It is highly problematic to start suggesting clinical translation (animal and human) where patients may be exposed to these natural remedies with likely no benefit (but still potential harm).
RW: You looked at over 1900 “clinical or preclinical” research studies, involving more than 2 million people and more than 8,000 animals. Do you have any indication that the research itself was poorly done – so to be harmful to the participants?
DM: We do not have any direct evidence. For almost every reader the only information they have about a research study is reading a report of the completed study. We only examined the quality of reports of the included articles. It is possible that some of the articles were well conducted and badly reported or vice-versa. However, there are some tell-tale signs that some of the research (i.e., randomized trials) was poorly conducted. In some reports of the randomized trials the descriptions of the randomization process was incorrect. In those articles where informed consent would be an expectation less than half of them reported this information. Perhaps the research was not ethical and should not have been conducted, although we do not have definitive evidence about this.
RW: One of the suggestions you have for authors to avoid publishing in predatory journals, particularly now that Beall’s controversial list is no longer updated, is to check the Directory of Open Access Journals and Journal Citation Reports for the journal title. New legitimate journals might not yet show there, however, and thus prospective authors may refrain from submissions. This, in turn, can prevent burgeoning journals from thriving. Is there a danger that, in trying to eradicate predatory publishing, we may also inhibit the growth of new publishing ventures and systems? If so, how do we avoid that?
DM: There is always this possibility. Unfortunately there is a gap in the literature in terms of best practice and guidance about developing a new journal. That said, there are a few very simple actions new journal editors (particularly editors-in-chief) can do with negligible cost and high scientific integrity: they can ensure their website has a professional look and feel. We found numerous examples of shoddy spelling errors and grammatical mistakes; editors-in-chief can explicitly indicate they are not a predatory journal and their intent/action is to follow best practice guidance whenever available, such as guidance from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE); and editors can also indicate explicitly their intention (perhaps including the application) of applying to a legitimate journal directory, such as the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). These actions will likely reduce the risk of a new journal getting ensnared on a predatory journal list.
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