NIH to researchers: Don’t publish in bad journals, please

The U.S. National Institutes of Health has noticed something: More of the research it’s funding is ending up in questionable journals. Recently, the agency issued a statement highlighting some qualities of these journals — aggressively soliciting submissions, failing to provide clear information about pricing — and urging researchers to avoid them. The NIH’s goal: to “help protect the credibility of papers arising from its research investment.” We asked the NIH for more information about the guide notice; a representative returned responses, asking that we attribute them to the NIH Office of Extramural Research.

Retraction Watch: What prompted the NIH to issue this guide notice? Was there an incident?

NIH: NIH continually seeks ways to improve the quality, significance, and impact of funded research.  Several recent articles have raised concerns about the practices of some journals and publishers, and we became aware that NIH research is sometimes published in journals that do not adhere to established best practices.

RW: The guide notice says: “The NIH has noted an increase in the numbers of papers reported as products of NIH funding which are published in journals or by publishers that do not follow best practices promoted by professional scholarly publishing organizations.” Can you tell us any more about the numbers underlying that statement?

NIH: We do not have hard numbers to share with you. That said, we have noticed reports from the community related to this topic.

RW: You note that more than 90 percent of the research that comes from NIH funding appears in journals indexed by MEDLINE. But that means that close to 10% appears in journals not indexed by MEDLINE, correct?

NIH: Yes. That is not surprising because MEDLINE is a highly selective set of journals and represents just a fraction of the published literature. It only accepts about 15% of journals that apply for indexing. Many journals that are rejected are still solid journals. They may simply be too new to have a track record, or cover topics out of scope. NIH-funded research may be published in non-biomedical journals (e.g., economics, engineering, mathematics) that are simply out of scope for the MEDLINE and the NLM collection.

NIH supported research is published in a broad array of journals. NIH wants scientists to publish in venues that will reach the most relevant audience for their work while adhering to established good practices regarding peer review, editorial quality, etc.  NIH-funded author manuscripts have been published in over 10,000 journals since 2008. Over 7800 journals of those journals have published 25 or fewer NIH-funded manuscripts. Of this long-tail, 3,022 journals have only published one NIH supported manuscript.

RW: Researchers who receive NIH funding are typically doing promising work, given the competition to obtain federal funds. What would this work end up in sub-par, allegedly “predatory” journals?

NIH: We want to be clear that our guide notice was only focused on journals that might be engaging in deceptive practices. We are not concerned about journals that are too new to have a track record or journals that are trying to innovate. We are simply encouraging NIH awardees to take care when publishing where they do not cite.

There are many quality journals outside of MEDLINE and PMC with sound editorial practices, effective peer review, and scientific merit.  It can often be difficult for a researcher-author to evaluate these factors independently.  That’s one reason the NIH Guide Notice calls on all stakeholders to assist researcher-authors in finding good publishing venues.  The NLM blog post highlights the role of librarians in this process because of their familiarity with journals and publishers.

We also recognize that authors can sometimes feel pressure to publish their work quickly.  In these cases, we would encourage authors to issue a preprint.  They can post a preprint while they submit it to a peer-reviewed journal, or they can wait for community feedback to strengthen their manuscript.

RW: Do you ever envision creating a requirement that funding recipients publish in journals that are indexed by MEDLINE, or some other criteria to ensure researchers publish their findings in reputable places?

NIH: Our Guide Notice is a way of helping direct scientists to reputable journals.  As noted above, MEDLINE is highly selective– although it is encouraging to see that 90% of NIH funded papers are published in MEDLINE journals.  Because of the many sources of author guidance and the abundance of fine journals both indexed and not indexed by MEDLINE, we do not foresee a need for restrictions.  Further, the scientific community is good at identifying quality work in their discipline.  As scientists become more familiar with deceptive journals, they will discount the work and scientists published in those journals.

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5 thoughts on “NIH to researchers: Don’t publish in bad journals, please”

  1. Lots of vague answers in this piece and it’s odd that this person needs to remain anonymous. I really believe the NIH, along with others, obsess too much predatory journals, without sufficiently dealing with the real problem, i.e. the waste of taxpayer money on poorly designed and executed research, that can’t be published anywhere except in questionable journals. Changing the incentive system for publishing research and raising scientific standards is the only real solution.

    1. But is that ‘the real problem’? Really? Not the fact that huge amounts of perfectly worthy, well-designed and well-executed research fails to titillate the glamour journals, so never sees the light of day (such is the pathetic, superficial infatuation with shiny impact factors)? No? Ah well.

      1. Glamour journals like to publish highly novel findings. One can argue forever what that means but for those “perfectly worthy, well-designed and well-executed” studies that fail to make the cut there exists an abundance of very good to reasonable journals with high visibility. If something never sees the light of day, its probably for the better….

  2. I wonder which is better for the NIH whether the grantees would not publish their low-quality research results at all, or they would publish them in the low-quality journals. I assume not all the funded research would end up with the findings publishable in MEDLINE journals.

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