Science progresses because it is open to scrutiny. For findings to be accepted, they must pass peer-review and must be presented to other scientists for them to question, refute, or confirm. Publication in a scientific journal (and presentation at conferences) is key to this process. However, the number of journals and conferences have increased massively over the last 10 -20 years, and many of them are not the real thing – so called ‘predatory’ publishing and predatory conferences have sprung up everywhere. The problem with this is that there is no clear line between what is real and what is fake.
How it is supposed to work
Whatever claim you make in the world of science, you will not be taken seriously until you have your work peer-reviewed and accepted for publication in a scientific journal. Some journals are considered better than others, for various reasons, but it is also fair to say that no journal is perfect.
The process is that your study is subjected to scrutiny (peer review) and then put out there in an uneditable format for anyone in the world to challenge (or support). The more support it gets, the more likely it is that this claim will be accepted as being closest to the truth. It may be shown to be wrong at some time in the future, but it will be our best estimate of the truth for now.
A lot of work goes in to preparing a manuscript for publication, and a lot of work goes into reviewing and editing manuscripts before they are published. The reputations of the authors, reviewers, editors and the journal are at stake.
A similar process works for scientific meetings where work is presented, often as an oral presentation. But if the presentation and the work is any good, it still needs to be published to have real impact on the scientific community.
How the internet screwed it up
The process of publication itself was so laborious – from printing and binding to posting – that it had to be just right; you can’t change an article once it has been put in print and posted to libraries and scientists throughout the world. The difficulties and the page limits, also meant competition for space, which drove up the quality.
Enter online publishing: cheap, fast, easily accessible and no page limit.
Many traditional print journals are now available online, and there are some journals that are online only, which are usually ‘open access’ (no subscription fees). But open access means that the money has to come from somewhere, and this is where the publication fee comes in – paid by the authors.
The switch from readers paying, to authors paying, changes everything.
Previously, publishers wanted to attract readers / subscribers, usually by presenting a high quality product. Now they want to attract authors, even if no one reads it – it is in the publisher’s interest to remove obstacles to acceptance and publication, obstacles like quality thresholds.
Some of these on line journals are reputable, but given that anyone can set up an online journal, and given that there is money to be made from doing so, they are now popping up all over the place.
The current situation
I reckon that currently, you can get anything published. So the difficulty is deciding where to publish because there are plenty of journals out there that will take your money and publish your manuscript. There now are tens of thousands of scientific journals out there and the number is increasing rapidly.
Can anything get published?
To prove this point, one researcher submitted a fake article (that should have been detected as meaningless) to 304 online journals (many from Beall’s list, see below) and found it was accepted by over half of them, along with a bill for the publication fee (link here).
A funnier example can be found here, where a frustrated researcher submitted a paper titled “Get me off your f**king mailing list” in response to a spam email request from a journal, and got it accepted; pending payment, of course.
The predatory publishing business model
The business model (as always) is to make as much money as possible. The money comes from authors when a manuscript is accepted for publication. In order to increase revenue, predatory publishers send emails out to researchers everywhere inviting them to submit their manuscript, and then accept everything that is submitted.
For predatory conferences, they accept all the submitted presentations and then get the authors to register for the conference. The fee for registration at the conference (in order to present the paper) is around 500 Euro, so you can see how easy it is to make money from this. The conferences either don’t exist, comprising a bunch of surprised researchers who turn up to the venue only to find each other, and no participants, or they are poorly organised and affiliated with professional bodies that lack legitimacy.
What is real and what is fake?
The line between real and fake is not clear at all. The people submitting articles to these journals and conferences are real researchers, and often the people running the journals have a scientific background. Peer review is often a hidden (‘closed’) process anyway so we have no way of telling if the manuscript was properly reviewed. And the submitted articles are published, and are accessible on the web. The sham conference that I recently visited had a handful of researchers presenting to each other and there was a printed program. So how do we know what is ‘predatory’ or fake?
Someone (Jeffrey Beall) has tried to work this out, and has published a list of “questionable” publishers and journals called Beall’s list. The criteria for inclusion are comprehensive, but are also fairly easy to work around for an enterprising would-be publisher.
It’s a spectrum
When you look into this, you find that there is a continuous spectrum of legitimacy, not a yes/no phenomenon. I searched the hundreds of journals from one particular publisher and noted that a few were listed on Medline (a supposed sign of legitimacy). I asked a colleague who was a world expert on that topic and he said that it wasn’t a very good journal, but that some researchers published there if the better journals didn’t accept their paper. It was ‘real’, it just wasn’t very well thought of. Who knows, in 20 years it might be the leading journal in the field?
The bottom line
Researchers will always be judged by the quality of the journals in which they publish, but by trying to measure legitimacy of the journals we are missing the point. The legitimacy of the journal doesn’t matter; the emphasis of our scrutiny should be on the validity of the individual scientific studies, not on where they were published or even the people who wrote them – those things are only very rough guides.
Are these publishers lowering the standard of science? They may be lowering the average, but they aren’t touching the top tier, and they are making us more aware of the presence of bad science, and that’s a good thing.