06 April 2015

How much harm is done by predatory journals?

There is a cottage industry of people who feel the need to show, “There are journals that will publish crap!” And it’s getting tiring.

The Scholarly Kitchen did this to Bentham Journals a few years ago, we had the Bohannon “sting” in Science, the angry “Get me off your fucking mailing list” paper. A recent entry into this pageant is a cocoa puffs paper. A new editorial calls predatory journals “publication pollution.”

To listen to some of these, you could be forgiven for thinking that publishing a paper in one of these journals is practically academic miscondusct: a career-ending, unrecoverable event.

I talk to a lot of working scientists, both online and in person. And in all of that time, how many scientists have I heard of who have reported someone who submitted to one of these journals, who were not satisfied with their experience?

Three. One experience is described in two posts (here and here), and a couple of others were tweeted at me when I asked for examples. And two were “my friend” stories, not personal accounts. For the amount of handwringing over predatory publishers, this is a vanishingly small number.

Of course, these numbers are probably underreported, because nobody wants to admit that they published in a junk journal. It’s like admitting you got taken in by an email from someone claiming to be a Nigerian prince. It’s embarrassing to admit when you should have known better.

Let’s say that someone pays and publishes a paper in a predatory journal. Who is harmed, how much are they harmed, and what recourse is there to address the harm?

The author

An author who publishes in such a journal has paid the article processing charge. Okay, that sucks. But presumably the author knew she or he was going to be getting an invoice, and would not have gone that route if she or he was utterly unable to pay.

Assuming that the author has not gone into great financial hardship, let’s say the paper is published online, but without proper peer review. What are the possible outcomes, and what harms might arise?

If the paper is competent, the author could harmed because people will not read the paper because of the journal. But the paper is available for other researchers can use it and cite it if they so choose. People cite non-reviewed stuff all the time (conference abstracts, non journal articles).

If an author realizes that this was a non-peer reviewed venue, what can she or he do about it? The author can try to retract it. If the journal does not, the author can try to publish it elsewhere. Real journal editors might be sympathetic to the plight of authors who made a mistake in the publishing venue.

An author could choose not to list the paper on her or his CV. Other professionals do similar things. Actor Peter MacNicol never listed the movie Dragonslayer on his list of films.

Ultimately, I don’t see severe harm done to an honest author who publishes in the wrong journal. It’s reasonable to ask if that harm couldn’t have been avoided with a little due diligence. Authors should know the principle “Caveat emptor” applies as much to journals as other services.

The public

Another argument is that the harm of publishing in predatory journals is that the public or the unwary will be confused, because the findings could be untrue. Let’s examine a few scenarios of how findings could be false.

The research was not done well. This is no different from research published in other journals. There are many, many cases of research that was poorly done, but published anyway. This is why post-publication peer review is important. This is why replication is important. Scientists perform post-publication peer review all the time. It is our job. This is what we do.

The researchers are malicious. It is possible that someone with an agenda might try to give dubious information some sort of veneer of respectability by publishing it in a predatory journal. But... why? There are many easier ways for people with an agenda to spread lies than publishing in a crummy journal.

Professional climate denier Marc Morano has never published a scientific article. Neither has dubious diet critic the Food Babe. They doesn’t need to, when they’ve found so many media platforms that give them a so much bigger audience. It’s not clear how an article in a junk journal is supposed to be a more effective way of spreading untrue information than a blog, or an infomercial, appearing on a cable news network sympathetic to certain ideas and ideologies, or any of the other hundreds of ways people can spread lies.

This raises the question of how the general public finds out about research of any sort, including the dodgy stuff. Most members of the general public are not scouring academic journals. For there to be significant spread of the false research findings, it would either have to be spread through the general media or social media

General media. Science journalists who have any baseline competence should understand scientific publishing enough to realize that not every research article in every scientific journal is true. Publishing in a little known journals should raise an immediate red flag and warrant investigation before filing a story. If any journalist doesn’t do that, you have “churnalism,” and in my mind, that’s a separate – and much bigger – problem than a junk journal.

Social media. So far, I know of no cases where an article from an alleged “predatory” journal has gone viral. But let’s say it does. One of the powers of social media is that if something does go viral, it gets a lot of attention, including relevant experts can talk about it. They are probably going to comment, and be asked to comment, and can explain why such and such a paper is problematic. One of the wonderful things about the dress was that it gave lots of experts a chance to explain what we know about visual system.

Other scientists

I am not sure I see much potential harm for other scientists if a paper is published in a crappy journal. Because the entire point of a journal being called “predatory” is a way of saying that it has no standing in the scientific community. So if a journal is already being ignored by a scientific community, how is it going supposed to affect that community?

Evaluating articles is what we working professional are supposed to be doing. Like, all the time. I suppose that there is a minor harm in that people might have an opportunity cost in time spent debunking papers in junk journals. But more likely, papers in bogus journals are going to suffer the same fate as a lot of other articles: they’ll just be ignored.

Another argument might be that the general scientific community is harmed because there is reduced public trust in science. As I outlined above, I can’t see that happening.

The major reasons that scientists get their panties in a bunch about predatory journals is not because junk “predatory” have done much demonstrable harm to anyone, other than authors who are out their processing fees. I see lots hand waving about the “purity and integrity of the scientific record,” which is never how it’s been. The scientific literature has always been messy. We always have verify, replicate, and often correct published results.

Stephen Curry wrote:

“The danger of this model is that upfront fees provide short term incentives for journals to accept papers from anyone who has the money to pay, regardless of their scientific value or accuracy.” Is there any evidence that this is a serious risk? As the author himself notes, no journal will build a reputation for quality by publishing any old rubbish. This is a bit of a straw man argument.

Some people have claimed that these predatory journals exploit scientists in developing countries. It reminds me a little of someone on Twitter who recounted asking at a historical tour, “Were slaves kept here?” The guide answered, “Yes, they had good houses and were well cared for.” The problem wasn’t whether they had decent housing, the problem was they were slaves.

The problems for researchers in developing countries are not predatory journals. The problems that such researchers have is bad infrastructure, lack of support, and poor mentoring that prevents them from putting together papers that could be published in mainstream scientific journals. That they may be working under incentives that do not reward them for discriminating between journals. I also am waiting to hear from the waves of dissatisfied scientists from developing countries who feel they got ripped off.

I also noticed this when I tried to read a new entry in the “OMG predatory journals” collection:

It’s not quite an open access irony award winner... but it’s close. You want to complain about scientific publishing? Let’s talk about the regular, routine obstruction to reading the scientific literature that occurs even a professional working scientist at an expanding university with ever increasing research expectations. That affects routinely me, in a way predatory journals never have.

Open access is a new business model. Who benefits from constantly crying wolf on “predatory” journals? Established journals from established publishers, whose business model includes, in part, in asking over US$30 to read an editorial.

We should be worried about parasites as well as predators in the scientific publishing ecosystem.

Additional, 8 April 2015: There is a little bit of data indicating that these junk journals are not being read here. Hat tip to Lenny Teytelman.

Related posts

Science Online 2013: Open access or vanity press appetizer
Open access or vanity press, the Science sting edition

External links

Why A Fake Article Titled "Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs?" Was Accepted By 17 Medical Journals
Comment on “Open Access must be open at both ends”
Beyond Beall’s List: We need a better understanding of predatory publishing without overstating its size and danger.
Some perspective on “predatory” open access journals
Science’s Big Scandal
Science and medicine have a 'publication pollution' problem
Academic journals in glass houses... 


Bjoern Brembs said...

When I saw your title, I thought you would be tallying the $$ collected by Elsevier, Wiley and Springer for articles which they promised their authors to offer without charge after they had collected the APCs from these authors. You know, the REAL predatory publishers :-)

Stephen Heard said...

I really enjoyed this, but I cringed a bit at "Science journalists who have any baseline competence should understand scientific publishing enough to realize that not every research article in every scientific journal is true". Perhaps we should expect science journalists to understand this, and the best ones do, but I suspect the great mass don't. Actually, I'm not convinced that most of us (scientists) really understand this - and by coincidence I put up a blog post on this very thing, just moments ago (http://wp.me/p5x2kS-2v)!

Martin Haspelmath said...

I think it's not only subscription journals that profit from concern over predatory journals, but also platinum journals, and the very idea that neither readers nor authors should pay. It's the scientific publishers who should pay, just like scientific research organizations pay for research (see this blog post of mine: http://www.frank-m-richter.de/freescienceblog/2013/02/14/science-publication-should-be-seen-as-a-public-service-just-like-science-itself/)