Condemning Predatory Journals/Publishers: Nature

This week’s Nature has run yet another publication condemning the evil of predatory publication. However, there is a twist in the tale as the authors have found that authors from high-income countries also publish in these journals quite often!

A group of authors spent a whole year combing through 2000 articles published in 200 potentially predatory journals. Since Jeffrey Beall’s list was taken down, it has become a fair bit difficult to keep a track of these predatory publishers, but at the same time, he has raised a storm which refuses to die down. The latest in a series of publications humiliating journals with slack peer-reviewing standards, and fly-by-night/make-money-quick policies, further adds to the body of scholarly work which will ensure the perpetuation of the term that Mr. Beall coined a few years ago.

It has always been my assumption that these journals were more likely to dupe researchers from low- and middle-income nations, who may not have exposure to the concept of predatory journals, or who, trying to exploit the lax systems in place, wanted to game the business of “publish or perish” to their advantage, by publishing as many papers as they could, in journals of doubtful quality, which only promised one thing – quick publication! However, the current paper somewhat defies this preconception. Look at what they are saying and try to digest it:

Common wisdom assumes that the hazard of predatory publishing is restricted mainly to the developing

world. In one famous sting, a journalist for Science sent a purposely flawed paper to 140 presumed predatory titles (and to a roughly equal number of other open-access titles), pretending to be a biologist based in African capital cities1. At least two earlier, smaller surveys found that most authors were in India or elsewhere in Asia23. A campaign to warn scholars about predatory journals has concentrated its efforts in Africa, China, India, the Middle East and Russia. Frequent, aggressive solicitations from predatory publishers are generally considered merely a nuisance for scientists from rich countries, not a threat to scholarly integrity.

Our evidence disputes this view. We spent 12 months rigorously characterizing nearly 2,000 biomedical articles from more than 200 journals thought likely to be predatory. More than half of the corresponding authors hailed from high- and upper-middle-income countries as defined by the World Bank.

Of the 17% of sampled articles that reported a funding source, the most frequently named funder was the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). The United States produced more articles in our sample than all other countries save India. Harvard University (with 9 articles) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the University of Texas (with 11 articles across all campuses) were among the eight institutions with the most articles. It is easy to imagine other, similar institutions coming up in a different sample. The point is, the problem of predatory journals is more urgent than many realize.

Whether authors are being duped or are overzealously seeking to lengthen their publication lists, this represents enormous waste. Just the subset of articles that we examined contained data from more than 2 million individuals and over 8,000 animals. By extrapolation, we estimate that at least 18,000 funded biomedical-research studies are tucked away in poorly indexed, scientifically questionable journals. Little of this work will advance science. It is too dodgily reported (and possibly badly conducted) and too hard to find.

The horrifying  thing is this, that people may actually be publishing in these journals, in full knowledge of their illegitimacy – and they may not at all be hailing from LMICs! If the estimates that the authors have provided are anywhere close to the real values, then the researcher in me just died a little bit. I enthusiastically agree when they posit that knowingly publishing in dicey journals, with lax peer review standards, is an ethical no-no!

The authors have tried to look at which countries were most commonly represented in this list, and as expected, India comes off looking quite poor. However, surprisingly, USA follows next. They state:

For 1,907 papers, corresponding authors came from 103 countries, including India (27%), the United States (15%), Nigeria (5%), Iran (4%) and Japan (4%) (see ‘Global predation’). These figures should be interpreted in the context of total scientific output per nation. According to tallies in the academic databases Scopus and PubMed, the United States produced about 5 times as many biomedical articles as India last year, and 80 times as many as Nigeria. An analysis of general academic articles from 2013 to 2015 in Scopus found that 10% or more from India and Nigeria were in predatory journals, as compared to less than 1% from Japan and the United States9.

The authors also tried getting in touch with the institutions where these authors were affiliated. They provide one good and one bad story, with the bad one outweighing the good one (in my opinion):

We contacted 16 vice-presidents (or the senior administrative person) of research at some of the top institutions whose researchers were publishing in predatory journals. Our e-mail to Bangalore Medical College and Research Institute bounced back. Three institutions provided feedback; one (Manipal University, India, 15 papers) detailed an intervention launched earlier this year, and provided data that the effort reduced the number of articles published in presumed predatory journals. …

D. Y. Patil University in India, which, with 20 papers, had the most in our sample, did not reply. Nor did the University of Tehran, which, with 14 papers from 14 authors, tied with D. Y. Patil University for the most unique authors. …

Fifteen articles — including all 9 at Bangalore Medical College and Research Institute — did not include author e-mails. …

Just one of the ten most common funders reported in our study, the University Grants Commission, India, provides guidance about journal selection on its website.

To the credit of the Indian Council of Medical Research, there has been a growing awareness of the problem of publishing in predatory journals, and internal push has been given to make the scientists aware of the existence of this problem. For example, after I joined the ICMR earlier this year, I underwent an Induction Training, along with 25 other newly -anointed scientists. In course of the sessions on publication ethics and norms, the senior scientists talked about the concept of predatory publishers and the need to avoid them like the plague. This was particularly important in light of the fact that a publication in Current Science indicated that the 6% of the corresponding authors in the sampled publications from predatory journals were affiliated to ICMR. Given that this is lower than the rates of the other institutes, there is some room for relief, although this should not be a cause for complacency and replacement of the vigil to keep away from predatory publishers needs to be reinforced.

My gut feel is that there is limited awareness about predatory publishers in the wider public health community. And even if there is some awareness of the problem, they are probably not very adept at identifying a predatory publisher/journal from the real deal. In fact, only yesterday, I was out taking a training session on using Mendeley for Reference Management for a group of early career teaching faculty members in the medical schools of Kolkata, and much to my dismay (which I did not express), many of them seemed to have published in predatory journals. I was unsure whether or not to drive the message home hard, so I only briefly touched on the issue before moving on to other scheduled sessions. Yet, despite being given with all these proofs, I somehow feel that the authors of the Nature paper have hit the nail on the head with this comment (bold and italics mine):

Also, the term ‘predator’ in particular is questioned, because on occasion it is hard to tell whether a journal is simply inept or disdaining research integrity and scientific robustness to pursue profit. And rather than being prey, some authors may purposely seek out low-barrier ways to publish.

Building awareness, moving away from the “number of publications” to the “quality of publications”, and providing support to the young scientists/faculty members could be the first steps towards countering the tendency to rely on easy-to-publish, predatory journals. The problem remains that the worth of a scientist is still measured in terms of the publications they have to their belt. In the past, a large swathe of predatory journals could contribute to a scientist’s CV. However, institutions are waking up to the possibility of the system being gamed by scientists who publish in predatory outlets to inflate the bulk of their curriculum vitae. The ICMR has instituted a couple of steps in this regard which could be potential ways out – first, instead of focusing on the number of publications a scientist has, it is more worthy to look at the impact factor of journals in which their articles have been published; and second, taking cognizance of the fact that simply publishing in a high impact journal does not make a paper high impact, taking into account the citations received by the paper while making decisions could be a fruitful alternative.

There needs to be a widespread condemnation of academics who take the short way out and publish in predatory journals. And this week’s piece in Nature has highlighted the potential beginning of a new culture.

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