Predators and prey

I would like to congratulate Ottawa Citizen science reporter Tom Spears on the latest exposure of what are being called “predatory publishers.” In his recent article, Spears put together a pseudo-scientific article that was complete gibberish to expose these fly-by-night “journals” that are actually scams to lure in beginning and foreign scientists looking for a publication credit.

In my career, I have had brushes with these modern-day confidence men (and possibly women!). Aside from my strong visceral reaction that anyone who would prey on young scientists is the lowest of the low, I find it hard to believe that anyone thinks “scientific publishing = easy money!”

Let me tell you about my experiences. Back in about 2009, I got a message from an engineer who was looking to publish an article in the Canadian Journal of Civil Engineering at NRC Research Press, where I worked. He had sent a manuscript to a website claiming to be CJCE; it was posted immediately and the “journal” then demanded money. He directed us to the website, which was an unknown publisher claiming to publish several journals called “the Canadian Journal of…,” including the Canadian Journal of Civil Engineering, which, in fact, we published. There was no editor listed, just an email address and a street address that was an apartment building in Toronto (no apartment number, no phone number). Long story short, there was a cease-and-desist letter and the CJCE name was taken off the website.

I teach scientists in Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico) to write articles for submission to English-language journals in English. From my first teaching experience in 2011, I became aware that several UNAM faculty were getting emails asking them to submit to journals they had never heard of. I investigated these journals, and many of them were suspect. I started warning Mexican scientists about these.

Several UNAM professors have told me that they get letters asking them to join the editorial board of a journal they have never heard of and promising them it won’t involve any work. Furthermore, the suspect journals ask immediately if they can use UNAM’s logo on their website.

One of my former students wrote an interesting interdisciplinary paper. She was understandably having difficulty finding a journal for it because it doesn’t fit into the scope of many journals. She was also hesitant to send the paper to solidly ranked journals. (I find that many beginning authors and those from developing or emerging countries lack the confidence to try an established journal.) Anyway, she had looked into journals that she had never cited and had found a journal that seemed to be in the right area for her paper.

Fortunately, she discussed her choice with one of my teaching colleagues, who was suspicious and asked me about it. The journal was with one of the most notorious predatory publishers. This so-called “publisher” had republished copyrighted articles without permission, didn’t seem to have a place of publication, put editors’ names on journals without their knowledge, etc. I did some research for my student and sent her several links to information about the predatory publisher. Fortunately, she decided against sending her paper to this journal.

This is a good example of how even intelligent researchers get pulled in.

Many editors and professors used to advise authors to try beginning or start-up journals for an early publication. Now, I tell my students not to send a paper to a journal that appears to be a start-up because of the very real possibility it is one of these predators. Instead, I show them how to research a journal, checking that the editors and publisher are well-known and reputable, and that the journal is indexed in standard indexes such as Web of Science, MEDLINE/PubMed, Chemical Abstracts, and other curated disciplinary indexes. (Google Scholar is not an index, it’s a search engine, and it crawls many predatory journals.) I tell them to submit to journals they actually read and cite.

As Spears’ article points out, the problem is completely out of hand.

The main person addressing this issue is Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at University of Colorado Denver. In his blog here on WordPress, Scholarly Open Access, Beall first started listing suspected predatory publishers and journals; I believe he coined the term “predatory” in this context as well. Beall has taken flak for his choice of predatory journals (some journals claim to be legitimate start-ups, and the usual anarchists claim that Elsevier is predatory ~sigh~), but at least he addressed the issue. He deserves our gratitude.

While journals and researchers have taken steps to expose these predatory publishers, to my knowledge there have been no moves to try to curtail them. I think it’s time that the legitimate editorial/publishing industry does something. Coming up on the first weekend of May, the Council of Science Editors annual meeting will include a session on predatory publishing, convened and moderated by my colleague Tamer El Bokl, a managing editor at Canadian Science Publishing (NRC Research Press). I am hopeful that this will raise awareness of this issue among editors and spur CSE on to some action on this front.