Sale of Canadian medical journals to predatory publisher a signpost of the death of the society journal

Over the last week, I’ve spent some time covering the sale of Canadian medical journal publishers Pulsus Group and Andrew John Publishing to OMICS International, a publisher in Hyderabad, India, that has engaged in many “predatory” journal practices (see blog posts passim ad nauseum).

But is there anything more to this story than just a decision that has left 16 Canadian journals scrambling to find a new publisher? OK, it’s rough for the journals involved, but a tempest in a teapot in the big scheme of things.

I think there is. This is just one signpost one really bad stretch of washboard on the road to the grave for the society journal.

Richard Smith, former editor of BMJ, was accused of hyperbole when he announced the death throes of national medical journals in his blog back in March. He was talking about the recent firing of the editor-in-chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal in particular, but commented that journals are disappearing in any case, and that in trying to find solutions for their journals medical associations are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

In work I have done for society journals in the last six years that I’ve been consulting, I have said, “These are tough times for journals.” To keep journals afloat, societies have had to re-evaluate the journal’s role, cut its costs, and increasingly give it to another established publisher to publish.

There are several reasons for this. First, journals have become more complex and expensive to run, as there usually needs to be a print version and an online version (the death of print being exaggerated). Modern digital publishing is not in a society’s core competency. Furthermore, it is much more expensive for a society to develop all of the publishing expertise in order to run a journal or two than for a big publisher just to add a journal to its publishing mill (and let me tell you, some of them are a real mill churning out thousands of articles).

The traditional forms of revenue subscriptions from academic libraries, ads from drug companies, member dues are all down. Journals find funds increasingly from their society’s coffers, creating bad feelings as the society’s Board of Directors inevitably questions why the society is publishing a journal but then grudgingly  agrees to keep it going.

Even for the publishers, there’s no money in it any more. Andrew John and Pulsus Group were respected small commercial publishers that did a good job for their journals. But they couldn’t find buyers who wants a bunch of very niche Canadian medical titles ? One of the societies I talked to said it was too bad that their journal would have to be published outside of Canada, as more and more Canadian journals are. But the large Canadian publishers can’t take on journals unless they are a sure bet or the society agrees to pay the costs under a contract publishing arrangement.

Into this morass stepped two x factors: the fact that Canadian publishers agreed to sell to a questionable publisher and that predatory publishers have started buying legitimate journals in order to buy credibility. The general reaction to these developments was, whoa, where did that come from? But this out-of-the-blue story came about because of the slow, creeping quicksand that journals are in.

So how long will these small society journals be able to continue? I suspect that we may lose a few as a result of the OMICS situation. Others will find a home with a legitimate foreign publisher. Many will move to own their title and copyright or add a “right of first refusal” to their publishing contracts to prevent being eaten by a predator.

But in the coming years more and more titles will disappear. Only a radical rethink of traditional society journals can save them, and I haven’t seen anything suggested that is radical enough. This is immensely sad. It’s an industry that I’ve spent most of my career in. We cannot put our heads in the sand, though. We have to look forward to Richard Smith’s “post-journal world” and see what joys it holds.


Predatory publishers in the crosshairs

At the Council of Science Editors’ meeting in San Antonio, Texas, this May, there was a lively session on predatory publishers. And an important step has been taken in turning the tables on these fraud artists.

Four major organizations are uniting to address the problem in a constructive way. The groups involved are the World Association of Medical Editors, the Committee on Publication Ethics, the Directory of Open Access Journals, and the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association. They have agreed on a joint statement on The Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing, available on the web sites of each of the organizations.

The statement sets out the expectations for a peer-reviewed journal, and the requirement that this information be fully available on the journal’s web site. The statement can be used by authors as a checklist to help ascertain that a journal is bona fide and not predatory.

More importantly, the organizations plan to ensure their members adhere to these requirements. While the first step will be to give the journal a chance to comply, if there are serious failures to meet these requirements, the journal is out.

I think the other step being planned is even more crucial: the organizations are going to put together a list of reputable publishers and journals. This is the reverse of Beall’s list: a list of the bona fide journals rather than the predatory ones. This will give authors a place to check on a journal they are planning to submit to — someone else has done the homework for them.

These are excellent moves in the right direction. But they stop short of what should happen: these so-called “publishers” should be shut down. That’s tricky to do when the “publisher” cannot be located, does not publish the names of its owners, and is in another jurisdiction from its victims. And what is the legal mechanism to stop them? These are all interesting problems, and they define the next steps in protecting the legitimate community of scholarly publishing.

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.