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'scams upon scammers' by flickr user Daniel Mogford
…what 419 scams are to banking…
scams upon scammers” image by flickr user Daniel Mogford used by permission.

Investigative science journalist John Bohannon[1] has a news piece in Science earlier this month about the scourge of faux open-access journals. I call them faux journals (rather than predatory journals), since they are not real journals at all. They display the trappings of a journal, promising peer-review and other services, but do not deliver; they perform no peer review, and provide no services, beyond posting papers and cashing checks for the publication fees. They are to scholarly journal publishing what 419 scams are to banking.

We’ve known about this practice for a long time, and Jeffrey Beall has done yeoman’s work codifying it informally. He has noted a recent dramatic increase in the number of publishers that appear to be engaged in the practice, growing by an order of magnitude in 2012 alone.

In the past, I’ve argued that the faux journal problem, while unfortunate, is oversold. My argument was that the existence of these faux journals costs clued-in researchers, research institutions, and the general public nothing. The journals don’t charge subscription fees, and we don’t submit articles to them so don’t pay their publication fees. Caveat emptor ought to handle the problem, I would have thought.

But I’ve come to understand over the past few years that the faux journal problem is important to address. The number of faux journals has exploded, and despite the fact that the faux journals tend to publish few articles, their existence crowds out attention to the many high-quality open-access journals. Their proliferation provides a convenient excuse to dismiss open-access journals as a viable model for scholarly publishing. It is therefore important to get a deeper and more articulated view of the problem.

My views on Bohannon’s piece, which has seen a lot of interest, may therefore be a bit contrarian among OA aficionados, who are quick to dismiss the effort as a stunt or to attribute hidden agendas. Despite some flaws (which have been widely noted and are discussed in part below), the study well characterizes and provides a far richer understanding of the faux OA journal problem. Bohannon provides tremendous texture to our understanding of the problem, far better than the anecdotal and unsystematic approaches that have been taken in the past.

His study shows that even in these early days of open-access publishing, many OA journals are doing an at least plausible job of peer review. In total, 98 of the 255 journals that came to a decision on the bogus paper (about 38%) rejected it. It makes clear that the problem of faux journal identification may not be as simple as looking at superficial properties of journal web sites. About 18% of the journals from Beall’s list of predatory publishers actually performed sufficient peer review to reject the bogus articles outright.

Just as clearly, the large and growing problem of faux journals — so easy to set up and so inexpensive to run — requires all scholars to pay careful attention to the services that journals provide. This holds especially for open-access journals, which are generally newer, with shorter track records, and for which the faux journal fraud has proliferated in a short time much faster than appropriate countermeasures can be deployed. The experiment provides copious data on where the faux journals tend to operate from, where they bank, where their editors are.

Bohannon should also be commended for providing his underlying data open access, which will allow others to do even more detailed analysis.

As with all studies, there are some aspects that require careful interpretation.

First, the experiment did not test subscription journals. All experimenters, Bohannon included, must decide how to deploy scarce resources; his concentrating on OA journals, where the faux journal problem is well known to be severe, is reasonable for certain purposes. However, as many commentators have noted, it does prevent drawing specific conclusions comparing OA with subscription journals. Common sense might indicate that OA journals, whose revenues rely more directly on the number of articles published, have more incentive to fraudulently accept articles without review, but the study unfortunately can’t directly corroborate this, and as in so many areas, common sense may be wrong. We know, for instance, that many OA journals seem to operate without the rapacity to accept every article that comes over the transom, and that there are countervailing economic incentives for OA journals to maintain high quality. Journals from 98 publishers — including the “big three” OA publishers Public Library of Science, Hindawi, and BioMed Central — all rejected the bogus paper, and more importantly, a slew of high-quality journals throughout many fields of scholarship are conducting exemplary peer review on every paper they receive. (Good examples are the several OA journals in my own research area of artificial intelligence — JMLR, JAIR, CL — which are all at the top of the prestige ladder in their fields.) Conversely, subscription publishers also may have perverse incentives to accept papers: Management typically establish goals for the number of articles to be published per year; they use article count statistics in marketing efforts; their regular founding of new journals engenders a need for a supply of articles so as to establish their contribution to the publisher’s stable of bundled journals; and many subscription journals especially in the life sciences charge author-side fees as well. Nonetheless, it would be unsurprising if the acceptance rate for the bogus articles would have been lower for subscription journal publishers given what we know about the state of faux journals. (Since there are many times more subscription journals than OA journals, it’s unclear how the problem would have compared in terms of absolute numbers of articles.) Hopefully, future work can clear up this problem with controls.

Second, the experiment did not test journals charging no author-side fees, which is currently the norm among OA journals. That eliminates about 70% of the OA journals, none of which have any incentive whatsoever to accept articles for acceptance’s sake. Ditto for journals that gain their revenue through submission fees instead of publication fees, a practice that I have long been fond of.

Third, his result holds only for journal publishing in the life sciences. (Some people in the life sciences need occasional reminding that science research is not coextensive with life sciences research, and that scholarly research is not coextensive with science research.) I suspect the faux journal problem is considerably lower outside of the life sciences. It is really only in the life sciences where there is long precedent for author-side charges and deep pockets to pay those charges in much of the world, so that legitimate OA publishers can rely on being paid for their services. This characteristic of legitimate life sciences OA journals provides the cover for the faux journals to pretend to operate in the same way. In many other areas of scholarship, OA journals do not tend to charge publication fees as the researcher community does not have the same precedent.

Finally, and most importantly, since the study reports percentages by publisher, rather than by journal or by published article, the results may overrepresent the problem from the reader’s point of view. Just because 62% of the tested publishers[2] accepted the bogus paper doesn’t mean the problem covers that percentage of OA publishing or even of life sciences APC-charging OA publishing. The faux publishers may publish a smaller percentage of the journals (though the faux publishers’ tactic of listing large numbers of unstaffed journals may lead to the opposite conclusion). More importantly, those publishers may cover a much smaller fraction of OA-journal-published papers. (Anyone who has spent any time surfing the web sites of faux journal publishers knows their tendency to list many journals with very few articles. Even fewer if you eliminate the plagiarized articles that faux publishers like to use to pad their journals.) So the vast majority of OA-published articles are likely to be from the 38% “good” journals. This should be determinable from Bohannon’s data — again thanks to his openness — and it would be useful to carry out the calculation, to show that the total number of OA-journal articles published by the faux publishers account for a small fraction of the OA articles published in all of the OA journals of all of the publishers in the study. I expect that’s highly likely.[3]

Bohannon has provided a valuable service, and his article is an important reminder, like the previous case of the faux Australasian Journals, that journal publishers do not always operate under selfless motivations. It behooves authors to take this into account, and it behooves the larger scientific community to establish infrastructure for helping researchers by systematically and fairly tracking and publicizing information about journals that can help its members with their due diligence.

  1. In the interest of full disclosure, I mention that I am John Bohannon’s sponsor in his role as an Associate (visiting researcher) of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard. He conceived, controlled, and carried out his study independently, and was in no sense under my direction. Though I did have discussions with him about his project, including on some of the topics discussed below, the study and its presentation were his alone.  ↩
  2. It is also worth noting that by actively searching out lists of faux journals (Beall’s list) to add to a more comprehensive list (DOAJ), Bohannon may have introduced skew into the data collection. The attempt to be even more comprehensive than DOAJ is laudable, but the method chosen means that even more care must be taken in interpreting the results. If we look only at the DOAJ-listed journals that were tested, the acceptance rate drops from 62% to 45%. If we look only at OASPA members subject to the test, who commit to a code of conduct, then by my count the acceptance rate drops to 17%. That’s still too high of course, but it does show that the cohort counts, and adding in Beall’s list but not OASPA membership (for instance) could have an effect.  ↩
  3. In a videotaped live chat, Michael Eisen has claimed that this is exactly the case.  ↩

One Response to “Lessons from the faux journal investigation”

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