When we talk to research higher degree candidates and early career researchers about publication ethics, one question comes up repeatedly. Indeed, it is a question we are frequently asked by experienced researchers, particularly those who wish to publish in a new field – where should I publish? That’s a difficult question to answer in the abstract so first we would like to remove some distractions from the decisions that need to be made. In this piece, we look at the other side of the coin and explore where researchers should not publish.
Research institutions often provide their staff with incentives to publish in top-ranking journals as determined by impact factor. Publishing in these journals can boost the university’s standing in some international rankings and national research assessment exercises. Consequently, performance indicators, promotion and recruitment criteria, track records for grant assessment and even financial bonuses may be aligned with these outlets.
Good research takes a long time and we should take care where we place our outputs. If we want our papers to be read, we need to look for a journal that reaches our prospective audience. In some fields, this might mean a niche but highly rated journal linked to a particular professional association; in other cases, we seek a journal that is covered by reputable indexes and databases like Medline, PubMed, Scopus or the Web of Science. Only then would a paper be included by subsequent systematic review or meta-analysis, for example.
However, many researchers may find it tough to break into the top 25%, let alone the top 10% of journals. Even if they can, the process can prove lengthy and frustrating as journals use robust peer review processes and may call for repeated and extensive and perhaps even unwarranted revisions. In the face of this, some scholars may come under pressure to publish quickly, particularly if the award of a doctorate or confirmation of the first job is dependent on having something in print. And, for some purposes (including Australian institutional block research funding until quite recently), quantity may trump quality.
There are traps for the unwary who find themselves in this position. Everyone wants to avoid predatory journals and publishers and, yet, not everyone does. Not even some top researchers manage to avoid these outlets according to one study of academic economists (Wallace and Perri, 2016). Researchers, it seems, can be seduced by an invitation from journal editors, an invitation sometimes filled with ‘flattering salutations, claims that they had read the recipient’s papers despite being out of the journals claimed area of study, awkward sentence structure and spelling mistakes, and extremely general topics’ (Moher and Srivastava, 2015).
While many researchers have been duped, publication scammers are not always given a free ride. A few have come under some pressure from legal authorities. In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a brief in the US District Court against the OMICS Group and related entities. The brief reveals a little about what is known about these journals. OMICS, for instance, is a Nevada-registered, Hyderabad-based entity that claims to run 700 journals. The FTC alleged that OMICS deliberately misled potential authors by misrepresenting the composition of the editorial board, the process of review, the journal’s impact factor and the fee for publication:
…the academic experts identified by Defendants lack any connection with Defendants’ journals. Further, in many instances, articles submitted for publishing do not undergo standard peer review before publishing. And Defendants’ journals’ impact factors are not calculated by Thomson Reuters, nor are their journals included in PubMed Central. Moreover, Defendants fail to disclose, or disclose adequately, that consumers must pay a publishing fee for each published article. (p.5)
Recently, OMICS has diversified its strategy. In 2016, Canadian journalists reported OMICS had bought at least the trading name of reputable Canadian publishers and appeared to have also picked up their publishing contracts with well-regarded journals. This, it seems, was done so that OMICS could use these names as a front to attract articles to its predatory publishing stable (Puzic, 2016). Some professional associations who found their publishing contracts taken over have declared their intention to break their connection to OMICS.
Not every legitimate journal can extract itself from predatory publishers. Where once respected journals are hijacked by criminal enterprises, they can continue their existence as ‘zombie journals’, trading off the reputation built up in the past but behaving like any other predatory journal. There are other kinds of dishonest practices. Some predatory publishers have established ‘clone journals’ who use the same title as a legitimate journal and reproduce the original journal’s website or make minor changes to the title in an attempt to deceive unwary authors (Prasad, 2017). Hijacked, clone and zombie publishing can turn a glowing recommendation into a trap for the unwitting. Analysis of criminal activities in publishing has taken a little time to catch up with offending patterns. In recent work, Moher and Shamseer (2017) argued that the term predatory journal should be replaced by ‘illegitimate entities’, refuting the idea that such entities were entitled to clothe themselves in the language of the legitimate publication industry.
So, what advice should we give to researchers about being prudent with the treasured fruit of their labours? Until recently, one quick answer might have been to avoid journals on Beall’s List, a list of ‘predatory journals’ that Jeffrey Beall, a US-based librarian, had placed on a ‘blacklist’. The list always had its critics (Naylon, 2017). Variables used by Beall such as open access, fees to publish, locations in low- to medium-income countries, and novel peer review practices are not automatically predictors of a predatory publisher. Nor does the converse necessarily guarantee a publisher is a safe choice. However, whatever its longstanding flaws, Beall’s List is rapidly losing its currency. Earlier this year Beall decided to ‘unpublish’ his list; the list is no longer updated and is only available on cache sites. Institutions seeking a successor to Beall’s List can look towards a commercial provider, Cabells, which has announced its own Blacklist. Anyone using a blacklist should also check journals against a ‘white list’ like the Directory of Open Access Journals or even the old Excellence in Research Australia journal rankings (removed from the research council websites, but still circulated discreetly like a samizdat newsletter among Australian academics).
Unfortunately, unless black and white lists are updated continuously, they can never keep up with changes in the publication industry. Some publishers once regarded as predatory genuinely improve their practices over time. On the other hand, illegitimate practices have also changed over time. Over the last few years, we have seen the movement of organised and unorganised crime into the industry, attracted by the roughly US$100m in fees that Shamseer et al. (2017) estimated (very roughly) that predatory publishers might be obtaining.
So, the quick answer to the question ‘where shouldn’t I publish?’ is that since the demise of Beall’s List, researchers need to engage in critical enquiry and reflection about a potential publisher. This should not come as a shock – the same advice would have been true long before the end of Beall’s List.
Moher, D. and Shamseer, L. (2017) Black lists, white lists and the evidence: exploring the features of ‘predatory’ journals. BioMed Central Blog 16 Mar 2017. https://blogs.biomedcentral.com/bmcblog/2017/03/16/black-lists-white-lists-and-the-evidence-exploring-the-features-of-predatory-journals/
Moher, D. and Srivastava, A. (2015) You are invited to submit…. BMC Medicine, 13(1), p.180. https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-015-0423-3
Neylon C. (2017) Blacklists are technically infeasible, practically unreliable and unethical. Period. LSE Blog. https://cameronneylon.net/blog/blacklists-are-technically-infeasible-practically-unreliable-and-unethical-period/
Prasad, R. (2017) Predatory journal clones of Current Science spring up. The Hindu, 14 July. http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/predatory-journal-clones-of-current-science-spring-up/article19277858.ece
Puzic, S. (2016) Offshore firm accused of publishing junk science takes over Canadian journals. CTV News. 28 September. http://www.ctvnews.ca/health/health-headlines/offshore-firm-accused-of-publishing-junk-science-takes-over-canadian-journals-1.3093472?hootPostID=00bc7834da5380548a8b2d58e40c8b29
Shamseer, L, Moher, D., Maduekwe, O., Turner, L., Barbour, V., Burch, R., Clark, J., Galipeau, J., Roberts J. and Shea, B.J. (2017) Potential predatory and legitimate biomedical journals: can you tell the difference? A cross-sectional comparison. BMC Medicine 15:28. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-017-0785-9
Wallace, F. and Perri, T. (2016) Economists behaving badly: publications in predatory journals. MPRA Paper No. 73075, posted 15 August. https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/73075/1/MPRA_paper_73075.pdf
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