A peer reviewer

It’s an excellent business model. The only real infrastructure you need is a website, and you can have a custom site made for $5-10 thousand. Then you just have the monthly bandwidth charges. The rest is just e-marketing, which can be done for free, or the cost of some e-mails lists. After that, the money just comes rolling in.

The best part is that other people do all the actual work. All you have to do is charge them for publishing on your open-access online journal.

What you are selling is essentially scientific/academic fraud.

Unfortunately, this is a good business model, even though it is a terrible scientific model, and so it has proliferated. We may be living in the heyday of dubious open-access scientific journals.

The open-access format itself is not a bad one, and there are some very successful and respected open-access journals, such as the PLOS journals. The idea is that, instead of charging a subscription in order to gain access to published articles (in print or online), the articles are open-access, but authors pay a fee to have their work published.

This model works well when everyone agrees to be honest. However, it quickly became clear that dubious journals could charge authors to publish a high volume of low quality papers they could not get published in real journals, and this would provide a healthy revenue stream with little overhead.

The key is (and this is where the fraud comes in) the journals are presenting themselves as if they are peer-reviewed. The peer-review process is not perfect and is no guarantee of quality science, but it is a necessary low-pass bar. Peer review provides some limit on the volume of poor quality research flooding the published literature. Without it the floodgates open, and then worthwhile research is drowning in a sea of crap.

Jeffrey Beall has created a list of dubious (also called predatory) open-access journals as a warning to would-be authors. His criteria for inclusion in the list are all reasonable red flags. They contain items such as – not identifying an editor, having the same editorial board as other journals, and listing editors that have no idea they are being listed.

The point of these practices it to create the false impression that a journal is legitimate, while not bothering to invest in actually editing submissions or having them peer-reviewed.

Recently a new wrinkle has been added to the phenomenon of predatory journals. The Canadian journal, Experimental and Clinical Cardiology, was a respected journal for 17 years that played by the rules. Its publisher was losing money, however, so a year ago he sold it to a foreign publisher.

The new publisher has apparently turned the journal into a predatory scam, but is enjoying the reputation previously earned by the legitimate journal. Therefore, rather than having to market the dubious journal and build a reputation, you can just buy an existing reputation and convert it into a predatory journal.

The Ottawa Citizen reports that they performed a little sting operation on the new journal, sending it a blatantly terrible article. As they explain, they took an HIV paper and simply did a copy-replace of the word “HIV” with the word “cardiac.” The title of the paper, “VEGF proliferation in cardiac cells contributes to vascular declension,” is meaningless jargon that any reviewer should have seen through instantly. There were other outrageous errors in the paper, but none of that kept the paper from being accepted and published.

The Citizen reports that they submitted similar nonsense to 18 other dubious journals, half of which accepted the submissions.

This sting is a mini-version of the operation published a year ago by John Bohannon in Science. He submitted 304 bogus articles to open-access journals with similar results – over half accepted the clear trash for publication.

All of this creates more work for scientists and academics who have better things to do. Scientists have to spend time vetting journals before submitting their work. Of course, everyone would like to publish in Science or Nature, but most papers are published in second- or third-tier journals which are legitimate but maybe not as well known. The predatory journals are hiding among the herd of such legitimate but more obscure journals.

Further, younger and perhaps less experienced academics are approached to be on editorial boards of new open-access journals, or are encouraged to submit their work there. Meanwhile more experienced academics with name recognition might have their name simply added to an editorial board without their consent. Promotional committees also have to spend additional time vetting every publication in a journal they don’t immediately recognize.

As dubious open-access journals proliferate, it becomes more difficult to keep track, and the published literature itself becomes overwhelmed with poor-quality papers. This generates further confusion for the media, who have a tough enough time reporting science news. Essentially this phenomenon is ramping up the noise and drowning out the signal of quality scientific research.

There are, of course, solutions. Beall’s list of predatory journals is a good start. In addition to this “black list,” a thorough and rigorous “white list,” or seal of approval would also be very helpful. This is supposed to exist, but clearly too many dubious journals are slipping through. In light of the Experimental and Clinical Cardiology episode, whenever a journal changes publishers, it needs to be removed from the white list until it is reevaluated under the new publishers.

I think open-access is a viable model for scientific journals, but this model has exposed a vulnerability that needs to be plugged.

In general, more attention needs to be paid to the editorial and peer-review quality of scientific journals. The noise to signal ratio is too high, and the internet allows easy access to all of it. In general the internet had led to more access and reduced filters, which is both a strength and a weakness. Quality control suffers, and so new mechanisms must be explored to achieve a high level of quality control. The published literature needs to be looked at as a vital resource and protected from exploitation.


Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.