by Markus Pohlmann
Scientists might know it from their everyday lives: The number of e-mails in which they are invited to submit an article to journals, to act as an editor or to give a keynote in Barbados has increased significantly. Most of them come from predatory publishers, journals and conferences that have systematically infiltrated the field of science in recent years. Those who fall for it can lose of a lot of money with dubious benefits. It’s a kind of con game targeting scientists. Now, the first court rulings are available: In 2019, a court in the US state of Nevada sentenced one of the industry giants, the Indian OMICS group, to a fine of a good 50 million US dollars and largely prohibited it from operating in the USA. The number of „scientific“ predatory journals has risen sharply in recent years, a parasitic side effect of Open Access Publishing. According to research by an investigative network of German and European Media, more than 5,000 German scientists have published in such pseudo-scientific predatory journals in recent years. In addition, in the USA, Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa constantly rising publication numbers in predatory journals are proven. In Brazil, Perlin et al. (2018) viewed over 2 million publications by experienced authors (more than 5 publications), with the result that the number of articles in pseudoscientific journals tripled between 2010 and 2015. The penetration rate in this large Brazilian publication market is still low at two to three percent, but authors are registering exponential growth.
The Infiltration of Science
In Serbia it started in 2007. The state passed new guidelines for the recruitment and promotion of scientists, which were now – from PhD to full-time professors – bound to publications in international journals. That was new. Many Serbian researchers had no experience with these publications. This gradually led to the Serbian scientists entrusting themselves to journals, which published quickly and uncomplicatedly for a „small“ fee. The first two journals which had the right instinct for this new field of business were “Technics Technologies Education Management” (TTEM) and “Health-MED.” They were published by a family in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They started out as a serious journal but with increasing demand, quality and peer review procedures became more and more questionable. Nevertheless, they were included in the Thomson-Reuters Journal Citation Report (JCR), together with a whole series of East-European Journals, which signaled their respectability, and later also received an Impact Factor (IF). Their central criterion for the publication of articles in open access was that payments were made by the authors. They were then overtaken by another predatory journal, the „International Journal of Very Important Multidisciplinary Research (IJVIMR)“. When the scientist Dragan Djuric submitted a computer-generated fake article in 2012, he already received a confirmation the next morning that the article would be published if 290€ were paid immediately.
According to his further research, the fee in this predatory journal was between 250€ and 1200€ per article. Each year about 12 regular issues and many special issues were published, with an average of 70 articles per issue. The majority of articles came from Serbian authors. In this way, an entire scientific landscape was infiltrated by predatory journals, whose primary goal was to cash in.
What does a predatory journal do and how to spot them?
A predatory journal usually sells online, open-access published papers for a fee and offers a fast publishing process. As a rule, the time required is well under three months, while publications in reputable international journals often take longer than one year from submission to printing. In the case of predatory journals, a peer review procedure is not taking place, or it is faked. The titles of these journals are usually very general and/or closely oriented to the titles of serious journals, so that they can easily be confused.
In addition to the constantly updated, unofficial Beall list, a black list of predatory publishers and journals, which was taken from the net in 2017, there are numerous criteria by which one can recognize that it is a predatory journal. Often, there is no named editor or names of persons without a scientific background are given. Many times, the names of prominent scientists are simply listed without their knowledge. The procedure is not transparent. The sometimes high costs are announced late. Impact factors and listings in reputable indices are often falsified or journals and articles are cheered up by auto-citation procedures. Articles that have already been published are also accepted and often articles are published regardless of their content and quality. There are many funny examples of this so-called hoax.
Where do the authors come from and who are they?
Different studies show that the majority of scientists who publish in such predatory journals come from the USA, India/Asia, Nigeria/Africa. This is also the case in economic sciences (see the analysis by Wallace/Perri 2018). In this subject, however, only 5% of the authors are listed in RePEc (Research Papers in Economics, an open-access project founded in 1997 with the goal to expand scientific publishing in economics) as economists. A high percentage of the authors are therefore not economists.
According to Shen/Björk, in 2015 a total of three quarters of the authors in predatory journals came from Africa and Asia. The inexperienced and young scientists made up the majority. However, also experienced scientists with a large number of legitimate publications represented a smaller but solid part of the authorship.
Who quotes the articles?
These articles are also quoted. They do not all have to be bad or fake. However, a blind test with expert ratings has shown that the experts consider the average quality of such publications to be significantly lower.
The authors quoting such articles represent the social structure and regional origin of the authors who publish them. They are often young, inexperienced scientists from Africa, Southeast and South Asia and Eastern Europe.
What motivates the authors? Output orientation in the sciences and humanities
If one looks at case studies on the predatory journals in Nigeria or Canada, then – as in the case of Serbia – the quantitative output orientation in the career systems of the sciences is the reason for the growing willingness of scientists to also publish in dubious journals. There are always cases where the predatory journal as such was not recognized and one got into it by mistake. However, often there is also a rational decision behind it. In Nigeria, for example, according to Omobowale et al. 2014, impact factors and the legitimacy of journals are generally ignored in the evaluation of faculty publications. Decisions on recruitment and promotion would primarily be based on whether the publications had taken place outside Nigeria. And for Canada, in 2017 Pyne was able to show with the example of a Canadian business school that it was not the quality of the publications, but only their number, that had a significantly positive effect on the salary of the academic staff. Quantity beats quality, concludes Pyne and entails adjusted publication strategies.
So we are dealing with a partially business-like form of fraud. The scientists are fooled into believing that there are false opportunities for reputation, and sometimes they are only too happy to fall for them. But at the same time it is also the calculated behavior of scientists. In order to promote one’s own advancement, these dubious means are also accepted. Since the national science systems often operate with a quantitatively oriented key figure logic, this fosters „gaming“ and collective „deviance“. One can more or less buy one’s publications together in different career systems, and does not have to work the way up the hard way of continuous qualification and evaluation. Sometimes, however, the pressure can be so great that you just do it and don’t look closely.
What can we do about it?
The demand for scientific qualification opportunities and positions has risen significantly worldwide. As a professor, you receive many inquiries every month from doctoral students from all over the world asking for supervision at a doctoral position. However, the university job pool has not grown accordingly. Although this creates a relaxed labour market for the universities – with subject-specific differences – it increases the competitive pressure on applicants enormously. This is not changed by the fact that universities are often bad employers. So there is little we can do about competitive pressure. The situation is different with regard to quantitative output orientation. Here the antidotes are already in place. Careful quality control of publications and journals in the scientific career system is often enough to at least contain the phenomenon. The indexing of serious journals is not always reliable and often unjustifiably exclusive. But they do provide initial clues for assessing the journals in which the scientific output has been produced. Only when careful quality control once again becomes the universal principle for recruitment and promotion in the scientific system will such dubious publications no longer be worthwhile for many. Then, for the authors publishing in predatory journals, it really is time to say: Publish and perish!
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