Imagine that you are a foundation doctor (PGY 1-2), and you have written a case report during your general surgery rotation. Your supervisor has approved the manuscript and delegated the responsibility of submission to you. You decide to start with the best general surgery journals and work down the list.
After many months and rejections, some damning, some disinterested, and some of no help, you receive an email from a new journal that offers to rapidly publish your study. They have a familiar title, internationally respected editorial board members, no publication fees, their head office is in California, and they claim to be indexed on PubMed with an ISSN and an impact factor. You are also preparing for a specialty-training interview, where a first author publication on PubMED gives you extra points, so you decide to email your manuscript, as it seems mutually beneficial.
Your paper is published a few days later without peer review, with several typographical errors, without any indexing on PubMed or elsewhere, and an invoice is served for $1500. You therefore ask for a retraction, but you are denied, and reminded of your obligation to pay. Your paper is subsequently lost forever in a non-indexed journal that will never be read.
It is not known how often this happens, but it is of enough concern for the US Federal Trade Commission to take several alleged ‘predatory publishers’ to court. Such action however could take many years, and will no doubt be plagued by the same problems as academic piracy, due to geography and online operations. In the above scenario therefore, what is the problem? Is it charging for publication? Is it aggressive and unsolicited tactics? Is it false promises? Is it lack of peer review? Is it failure to retract? Or is it something else?
Why are we talking about this? Because it has happened to people like you and me, to people close to us and even to team members on the St.Emlyn’s blog.
In the past, critics have labeled predatory publishers as a problem of the open access model, due to alleged abuse of article publication charges (APCs). We believe that the problem of predatory publishing is entirely separate from open access, and that misinformed debate stems from fundamental difficulties in defining who or what a predatory publisher is.
Nothing illustrates this better than the rise and fall of Beall’s blacklist of potential, possible, or predatory publishers. Professor Beall began collating his list in 2008 from spam manuscript submission requests, and authors were encouraged to cross-reference journals to ensure they practice with proper publishing processes, but it was not without controversy. Many blacklisted journals were no doubt predatory, but some inclusions were disputed. For such cases, Beall’s judgment was claimed to be subjective and biased against new journals, low-income economies and open access generally. Beall argued that such criticisms were biased against him, unfairly framed and selectively referenced, and removed his list in early 2017. Whilst the reasons for this are said to be personal, it is probable that the fight against predatory publishers was too much for one individual, and that an eponymous blacklist was a major flaw.
We argue however, that the issue of predatory publishing is further complicated, because:
1. The use of the term ‘predatory’ is misleading
2. Targeting desperate young academics with aggressive advertising is not illegal
3. Charging fees for publication is not illegal
4. It is difficult to draw a tacit line dependent upon gross profit margins, and subsequently name journals above or below it as either predatory or legitimate
5. It is difficult to draw tacit moral lines too, as elite medical journals have their own problems
New publication models promise to deal with the problems of both elite and predatory medical journals, though medical publishing continues to be reliant upon traditional methods, and may do so for the majority of our lifetimes. We suggest, however, that the problem in the above scenario is delegation of submission from a senior doctor to the most junior team member, as is often the case. Very junior doctors and medical students are unlikely to posses the knowledge and experience to navigate the complex scholarly system successfully, and the importance of the submission process is often untaught and underestimated.
With regards the publishers that take advantage of these circumstances, we argue that the problem is deception, and not the use of open access or APCs for financial profit. These deceptions use fraudulent illusions that give all the window dressings of legitimacy, and they are becoming more and more difficult to decipher.
Getting a paper published is difficult. It requires time, effort, perseverance, and resilience. Rather than to classify journals as legitimate, predatory or deceptive through black or white listing, authors should take responsibility through the use of modern, neutral campaigns, such as ‘Think.Check.Submit’, supported by COPE and others. Supervisors must also educate their junior colleagues about the pitfalls of submission to scholarly publishers, and not always assume their competence.
Competing interests: None declared.
Competing interests: None declared.