Research and publication are quintessential elements of the academic profession. Publishing is a key performance indicator, without it, job security is at peril. It has been this way for a long time. As far back as 1942, in a book on American higher education called The Academic Man, sociologist Logan Wilson documented that academics were under unbearable pressure to publish and ‘make good’ in their field. Wilson wrote
The prevailing pragmatism forced upon the academic group is that one must write something and get it into print. Situational imperatives dictate a ‘publish or perish’ credo within the ranks.
What is new in our time is perhaps the intensity—now the expectation is not just publishing, but publishing more with an eye on impact.
But getting published in a high-quality journal is demanding. It is highly competitive and takes time.
I completed my Ph.D. five years ago. My main area of research is education policy. In my first year as a research fellow, when I was still naïve about the publishing world, I received an unsolicited flattering email invitation to submit a manuscript for publication. The manuscript could be on any topic in education, and it would be published very quickly. It was too good to be true. I had to seek advice from a senior colleague on the matter. Subsequently, I was told to ignore the suspicious invitation. I did just that, and in so doing, I escaped a predatory publisher.
In recent years, predatory publishing has ravaged the world of academic publication.
What is predatory publishing and why is it flourishing?
The Committee on Publication Ethics defines predatory publishing as a “for-profit open access journal publication of scholarly articles without the benefit of peer review by experts in the field or the usual editorial oversight of the journals in question”. Masquerading as genuine scholarly outlets, fake journals prey mainly on inexperienced researchers.
Although senior scholars have not escaped the scam, early career scholars are more susceptible to fake publishers. Early career academics are vulnerable because they are under immense pressure to build a strong research profile in a short period of time.
However, publishing in well-established journals takes time. Researchers have to face the prospect of endless waiting for an uncertain outcome. Evidence documented by the SciRev Foundation shows that many authors had their papers rejected after over 60 weeks of the first-round review by legitimate journals. At times, the review process lacks credibility. One author complained:
The journal took far too long to review the manuscript. I wrote after 6 months to enquire about the delay and was told that two reviewers had agreed to review the manuscript, that one review had been submitted and the other would be submitted imminently. Four months later (i.e. 10 months post-submission), I received a rejection letter on the basis of only one review.
Predatory publishers take advantage of this predicament; for a fee, they offer quick and easy publication. They trick scholars by mimicking legitimate journals—they claim false indexing and metrics and promise peer review. In reality, they publish anything for fees (ranging from 50 to 1500 dollars).
How big is the problem?
The problem of junk publication has become prevalent. In 2014, there were over 8,000 fake journals worldwide that published hundreds of thousands of papers. In India alone, Indian news media outlet, The Indian Express, has uncovered over 300 predatory publishers—many of them managing hundreds of fake journals.
Although the majority of the victims of predatory journals are scholars based in Asia and Africa, researchers in the developed economies are targets too. Recently, a consortium of international journalists investigated the practice of predatory publication. The findings were astonishing. Since 2013 globally over 400,000 scholars have published in junk journals.
The Guardian reported that between 2013 and 2018 alone, over 5,000 scholars from UK universities have published in fake journals. According to German broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, publication in such journals has increased five-fold during the same period.
Drawing on a large database of publications, a new research study shows the extent to which junk publications have polluted the Brazilian academic system. Predatory publishing has also reached Canada and Australia.
Predatory publishing damages science and society
The rise of junk journals has grave consequences. Unevaluated knowledge promotes bad science and endangers public reasoning.
At an individual level, publishing low-quality papers in junk journals undermines the credibility and reputation of the researcher and reduces the visibility and citation of the research. Paying to publish unreviewed papers also compromises the ethics and integrity standards of universities.
But most of all, the danger of unevaluated knowledge to society is real. Agents that seek to disseminate unsubstantiated claims use predatory publishing to circumvent the gatekeeping role of peer review. There are credible stories about big pharmaceutical companies, anti-vaccine advocates and climate sceptics that used junk journals to advance their interest.
Even though some academics would like to downplay the impact of predatory publishing on scientific knowledge, if the problem is left unaddressed, scholarly research may face a crisis of legitimacy.
In a peer-reviewed paper that documents the scope and trends of fake publications, environmental engineers, Marc Edwards and Siddhartha Roy, warned:
If a critical mass of scientists become untrustworthy, a tipping point is possible in which the scientific enterprise itself becomes inherently corrupt and public trust is lost, risking a new dark age with devastating consequences to humanity.
Promising measures are being taken. The Committee on Publication Ethics disseminates guidelines of ethical publishing and co-organises conferences on research integrity. In June 2019 the 6th Research Integrity Conference, held in Hong Kong, discussed a range of initiatives to tackle unscrupulous publishers.
In April 2019 a US federal judge ordered OMICS Group Inc, the world’s largest junk publisher, to pay more than $50 million for deceiving academics and researchers. OMICS is based in India and manages over 700 open access journals. In 2016, its annual revenue was estimated to be over $11 million.
Some universities in Australia expressly discourage scholars from claiming credits for papers published in junk journals. Sydney University, Griffith University and Swinburne University confirm they will “not allow academics to seek promotions or claim credit for publishing in so-called predatory journals.” In May 2019, the University of Adelaide’s Legal and Risk Branch released a legal notice on the proliferation of “counterfeit journals and conferences”.
But these measures are not sufficient.
More can be done
A viable solution should include tackling the systemic roots of the problem. There is a need for setting realistic expectations regarding research outputs of early-career scholars. The ‘publish or perish’ pressure is in part to blame for the rise of predatory publishing. Also, clear communication about the importance of maintaining a balance between quality and quantity in our research and publication is equally necessary.
Most importantly, universities must equip researchers with knowledge about research excellence and integrity. Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of South Australia, Professor Robert Vink, calls for concerted efforts to train researchers in publication literacy as does Athabasca University’s Associate Vice President (Research), Donna Romyn.
Finally, individual researchers need to be vigilant to protect themselves from scam. Predatory publishers are easy to spot. Some of the main clues include short review timelines, an unsolicited email invitation, cheaper publication fees, and bogus metrics (see the image below). They send indiscriminate email invitations. An education policy researcher may receive an invitation for an agriculture or architecture journal.
Still, researchers can easily verify the authenticity of the journal/publishers in question using US publisher Cabell’s Whitelist and Blacklist of journals, and other major databases, including the Directory of Open Access Journals, Scimago, and Web of Science.
We need to continually push back against predatory publishers, exposing their practices and diminishing the likelihood of academics to be scammed by them. It is equally important to alert the general public not to be manipulated by predatory publishers and misinformed by unevaluated knowledge.
Tebeje Molla is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) Fellow at Deakin University (School of Education). Tebeje has authored/co-authored over 30 journal articles and five book chapters on a range of issues, including (i) the problem of educational inequality, (ii) transnational educational policy agendas, (iii) graduate research training policy, and (iv) teacher professional learning. His latest book analyses structural inequality and policy responses in Ethiopian higher education.Theoretically, his work is informed by critical sociology and a capability approach to social justice and human development.