Combating predatory journals and conferences through systemic change in scientific publishing

So-called ‘predatory’ activities in academic publishing and conferences are on the increase worldwide and ‘risk becoming engrained in research culture’, according to a new InterAcademy Partnership report, which draws on a global survey of researchers.

The number of predatory journals has exploded in recent decades, with around 150 launched per month over the past three years, adding to over 15,000 predatory journals available today. The number of all journals – both reputable and predatory – has grown substantially in recent years, driven by digitalisation and the increasing number of researchers worldwide, many of whom need to ‘publish or perish’ in order to maintain their research careers. The scholarly publishing system, once described by publishing magnate Robert Maxwell as ‘a perpetual financing machine’, is open to exploitation by those looking to profit through unscrupulous means.

When the IAP surveyed researchers from across the world, 14% of the 1,800 respondents shared that they had published in predatory journals or participated in predatory conferences, with the majority saying they hadn’t been aware at the time. A further 10% of respondents were not sure if they had participated in predatory publishing or conferences.

If the survey respondents are typical of researchers across the world, it would follow that some 1.2 million researchers have published in predatory journals or participated in predatory conferences, equating to billions of dollars in wasted research budgets and hours of wasted time. Predatory journals and conferences can come in differing forms, and the IAP report recommends thinking about a range of behaviours, from the fraudulent and deliberately deceitful (such as false editorial boards), to low-quality or questionable practices (such as optional ‘fast track’ fees for expedited peer review for assured publication).

While studies from the beginning of this decade indicated that the majority of papers in predatory journals originated from Asia and Africa, the report’s authors draw on recent evidence that suggests that the expanding research sector in oil-rich countries on the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) list is increasingly falling prey to predatory activities.[i] The report also cautions that Europe and North America should not be seen as a ‘comfort zone’ unaffected by predatory publishing; Predatory publishing in Germany, for example, is reported to have increased five-fold since 2013. And where funding acknowledgements are included in predatory journals, the most frequently named funder is the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

All research disciplines across the natural and social sciences appear to be affected by predatory publishing, but literature is inconclusive on which disciplines have the most predatory journals. Medical disciplines appear to be particularly targeted, with The Economist reporting a large increase in the number of predatory journals launched in the health sciences since 2018. This is particularly worrying when considering that predatory journals may also support the dissemination of poor quality or fake results, and ultimately undermine public trust in science.

Little wonder then that the vast majority of survey respondents stated that predatory practices must be combatted, and encouraged IAP to mobilize international efforts towards this aim.

In order to meet that goal, the report’s authors first identify three main drivers of predatory academic journals and conferences:

  • the increasing monetisation and commercialisation of the scholarly enterprise, in which proprietary and commercial interests in the scholarly publishing system may be in conflict with research integrity;
  • research evaluation systems that value quantity over quality, as well as institutional drivers and incentives that shape behaviour of individual researchers;
  • weaknesses in the peer-review system, notably the lack of transparency in the peer-review process and the lack of training, capacity and recognition of peer reviewers.

Speaking at the launch of the Report, ISC Governing Board Member and Chair of the ISC’s Future of Scientific Publishing project, Geoffrey Boulton, agreed that predatory publishing is one of many interrelated issues facing scientific publishing, and that systemic change is required to better meet the needs of the scientific community.

The business model of scientific publishing – which has proved so profitable for predatory publishers – is largely built on capturing the findings of publicly funded research, said Boulton, underpinned by flawed research assessment schemes and incentives for researchers. Measures to tackle the scourge of predatory publishing must be implemented alongside broad-based measures to reform scholarly publishing, such as those explored in the ISC Report Opening the Record of Science.

Importantly, said Boulton, “we need to create a governance system that is accountable to the scientific community and its institutions,” rather than leaving a crucial area of the scientific process in the hands of private providers. He urged IAP and other partners to work together on issues such as global, equitable access, copyright retention, research assessment and data publication.

“Open science, so well encapsulated in the recent UNESCO recommendation, will remain a dream if we do not reform publishing.”

Geoffrey Boulton

This call for reform and collaborative working can hopefully count on support from the many attendees of the Report launch, who overwhelming voted in favour of taking action on predatory publishing in a poll shared at the end of the meeting.

In closing the meeting, and reflecting on the recommendations the report makes to all key stakeholders, IAP President Richard Catlow added his voice to the call to act on the broader issues facing scientific publishing that had been highlighted during the event, and undertook to continue work on awareness raising with the members of the IAP.

Watch the full recording of the report launch:

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[i] This source has recently been retracted following suggestions that the findings were unreliable, which the authors contest. See the full report for more detail and links to original sources.

Image by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr.

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