Predatory journals – A threat to academic credibility

Predatory journals and their publishers, driven solely by profit motives, are posing an increasing threat to academic credibility and to individual reputations.

“In academia today there is huge pressure to publish, and publish fast,” said Professor Johann Mouton, director of the Centre for Research on Science and Technology, or CREST, and the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

“It’s important for university rankings and research metrics. It is important for academic careers – you don’t get ahead if you don’t publish. So academics are now turning to these predatory journals.”

In a recent study undertaken by CREST it was found that 40 PhD students in Ghana had published papers in predatory journals. “They didn’t know they were predatory. But it comes out later when they are up for promotion,” said Mouton.

Developing countries in Asia and Africa are particularly at risk. In Nigeria and Kenya, where there is political pressure to produce PhDs and academic promotion depends on it, postgraduate students frequently opt to publish three papers rather than do a dissertation.

Contested terminology

However the term 'predatory journal' has come in for criticism. “It is one of those terms over which there is some contestation,” said Mouton. “Some consider it not precise enough and that it is applied to indicate opposition to open access on-line journals.”

The term was coined by Jeffrey Beall, University of Colorado Denver associate professor and librarian, and creator of 'Beall's List of Potential, Possible, or Probable Predatory Scholarly Open-access Publishers'.

Beall closed down his website in January this year. That no explanation was given for the closure has led to speculation that he was forced to do so by his university which feared possible legal action from 'predatory' publishers.

However, listings of approved publishers and journals are produced by, among others, the International Bibliography of the Social Sciences, Thomson Reuters Web of Science Core Collection and Scopus. These are drawn on by South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training to compile their list of approved journals.

A paper to be published later this year in the South African Journal of Science, co-authored by Mouton with Astrid Valentine, titled “The extent of SA-authored articles in predatory journals”, cites Beall in estimating that there are 900 active predatory publishers and the number of journals listed under these publishers “comes to a staggering 23,400-plus titles”.

Profit motive

Mouton defines 'predatory journals' as those published with the sole goal of profit. “They are in the business of making money,” he said. “Of course, there are reputable journals that are non-predatory which make money but these do so to break even financially in order to continue publishing. With predatory journals the sole intention is to make money out of authors.”

These journals typically contact potential authors via email – especially young academics and students in the social and medical sciences and business management studies – offering to publish their papers quickly and charging between US$50 and US$500 to do so.

“They are open access and often one-person outfits,” said Mouton, created by somebody quite likely to be sitting at home behind a desk anywhere in the world. “They deceive the authors and promise quick turnaround for a decision to publish – as little as two weeks; there is no proper peer review, no production costs and no quality. And, of course, they always say ‘yes’.”

Fundamental to academia and academic publishing is high-quality peer review but the peer review process is slow. “Top journals in their fields have a good reputation and are tough to get into; for example, Nature rejects 90% of what is sent to them,” said Mouton. “To be published in such journals you need to be a really good scholar – and patient. But people say they can’t wait that long. That way, the peer review system becomes compromised.”

Review process under strain

And the system is compromised not just by publication in predatory journals. “There is an understanding among academics that they will voluntarily review papers unpaid if asked to do so by a journal, but now the huge volume of articles having to appear puts the whole academic peer reviewing system under strain and stress.”

Ironically, universities themselves created the environment for all this to happen; the corporatising of universities providing a great business opportunity. “It’s a case of demand and supply – it all came together at the right time.

"If there was no demand for publication and predatory journals to meet that demand they would have died out,” said Mouton.

The result, he said, is that the credibility of science comes into question. “People find their papers are not peer reviewed after all. Yet they have built careers on such publication. Public figures are in danger of later exposure.”

Revision of incentive scheme

In South Africa, the publication of articles more than doubled from 2005 to 2014 along with a concomitant “increase in questionable if not unethical practices”, according to Mouton and Valentine. This coincided with the revision in 2005 of the Department of Higher Education and Training’s existing incentive scheme which funds universities for articles published in accredited journals. The revision, in turn, saw South African universities implementing financial incentives to increase publication.

Mouton and Valentine analysed 112,555 papers produced by South African authors from 2005 to 2014. Of the journals in which they appeared, 57 featured in 'Beall’s List' of predatory journals, though one was later eliminated on the basis of erroneous listing.

The largest number of papers – 476 – were published in the Journal of Social Sciences, followed by 413 in the African Journal of Business Management and 279 in the Journal of Human Ecology. All three of these journals are produced by publishers that feature on Beall’s list of potential, possible or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers.

The authors came from a broad spectrum of South African universities including those with high rankings. But the authors are not to blame, according to Mouton, as they published in good faith as some of these predatory journals are on the approved listings provided by the Department of Higher Education and Training or DHET. “You can’t blame individuals; they’ve done due diligence.”

But that means the DHET – though they rejected many claims for publication subsidy – may have paid out more than R100 million (US$7.6 million) over the past 10 years for articles that appeared in predatory journals.

Raising awareness

Mouton said the solution to the problem lies in creating awareness and informing the target market. “We must raise awareness of the predatory problem, then decide what strategies to put in place.”

“At present there is a fairly good awareness in South Africa; an increasing awareness in universities which are asking what action they should take.”

Earlier this year the National Research Foundation, or NRF, issued a statement making clear that publishing in predatory journals was a practice “neither supported nor encouraged by the NRF as it challenges the integrity of the NRF’s scientific peer review process” and that the use of “predatory journals and deceptive publishers compromises the creation and dissemination of rigorous scientific and scholarly work within the Digital and Open Access movement”.

Increasingly, South African universities are listing predatory journals on their websites. “Staff and students can find out whether a journal is a predatory journal or not,” said Mouton.

Mouton said the DHET is also in a strong position as it can take journals currently recognised for subsidy purposes off their listing if they are predatory. “They can say ‘as of next year these journals are not recognised for subsidy purposes’. If we combine university initiatives and if DHET police their list … that would kill the market.”

“If this doesn’t happen the demand for predatory publishing will continue without checks and balances, and a whole generation of academics will build careers on bad CVs.”