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Ethical Editing: A Case Study in Avoiding Predatory Publishers

By Brandon C. Strubberg | Guest Columnist and STC Member

This column features ethics scenarios and issues that may affect technical communicators in the many aspects of their jobs. If you have a possible solution to a scenario, your own case, or feedback in general, please contact column editor Russell Willerton at russell.willerton@gmail.com.

In early 2017, a scientist from a prominent institution privately contracted me to edit a biomedical manuscript that he was writing for an invited submission. He was preparing to enter the academic job market later in the year, and the invited submission came as a welcome surprise. At the time, I was a new scientific editor in an editorial department at a cancer center in Texas. I followed my editorial training and requested details about the journal to review its author guidelines and recent issues. At the time, I didn’t realize the prevalence of predatory publications within academic publishing. But after researching the journal, a publication by SM Journals (or the SM Group), I began to suspect that it was predatory. In this case study, I review how I identified a predatory journal and persuaded my client to avoid publication. I also offer fellow editors tips on how to do the same in a publishing environment filled with predatory publishers.

Exploiting the Open-Access Movement

I was a new scientific editor at the time of this case and was not aware of the sheer scope of the predatory publishing problem. In a study of 2014 scholarly publishing practices, Shen and Björk found that 8,000 active predatory journals, controlled by approximately 2,000 predatory publishers, published 420,000 articles. No, that is not a typo: Four hundred twenty thousand! The volume is up significantly from 2010, when only 53,000 articles were published. According to Gina Kolata in the New York Times, the number of predatory journals now tops 10,000—about equal to the number of legitimate journals, if not higher.

How did the world of academic publishing become inundated with predatory journals? Predatory publishing has arisen as an unfortunate consequence of the open-access publishing movement. In some fields, especially those in STEM, authors may pay to publish their research in journals that are freely available for anyone to read. Sometimes these fees can be quite high—even in the thousands of dollars, as is the case with the respected Public Library of Science (PLoS) journals. Predatory publishers seemingly emulate this model, but instead pursue academics via email canvassing, accept articles with little or no peer review, and then charge authors fees to publish their work. Authors are often notified of the fees only after the publishers have received the manuscript. If the author does not pay the fee, then the manuscript may be “held hostage” by the publisher.

Predatory publishers exploit a system in which publications are the cultural capital with which promotions are secured. Quite simply, academics who need publications create a demand, and predatory publishers supply easy access to venues for publication.

Spotting the Red Flags

During my research into the journal my client had targeted, I encountered initial red flags on its website:

  • The author guidelines page contained obvious grammatical mistakes.
  • The website did not have active links to pages for a “Current Issue” or “Archive.”
  • The “In Press” link led to a page with articles published two years earlier.

Although these issues piqued my interest, I remained unconvinced that the journal was predatory—until I searched my client’s topic using the site’s search bar. At that point, I found an article authored by my client in one of the issues of the journal. The article seemed to be the same topic as the article I was editing and included the same coauthors; moreover, the article was riddled with mistakes. I next found my client’s name on the journal’s editorial board. My client told me that he had been invited to submit an article to the journal but had not mentioned serving on the editorial board, even when I asked him for more information about the journal. At this point, I was convinced that the journal was predatory, and my only remaining concern was communicating this information to my client, who could have been a willing participant as easily as a victim.

Confirming My Suspicions

To confirm the journal’s predatory nature, I consulted Jeffrey Beall’s website about predatory journals, Scholarly Open Access. Beall, previously an academic librarian at the University of Colorado Denver, coined the term “predatory publisher” in 2010. His website included a list of predatory publishers titled “Potential, Possible, or Probable Predatory Scholarly Open-Access Publishers,” which was commonly called “Beall’s list.” Beall’s list was well known and respected among scientific editors, so much so that it was a spoken rule within my department to consult the list any time an unknown journal came across one of our desks. For years, Beall’s list was one of the few pockets of strong resistance against predatory publishers, though there have been many pranks against predatory journals that routinely call attention to their unscrupulous actions (see Bohannon 2015; McCool 2017; and Sorokowski et al. 2017).

Beall’s list included SM Journals—the publishers seeking my client’s article—as predatory. Beall himself had even written a post about SM Journals. The post included an email from the group inviting a researcher to propose a topic and guest-edit an issue. Beall also discussed the journal’s suspect address, a P.O. Box in Delaware owned by a law firm that specializes in providing U.S. mail stops for foreign businesses. Beall (2016) concluded, “Medical research is way too important to trust to bogus publishers such as SM Group. It’s a completely deceptive and exploitative publisher that all researchers should completely avoid.”

Addressing the Client

With my findings in hand, I wrote a detailed email to my client. Because I was not sure if he was a victim or participant, I wrote an email meant to educate, commiserate, and warn. My message began by stating my concern about the journal. I described the journal and linked to its website with a description of the issues I found, including my client’s name and paper. I then listed some statistics about predatory publications and lamented the ease with which even seasoned scholars could be fooled by these journals’ tactics. I also included links to Beall’s list and his post about the SM Group, along with a link to another article about SM Journals written by a high-profile researcher. Finally, I told my client that I felt an ethical obligation as an editor to present this information and urged him to reconsider publishing with this particular journal and publisher, lest his reputation be called into question in the future. I offered to refund the down payment he made for editing services.

My client then performed his own research and agreed with me that the journal was predatory. He assured me that his name had been listed on the editorial board without his consent. Likewise, the paper already published was an earlier draft of the very paper that he contracted me to edit. He had not been told that the journal published the early draft of the paper. He also thanked me for alerting him.

While he worked to have his paper and name removed from the journal, he had me continue editing his manuscript, which he eventually published elsewhere in a legitimate journal.

I initially worried that he might be put off by my warning about the journal. Doing the right thing, however, paid off for both of us; we have worked together several times since.

Putting Predatory Publishers on Notice

In recent years, predatory publishers have come under greater scrutiny. In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) moved to bring a suit against the OMICS Group, a publisher of many scientific journals that has been criticized for unscrupulous business practices and misleading marketing tactics, including promising authors thorough peer review, deceptively concealing pricing practices, and falsely listing well-known scholars on the editorial boards of their various journals. And in 2017, the FTC won a preliminary injunction against the OMICS Group that requires the conglomeration to disclose all costs related to submitting and publishing academic articles in their journals and prohibits them from misrepresenting their publishing practices to the public.

Losing Beall’s List

Unfortunately, Jeffrey Beall shut down his site in mid-January 2017, quite literally days after I consulted it, after years of receiving threats from predatory publishers. There are conflicting reports regarding why Beall took down his site, ranging from personal decisions to pressure from his employer. With Beall’s list gone, authors and editors alike lost their single most comprehensive list of predatory publishers, making it even more difficult to stymie the rising tide of predatory publications.

Editing Ethically

Scientific editors have an ethical obligation to protect their authors and, indirectly, the public from predatory publishing practices. Although the FTC stepped in to stop OMICS and put other predatory publishers on notice, the business is simply too lucrative to abandon. And the FTC cares only that business practices are transparent and not deceptive. Their focus is not on the danger to the dynamics of constructing scientific knowledge. With 420,000 articles published by predatory journals in 2014 alone, there is a very real danger of unchecked science building upon the unchecked science that came before it—or even good science wasting away in a predatory publication.

In an age when experts are under siege, fake news accusations fly freely, and willful ignorance is seemingly celebrated, we need to do what we can to protect scientific communication, and it starts with our serving as gatekeepers to our authors. Doing so fulfills the principles that govern our membership with STC, opposes unethical publishing practices, and prevents unvetted science from making it out into the world.

Identifying Predatory Journals

When helping clients avoid predatory journals, editors should always do their due diligence and ask authors for information about target publications. This initial step is especially important for editors who perform substantive or “scientific” edits for authors, but it is a good practice for editors who may be copyediting or proofreading as well. The manuscripts we edit, no matter the level of the edit, reflect our professional values. Additionally, identifying a predatory publication and warning an author can generate much goodwill and improve the professional relationship between author and editor. Most importantly, it is simply the right thing to do.

Start by researching the journal online. Explore the homepage and read the mission statement and scope to determine if the author’s paper fits; read the author guidelines. Keep an eye out for the following red flags (for a more comprehensive list, see Shamseer et al.) throughout a journal’s website that may indicate the journal is predatory.

  • Obvious spelling and grammar mistakes.
  • A broad scope within or beyond the discipline.
  • Images with poor resolution.
  • Unclear or nondescript manuscript processing and peer review procedures.
  • A promise of rapid publication.
  • Poor, unclear instructions for authors.
  • Few publications within the previous two years.
  • An address tied to a law firm or business other than the publication.

Any one—or even all—of these characteristics will not guarantee that a journal is predatory. Open-access publishing enables anyone to start a journal, and poor editorial work could simply be an indication of a new journal with a small or overworked staff. That said, you should absolutely be suspicious if you see any of these problems.

Consult lists to help verify if a journal is suspicious. Beall’s list can still be accessed via Internet archives, such as the Wayback Machine, though he has not updated his list since January 2017. Comprehensive lists of predatory publishers freely available are difficult to find, but Cabell’s International, a Texas company that specializes in scholarly analytics, maintains lists of both legitimate publishers and predatory publishers as a part of a subscription service. Additionally, the Directory of Open Access Journals lists only journals from publishers that have met a specific set of criteria for inclusion. Finally, a group of anonymous researchers (see Stop Predatory Journals) occasionally adds to Beall’s list, which they have reproduced from the Internet archive, but not with the same dedication or frequency that Beall himself previously did.

Persuading Authors

The final step for many editors will be persuading the authors with whom they are working to also recognize that a journal is predatory and avoid publication in it. Although such avoidance may seem like common sense, keep in mind the pressure under which many researchers work. To obtain research jobs and promotions, especially in STEM fields, most researchers are evaluated heavily by the number of publications they produce. For many authors, any publication is worth pursuing, which leads to the most disheartening aspect of the recent rise in predatory publishing: Some academics seem to be willing participants. Kolata states, “it’s increasingly clear that many academics know exactly what they’re getting into, which explains why these journals have proliferated despite wide criticism.” In a recent study, Derek Pyne, Professor of Economics at Thompson Rivers University, studied his colleagues’ publications, finding that those who received promotions had at least four papers published in suspicious journals. He found that there was no downside at his institution to publishing in predatory journals, and, in fact, it may be beneficial to do so if promotion committees provide little oversight.

Although small studies, such as Pyne’s (2017), show no negative effects at his institution for researchers who publish in predatory journals, other institutions have begun to scrutinize the publications on job applicants’ CVs far more than they have done in the past (Kolata 2017). And some critics have placed responsibility, at least partly, with the home institutions of the researchers who publish in predatory publications. Institutions and grant-awarding agencies care about where their names appear, as well as the reach of the research attributed to them. Many of these predatory publishers are not properly indexed or tracked beyond Google. Complicit scholars’ names, and their work, may not appear in tracking statistics for citation purposes or appear in major databases (though, of course, the journals claim they are properly indexed). Whether the author with whom we work is a willing participant, willfully ignorant, or a victim, we need to use our knowledge of the industry—and our rhetorical chops—to attempt to make a difference.

First, approach this issue as an opportunity to build goodwill with the author. Do not accuse or imply the author of willing participation. I recommend taking a comprehensive rhetorical approach—similar to the one I took with my client—that makes use of Aristotle’s three appeals: logos, ethos, and pathos.

Educate authors by:

  • providing statistics about the sheer volume of predatory publishers;
  • describing the tactics they use to ensnare authors; and
  • quoting and linking to expert sources.

Warn authors that their credibility could be compromised by:

  • describing the potential damage to reputations, and
  • describing the potential effects such publications could have on job or promotion prospects.

Remind authors that their work has social implications by:

  • describing the potential negative effects of published science that has not been peer reviewed, and
  • discussing how the stakes go beyond the academy and can affect laypeople who may act on unconfirmed science.

Taking a well-rounded approach covers all possible ways in which the author may be involved with the journal and makes a variety of appeals designed to persuade authors to reconsider publishing in a predatory publication.

Conclusion

Predatory publishing is a rampant problem within the academic publishing industry, especially in science and medicine. Even with some resistance out there, it is a practice that will likely compound in the near future. Many researchers are not educated about how to identify and avoid such publications, and the pressure to publish can lead some to leap unwisely. Editors can and should play an important role in this regard by helping authors understand the magnitude of the problem and keep them away from such publications. We have an ethical obligation to do so, for the sake of our clients and the advancement of scientific knowledge itself.

References

“FTC Halts the Deceptive Practices of Academic Journal Publishers.” Federal Trade Commission. 22 November 2017. https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2017/11/ftc-halts-deceptive-practices-academic-journal-publishers.

Beall, Jeffrey. “Another Dangerous Medical Publisher: SMGroup.” Scholarly Open Access. Last modified 20 December 2016. https://web.archive.org/web/20161224055131/https://scholarlyoa.com/2016/12/20/another-dangerous-medical-publisher-smgroup/.

Beall, Jeffrey. “List of Publishers.” Scholarly Open Access. Last modified 17 January 2017. https://web.archive.org/web/20161130225355/https://scholarlyoa.com/publishers/.

Bohannon, John. “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?” Science. 342.6154 (2013): 60–65. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.342.6154.60.

Kolata, Gina. “Many Academics Are Eager to Publish in Worthless Journals.” The New York Times 30 October 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/30/science/predatory-journals-academics.html.

McCool, John H. “Why I Published in a Predatory Journal.” The Scientist 6 April 2017. https://www.the-scientist.com/critic-at-large/opinion-why-i-published-in-a-predatory-journal-31697.

Pyne, Derek. “The Rewards of Predatory Publications at a Small Business School.” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 48.3 (2017): 137–160. https://doi.org/10.3138/jsp.48.3.137.

Shamseer, Larissa, David Moher, Onyi Maduekwe, Lucy Turner, Virginia Barbour, Rebecca Burch, Jocalyn Clark, James Galipeau, and Beverly J. Shea. BMC Medicine 15.28 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-017-0785-9.

Shen, Cenyu, and Bo-Christer Björk. “Predatory” Open Access: A Longitudinal Study of Article Volumes and Market Characteristics. BMC Medicine 13.230: (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-015-0469-2.

Sorokowski, Piotr, Emanuel Kulczycki, Agnieszka Sorokowska, and Katarzyna Pisanski. 2017. Predatory Journals Recruit Fake Editor. Nature 543 (2017): 481–483. https://www.nature.com/news/predatory-journals-recruit-fake-editor-1.21662.

Stop Predatory Journals. 2017. https://predatoryjournals.com/.

BRANDON C. STRUBBERG (strubberg@shsu.edu) is an Assistant Professor of Technical Communication in the Department of English at Sam Houston State University. Previously, Brandon was a scientific editor at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. He also worked as a technical writer in the petroleum industry for six years and as a small-business content marketer for three years.

Brandon earned his PhD in Technical Communication and Rhetoric from Texas Tech University, where he also served as the STC Student Chapter President from 2013–2015. Thanks to Kristina Lewis, Brian Blackburne, and Russell Willerton for help with this article. Brandon is on Twitter via @bcstrubberg.

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