Predatory publishers: the journals that churn out fake science


A vast ecosystem of predatory publishers is churning out “fake science” for profit, an investigation by the Guardian in collaboration with German broadcaster Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) has found.

More than 175,000 scientific articles have been produced by five of the largest “predatory open-access publishers”, including India-based Omics publishing group and the Turkish World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology, or Waset.

But the vast majority of those articles skip almost all of the traditional checks and balances of scientific publishing, from peer review to an editorial board. Instead, most journals run by those companies will publish anything submitted to them – provided the required fee is paid.

To demonstrate the lack of peer review, Svea Eckert, a researcher who worked with NDR on the investigation, successfully submitted an article created by the joke site SCIgen, which automatically generates gibberish computer science papers. The paper was accepted for discussion at a Waset conference, which Eckert attended and filmed for NDR.

In British universities alone, more than 5,000 scientists have published articles through Omics and Waset in the past five years, according to a Guardian analysis.

Many of those researchers were exploited by the publishers, who aggressively seek new business from academics who don’t know their reputation. Chris Sumner, a British privacy researcher who joined with NDR for the initial investigation, was one. “I originally found out about the world of predatory publishing by becoming a victim and doing some digging,” Sumner told the Guardian. “Explaining predatory publishing to the credit card company (to dispute the conference charges) … wasn’t straight forward at all.”

“I wouldn’t suggest all papers are nonsense, just that the practice is deceptive and opens the door for people to push fake papers though. The deception is that these outlets give the impression of being authentic academic journals when they are not. A question is then raised about why scholars submit.”

Some scholars argue that the open nature of these publishers is valid in its own right. Prof Milton Wainwright, a biologist from the University of Sheffield, has published a number of articles in the Journal of Astrobiology and Outreach, an open-access publication run by Omics with minimal peer review.

“Most of our work is published in peer-reviewed journals,” Wainwright told the Guardian. “However, we believe that the peer-review system is actively denying academics access to our work on panspermia (ie that life originates from space) … I use ‘lightly refereed’ journals to circumvent the gatekeeping role of peer review in order to provide a document which can be used by future scientists to assess our work.

“Of course any scientist who is publishing ‘regular, safe science’ in such journals in the hope of merely furthering their careers is wasting their time and money, as these journals have no so-called ‘impact factors’ … and will not advance them one jot.”

Traditional academic publishing charges academics who want to read scientific articles, while not paying the academics who write the articles or provide services such as peer review. That tension led to the rise, in the internet age, of open access journals, which charge the author to publish, but don’t charge readers, as well as of “pre-print” repositories, which don’t charge anyone anything, but provide no services like peer review.

The rise of the open access journal created a niche for predatory publishing, however, when some publishers realised that they could make more money publishing anything that came to them than they could by being selective about the quality of their submissions.

In May, the US Federal Trade Commission filed a case against Omics’ American subsidiary, accusing the publisher of “deceptive publishing practices”.

“In numerous instances,” the FTC wrote, Omics peer-review practices “are a sham … For example, several consumers who submitted articles for publication were surprised when their manuscripts were approved for publication within several days of submission.”

Not every journal published by a predatory publisher is itself predatory, however. Some have active editorial boards, and provide real peer review. One academic, who asked to remain anonymous, provided the Guardian with copies of the extensive notes of a reviewer for the Omics journal Anthropology.

“Many of the traditional journals I’ve written for provide much less feedback,” the academic said. “I publish in this journal because they respond quickly, provide very good proofs and format the references well, and their publication fees are reasonable.”

“I’m aware of the controversies surrounding Omics. This may exist in some of their journals, but I do believe Anthropology is a reputable peer-reviewed journal.”

Eckhert agrees, calling journals like Anthropology “alibi-journals”.

“You simply don’t know if the studies, which are published with Omics are good, worthless, or bad, because you cannot be sure if and what kind of editorial process or peer review takes place there,” she said. “That is the problem with the predatory publishers in the end: eroding trust in science. A slowly creeping poison. Something might look like a study, but is not worth the paper where it is written on.”

A Waset spokesperson denied the company was a predatory publisher, and argued the company’s conferences were for pre-review manuscripts, and that following conferences, “those manuscripts meeting the publication standards are published 10 days after the event date”.

“Although you claim Waset as a predatory publisher, all our peer-reviewed papers are open to the public,” the company said. “Researchers can read currently 28,645 papers as free of charge without any restriction or subscription. Please note that many publishers sell their publication database to universities for profit.”

Omics did not respond to requests for comment.

Source of this (above) article: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/aug/10/predatory-publishers-the-journals-who-churn-out-fake-science

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