Gerd Antes is the scientific director of the Cochrane Germany Foundation. In this article, he shares his knowledge and critical point of view about the risks of open access publishing.
Since Thursday, July 19th 2018, the German media have been full of martial words that one may not usually associate with the world of science, or to be precise, scientific publishing. The press upheaval follows comprehensive investigations broadcast by German public radio and television stations (the Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) and Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR)), and published in the newspaper the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The investigations examined authorship in scientific journals that have been referred to for a number of years as 'Predatory Journals'. In this article, I would like to discuss the background that led to the emergence of Predatory Journals.
The English term Predatory Journals has become a household name ever since the creation of Beall's List of Predatory Journals and is known by all those who examine the credibility of scientific journals.
The German translations of the term lagged behind until the problem became increasingly known in Germany.
Infobox: What are Predatory Journals
The term Predatory Journal was coined by the American librarian Jeffrey Beall and refers primarily to unscrupulous online publishers who issue freely accessible articles online. These studies and journals are presented as scientific and serious, without necessarily having undergone a thorough peer review process.
These 'predatory activities' are the result of an aberration that can only be understood by knowing about the massive upheavals that the scientific publishing industry has undergone in recent years.
Those who cannot pay may no longer read! The drama of classic publication systems
In classic, conventional publications, project reports and results, study reports or even editorials and opinion articles were disseminated by publishing houses and newspapers. To read the articles or access the periodicals or journals in which they where published, the end user had to pay for them out of their own pocket. Or else they were purchased and provided by public or academic institutions, such as libraries. The main problem with this financing system was and is that the end prices for subscriptions and individual purchases have been rising over the years. This, of course, poses a problem as part of the potential readership, especially the ones with lower incomes, are completely excluded from the knowledge contained in those publications. Those who cannot pay no longer have the possibility to read! An article can cost about $36 in a single purchase.
Those who cannot pay, cannot publish! The Open Access system becomes expensive for authors
'Control' over knowledge by private publishers, their excessive pricing schemes and thus the limited free access to this knowledge led in the early 1990s to an initiative called Open Access (OA). The initiative wanted to guarantee free access to knowledge and literature. In addition to the technical restructuring that this shift required, the initiative demanded that the knowledge be free for all all over the world (at least to all who have an internet connection or access). Not surprisingly - but overlooked in many idealistic points of view - this shift meant a profound change in the funding structure of the publishing world. The burden of paying shifted from the reader to the authors, their employers or academic insitutions. Now, those who cannot pay, cannot write ! A publication in an OA journal costs just over $ 1,500. If it includes many graphics, prices can soar to up to 5,000 dollars.
Paying for Quality
As with any fundamental change, this funding revolution created loopholes for 'robbers' or 'predators'. In the old model, the leading journals prided themselves on their high rejection rates. Authors and articles that did not live up to the strict quality standards of the peer review process were simply turned down. Rejection rates were in some cases well above 90%. This was regarded as a high quality feature and at the same time as the justification for the high prices. This is ironic enough since peer reviewers usually do their work for free.
In the new OA model, this whole principle is turned upside down. Since the authors pay for their own publications, high rejection rates are harmful to business for publishers. That would limit their output and hence their income. Lowering the quality requirements, in this case, actually benefits business. More so, when new journals emerge on a market where 'serious‘ authors are rare, this happening is nearly unavoidable.
Financial restructuring leaves room for abuse
It took a relatively long time before these economically predictable occurances were deliberately abused by publishers on a large scale. Individuals and companies created new journals that only existed online. The only reason for their creation was to incite authors to publish with them and pay them for their publications. Manuscripts that were submitted to them by authors were left untouched whilst a 'turbo' peer review process supposedly took place. The text was then published with a professional look online, free and open for the public to access.
There are now an incredible number of such journals in existance. We know all this thanks to the work of a man called Jeaffrey Beall, a librarian who uncovered this large scale fraud and made it public in 2008 by publishing a list (short: Beall’s list) containing the names of predatory journals (see also: Predatory open-access publishing). The number of items on this list has rapidly increased over the years.
It is happening closer to home than thought…
While in the early days of this development its causes were almost exclusively found in low- to middle-income countries, that is no longer the case. Over the past two years it has become increasingly clear that even high-income countries are not spared. On the contrary, they play an increasingly active role. And not only publishers or journals are to blame, authors themselves sometimes knowingly contribute to these fraudulent activities as was revealed in the journal Nature. (See also: Stop this waste of people, animals and money; Predatory journals: Not just a problem in developing world countries, says new Nature paper; Is Canadian research falling prey to predatory journals?)
Press catches wind
While in Canada this development has been discussed and analyzed by government as well as the scientific community, Germany has thus far shown consistent ignorance. The press only caught wind of the issue recently and brought it to light after months of very extensive and thourough investigative research.
The following press release, for example, has been taken up in a plethora of reports, interviews and broadcasts:
"More than 5000 German scientists have published in scientific journals"
The investigation has also been taken up internationally: "German Scientists Frequently Publish in Predatory Journals"
That is as far as the current developments go.
At this stage, I do not want to pick up on the discussions that have arisen as a result of these news. The spectrum ranges from dramatization to trivialization, and a first step must surely be the harmonization of all statements.
However, I would like to emphasize here that, in my opinion, this development is one of the systematically overlooked, undesirable side effects of the digitalization movement. The technical revolutions that have taken place allow every lay individual to put together a professional-looking journal on the Internet, in which scientists from reputable institutions may then publish their findings, without even realizing what they are getting into.
Last but not least
Science should thank the media for opening the door to exposing these facts of fraudulant scientific publishing.
Cochrane German Foundation