Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Are predatory journals really that bad?

Tales of Algerian Princes, Exotic Beauties, Old Friends Stranded And In Need, and… Your Next Submission?

All academics know these pesky little emails that our spam folder is filled with. Occasionally, a real-looking one slips through the filter, and it takes us a few minutes to figure out that we are invited to submit a paper to the journal Psychological Sciences, rather than the prestigious (or rather, high-impact) journal Psychological Science, without the ‘s’ at the end.

Predatory journals, which pose as real, often open-access journals, offer to publish your papers for a processing fee, normally several thousand US-dollars. Numerous researchers have demonstrated that the peer review process, that supposedly guarantees high quality of your paper, is completely absent or very lax in these journals. The result of these demonstrations is a set of published pseudo-academic papers with varying degree of absurdity; see here for Zen Faulkes' non-comprehensive compilation of the funniest publications.

I argue that such predatory journals are not worse than your average spammer – but, of course, they are no better, either. Charging money for a service one doesn’t provide is a crime, be it a shipping of gold, mail-order bride, or peer-review process. What I argue here is that, despite predatory journals receiving a lot of negative attention from the research community, I have not yet seen a convincing argument to suggest that they damage science.

Also, it is a separate question whether monopolising publically funded research, putting it behind a paywall and charging gazillions for access, then suing the crap out of anyone who dares to disseminate the knowledge, is morally superior to predatory journals. But, two wrongs don’t make a right, and this blog post is not about that.

Predatory journals: A victimless crime?
Sometimes, a paper we write is just “unlucky”: it gets rejected by journal after journal, and eventually we shrug and realise that the paper will probably never be accepted for publication. Maybe the paper really isn’t our best piece of work: it could be a failed experiment, which does not advance our understanding, but publishing it would prevent other researchers from wasting time trying the same thing. A worse scenario is a paper which contradicts previously published and “well-established” work: it could keep getting blocked by editors and reviewers who are friends with the original authors or have themselves published papers that hinge on the assumptions that we are arguing against.

In such cases, making the paper public while avoiding a stringent peer-review process is justifiable. And, in principle, if you have money, if you know that you will be publishing in a journal with very low prestige, or rather, very high anti-prestige  – why not? The Frontiers Journals, anecdotally speaking, are a popular outlet for such work, and until relatively recently, Frontiers was considered a respectable open-access journal with a high impact factor, which has published some good papers.  

For the record, I don’t think it’s a good idea to publish “unlucky” papers in predatory journals, for the simple reason that preprint platforms give you the same service for free, and without the possibility of damaging your reputation. The format of a preprint also has other advantages: for example, the fact that your paper is not (yet) published may encourage your colleagues to provide useful feedback (which has happened to me both times I have uploaded a preprint so far). But, for those who really want to see their “unlucky” paper in the formatted journal version, the question is: is publishing in predatory journals a victimless crime?

Playing the game of boosting your CV
Some publications in predatory journals are probably by researchers who got scammed, and genuinely believed that they were paying money for a good peer-reviewed publication in a legit open-access journal. However, I would guess that the number of such fooled researchers is relatively small – at least, I have not heard of a single case. (To be fair, anyone who has realised that they have been tricked into paying money for a bogus publication would probably be embarrassed to admit it.)

The problem seems to be that some researchers take advantage of these predatory journals to boost their publication record. Anecdotally, this seems to be a problem in the non-Western world, where researchers are often pressured by their institutions to keep up with Western standards of publishing in international peer-reviewed journals, even though they often have fewer resources to produce the same amount of high-quality research and are sometimes limited by their English skills. Predatory journals allow them to publish a large quantity of low-quality papers, without having a strict English proficiency requirement. Here, the victims are honest researchers on the job market and applying for grants. Having to compete with someone who has an artificially inflated CV is unfair. On the other hand, I would argue, the problem here is not predatory journals, but rather an evaluation system that would prefer a researcher with a hundred random-text-generator papers compared to one with five good publications. Also, I would bet that, in practice, presenting a CV with hundreds of publications in predatory journals would not get a researcher very far on the international market (though I have heard of such researchers being unfairly advantaged by their home institutions).

In summary, while playing the publication game by publishing many low-quality articles in predatory journals is not a victimless crime, as it disadvantages honest researchers, I see it as a symptom of a broken evaluation system. If we did not evaluate researchers by quantity rather than quality, researchers just wanting to make their CV look bigger could publish all the gibberish they wanted, without causing any damage to their colleagues with less fragile egos.

Bad research posing as good research
The peer review process serves as a filter to ensure that the published literature is trustworthy. For researchers, science journalists, and the general public, this filtering process means that they can read papers with more confidence. It’s peer reviewed, therefore it’s true, one might be tempted to conclude. Having papers which appear to be peer reviewed but actually contain faulty methods, analyses or inferences would create and disseminate knowledge that is false. As the demonstrations which I linked above show, any text can be published under the apparent seal of peer-review. 

Except, we all know that peer review, even in "legit" journals, is not perfect. I would like to hear from anyone who has never seen a bad published paper in their field. Some papers are just sloppy, and draw conclusions that are not justified. Occasionally, a case of data fabrication or other types of fraud blows up, and papers published in very prestigious journals that have been peer-reviewed meticulously by genuine experts are retracted. Even a perfectly executed study may be reporting a false positive – after all, it’s possible that one runs an experiment and gets a p-value of 0.01, not knowing that fifty other labs have tried the same paradigm and not found a significant effect. Thus, we should not trust the results of a paper, just because it is peer reviewed. The trustworthiness of a paper should be determined by its quality, and by whether or not the results are replicable.

Perhaps predatory journals rarely or never publish good research. Theoretically, it is possible that some publications in predatory journals are “unlucky” papers of the type I described above, in which case they may well be worth reading. In fact, if we adopt a broad definition of predatory journals and include Frontiers, it is very likely that some of the papers are good. Be that as it may, it is undeniable that peer-reviewed journals at least sometimes publish rubbish. Thus, we should not rely on peer review as an ultimate seal of approval, anyway – regardless of the outlet where a paper was published, we should first skip to the methods and results section, and judge the paper on its own merit.

Damage to the Open Science movement
When I finally published one of my “unlucky” papers in Collabra, a friend (from a completely different area of research) told me: “I don’t want to disappoint you, but… I saw that the journal you published in is one of these open access journals.” As many of the predatory journals play the card of making your work freely accessible, there is some confusion about the distinction between “good” open-access journals and predatory journals. For example, Frontiers seems to be hovering in a grey area, with many respectable scientists on the editorial boards, but examples of very bad research getting published, and editors being pressured into accepting papers for the sake of increasing profit.

It is hard to argue against the benefit of making research freely accessible, both to fellow scientists and to the general public. Therefore, it is a pity that the Open Science movement loses some of the respect and support that it deserves, not due to convincing counter-arguments but due to confusion about whether or not it has a legit peer review process. Again, though, the problem here is not predatory publishing: rather, it is misconceptions about open access and its relation to the quality of peer review.

Predatory journals pose as academic, often open-access journals, and have been shown to publish, for a fee, any text with a very lax peer review process, or none at all. Predatory journals are annoying, because they spam researchers in an attempt to receive submissions, and they are immoral, because they may trick a researcher into paying money for the service of high-quality peer review which will not be provided.

There are other issues which may be argued to impede the progress of science. Allowing researchers to inflate their CVs by publishing a large quantity of low-quality work may disadvantage more honest researchers with fewer but better publications, who compete with them for jobs and funding. This would lead to the selection of bad scientists in high-level positions. Publishing low-quality papers as peer reviewed studies may confuse other researchers, science journalists and the general public, and would thus serve to disseminate facts that are not true. Finally, as they pose as open-access journals, predatory journals damage the reputation of other open-access journals, by spreading the misconception that open-access journals necessarily have a lax peer review process and publish anything to increase their financial profit.

I argue that the issues discussed in the previous paragraph – though they are real and important problems – are symptoms of an imperfect evaluation system, rather than caused by the presence of predatory journals. In an ideal world, researchers and papers would be evaluated on their own merit, rather than by a number representing the quantity of publications or impact factors. This is rather difficult to achieve, because it requires top-down changes from employers and funders. But, in this ideal world, publishing in a predatory journal would become nothing more than an auto-ego-stroking gesture. Also, myths about open access journals need to be dispelled, so that the negative publicity that predatory journals receive would not damage the open science movement. Many open access journals, such as Collabra and RIO, have the option of publishing the reviewers’ comments alongside the paper. This practice should dispel any doubts about the legitimacy of the peer review process. If the same was done for all journals, this could be used as an indicator for the journal’s quality, rather than the label of being open access, which is, in principle, orthogonal to the peer review process.

So, what should we do about the presence of predatory journals? Address the issues from the previous paragraph, somehow. And, in the meantime, treat emails from predatory journals the same way you treat any other spam: either delete them, or, for a slow day in the office, see here for some inspiration.