Unintended consequences can be killers! The Open Access (OA) movement, begun for economic and idealistic reasons, now faces a huge and unanticipated crisis: Predatory OA Journals.
An OA journal offers its content for free on the Internet, thus offering the widest possible distribution. Even after eliminating paper, though, publishing is not free. Most OA journals keep their lights on using an “author pays” business model of assessing Author Publishing Charges (APCs).
Let me state upfront, I do not believe OA is inherently flawed. Many reputable journals now offer some form of OA. (JAWRA uses a hybrid model of subscriptions plus OA for authors who require it.) If a journal’s rejection rate is high enough, an editor has no temptation to accept an inferior article just to get the APC.
“Author pays,” unfortunately, opens the field to predation. It’s easy to build a fancy journal website and promote it with blast emails inviting submissions and membership on a “distinguished editorial board.” Quickly “peer review” all submissions, put the articles online, and collect your fee.
Think predatory OA is not a problem? Read Jeffery Beall’s blog, “Scholarly Open Access.” The brazenness of these publishers is astonishing! It’s not unusual for a predatory publisher to launch 40 journals at once. All have prestigious titles. Editorial boards are populated by distinguished scientists, most of whom don’t realize they are members. To appear established , some journals simply steal papers from other journals and place them online as back issues. Impact factors are based on meaningless metrics or just plain made up. Peer review involves little more than making sure your credit card is accepted. Complaints? Good luck in tracing through a web of redirected addresses! The list of offenses goes on and on.
Why would a reputable scientist publish in these journals? These folks are smoother than that Nigerian finance minister who needs your help. A flattering invitation arrives in your email, the website looks good (if you don’t check too closely), and before you know it you’ve submitted a manuscript or agreed to be on a “Distinguished Editorial Board.” Sadly, those most vulnerable to this kind of pitch are young scientists in developing nations, who have neither the experience nor the mentoring to avoid such traps. Regrettably, some AWRA members have inadvertently aided these predatory publishers by passing around their tables of content, or forwarding their fraudulent email pitches.
Besides taking your money, predatory journals do real harm. Tenure committees are getting wise to predatory OA, and publishing in these outlets is not a good career move. Prominent scientists have been embarrassed for, knowingly or not, taking a short cut to publication. Worse, by presenting themselves as legitimate, predatory OA journals lend an air of respectability to “science” papers that have received little or no peer review. The public may not understand the difference between JAWRA, now on its 50th volume, and a predatory OA journal that began last year.
How can you protect yourself against these predators? Always be skeptical of email requests. Keep in mind how easy it is to set up a slick web site. Beall’s blog includes lists of known offenders, and checking it is a good start. Google searches also help. If you know somebody listed on an editorial board, check by contacting them directly. Most importantly, deal with people and organizations you know and trust. It’s a dangerous world out there on the Internet.