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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Predatory Scholarly Publishing


Communications Editor-in-Chief Moshe Y. Vardi

Scholarly publishing is a very unique business. In a typical business, you have two parties: sellers and buyers. In scholarly publishing you also have sellers and buyers, these are the publishers and the research libraries. However, you have two additional parties. On one side, you have authors, who freely and eagerly provide content ("publish or perish"). On the other side, there are editors and reviewers, who act as gatekeepers. They do so for a variety of reasons: sometimes for financial remuneration, but mostly out of civic duty and to gain scholarly prestige.

For scholarly publishing to be successful as a business, publishers must convince libraries to subscribe to their publications. Because budgets have become tighter over the last few years, librarians are quite resistant to increase their subscription inventory. The trend, in fact, is to prune, prune, and prune. Librarians, therefore, must be convinced of a journal's high quality before adding it to their subscription inventory. This resistance by libraries has been an important force for maintaining quality in scholarly publishing.

Recent trends have upset this delicate balance between publishers, libraries, authors, and editors, by freeing publishers from the need to get libraries to subscribe. Here is an example:

I regularly receive email solicitations such as: "Dear Author, as a general chair of GESTS, I am happy to invite you for the acceptance of your paper [sic] to be published in the GESTS International Transactions." (GESTS stands for Global Engineering, Science, and Technology Society.) The offer even provides volume and issue numbers. One has to read further down the invitation to find the coy reference to "registration fees." Again, this may seem like a scam, but a quick Web search finds many bibliographies that include publications in the GESTS International Transactions. Apparently, the publish-or-perish pressure creates a market, and enterprising publishers are keen to meet the demand. By shifting the costs to authors, GESTS is freed from dealing with librarians.

Here is another tantalizing offer: "Dear Professor Vardi, we would like to invite you as keynote speaker for one of the next WSEAS Conferences." This may seem as a genuine invitation to a bona fide scientific meeting, until one encounters a sentence such as "So, our plenary speakers can publish a minimum of one paper, maximum of three papers, without registration fees" and "New prospective plenary speakers must send their CV to ..." You can find a vigorous online debate on the precise nature of the WSEAS conferences, with allegations that the organizer is an enterprising academic, providing a forum where needy scholars can publish without battling hypercritical reviewers.

So what has upset the traditional scholarly publishing marketplace? On one hand, digital publishing has gained legitimacy. In fact, there are many high-quality publications that are published purely digitally. On the other hand, the growing popularity of open-access publishing popularized the author-pays model, in which publishers obtain revenues from author fees rather than from subscription fees. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the author-pays model, the removal of libraries from the equation created an unbalanced system: both publishers and authors want to publish, while libraries have little say. Editors and reviewers may try to uphold quality, but their power is diminished when publishers and authors are so eager to publish. (I resigned a few years ago from the editorial board of a prominent proceedings series, foregoing an annual honorarium of euro.gif6,000, when I realized quality was declining as publishing decisions were made by the publisher rather than by the editorial board.) This new imbalance in scholarly publishing has given rise to "predatory" publishing, whose main goal is to generate profits rather than promote scholarship. An informal directory of predatory publishers and journals has over 50 entries (see http://scholarlyoa.com/).

As I have written previously, I believe the partnership that once existed between the scholarly community and commercial publishers is fundamentally broken. Frankly, I do not understand why Elsevier is practically the sole target for the recent wrath directed at scholarly publisher. Elsevier is no worse than most other commercial publishers, just bigger, I believe. While not all commercial publishers are predatory publishers, they are all primarily driven by profits, which creates a conflict of interest between publishers and authors. The future of scholarly publishing belongs to association publishing, where the members are the publishers, authors, editors, and reviewers, sharing commitment to scholarship.

Moshe Y. Vardi, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF


©2012 ACM  0001-0782/12/0700  $10.00

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Comments


Anonymous

Dear Moshe,

Many share your thoughts, but we also need a coordinated and well thought-out plan.
Indeed, we must try to mitigate side-effects of our actions; for instance, vanity publishing (that always existed) has been encouraged by the well-intentioned support of academics for open publishing.
Some agencies reacted by requiring A-rated publication, but this just killed most regional or specialized conferences, leading to an impoverished support to innovation and in-depth scientific discussion, and of course maneuvers to get this precious rating.
What is the next step? What will be its side-effects?


Andrew Adams

While I agree with most of this article, I find it odd that there is a huge missing elephant in this room. There is no mention here of the role of the reader. Readers are mostly (though not entirely) the same people as authors, but their modality is different when acting as readers than when acting as authors. What readers need, first and foremost, is access to the existing literature in the journals whose quality standards have no dropped too far. The provision of this is entirely within the hands of authors and their institutions through the machanism of institutional repositories (which unfortunately but clearly require institutions to mandate deposit, but for which it is clear that such deposit mandates work). What readers then need is good filtering mechanisms. These filtering mechanisms have been hijacked by promotion, tenure and recruitment systems in academica to act as proxies for proper quality evaluation and this tension needs consideration, since it is primarily within academia itself that these pressures are borne and used (the UK's REF is a large scale variant of this effect).


Tom Crick

I am also concerned about these pretend publications and counterfeit conferences; but let's be clear: these are not credible outlets for disseminating academic research, so how can we rid ourselves of these deceptive venues? It will not be by exposing and condemning the organisers (potentially problematic from a libel perspective), but by systematically discouraging people from submitting. Spread the word.


Anonymous

Dear Professor Vardi!
Your article “Predatory Scholarly Publishing” gives an excellent picture of the relations between the participants of this publishing business and of the tendencies of this business. However, you mentioned one thing that was introduced into the whole system years ago and without any foreseeing of the long term effect, but this is the thing which was even worsened by some additional decisions on the way and brought us to the current situation.
I am talking about the estimation of scientific achievements by the number of publications, or as you call it “publish or perish”. Scientific achievements can be measured only on a qualitative level: an author of new theory XXX, an inventor of new device YYY, or an algorithm ZZZ. In the majority of cases it would be more correct to say that a person made a significant contribution to the existing theory. A qualitative estimation needs more time and efforts, but an attempt to substitute it with some strange quantitative mark (simply a number) has the same sense as the estimation of the patient's condition by an average temperature throughout a hospital. If the number of papers became the main estimation, then why to cry about the quality of those papers; if the quality is not included into estimation then it doesn’t matter at all. And that’s exactly what we have now. If the rules are changed so drastically, then it’s another game. It’s not any more about the life achievements; it’s about the number of publications per year.
Decades ago the papers were published to show the new results; so the majority of articles contained one new idea (rarely more than one) per article During one generation of professors an average number of publications mentioned in CV increased by the ratio of 2 – 2.5. But people are the same, so an average number of ideas per professor is still the same. You can't publish one article with idea and the next one without anything (by a simple comparison the worse one would be not allowed) and you can't publish half an idea in each one, so the solution was obvious and simple: there are no ideas in both. They are on the same level and all of them are published (you wrote about the whole mechanism). The consequences are simple: there are a lot of publications and nearly all of them contain nothing except bla – bla – bla. My estimation is that now I find really interesting articles on which you have to think and which can push you forward in your own research with a frequency of once in three – four years. There are still people who can think perfectly and who care about their publications!
There are some other factors which worsen the situation with the papers' quality but they have a second level effect so we can omit them here.
If we continue to look at the number of publications as the main estimation of scientists' achievements, then any steps to improve the quality of papers will be useless. That's why under the current conditions I don’t share your look on the future of scholarly publishing.
With best regards,
Sergey Andreyev


Lucian Patcas

From David Parnas, Viewpoint in the Communications of the ACM, November 2007, Vol. 50, No. 11, titled "Stop the Numbers Game. Counting papers slows the rate of scientific progress":

"As a senior researcher, I am saddened to see funding agencies, department heads, deans, and promotion committees encouraging younger researchers to do shallow research. As a reader of what should be serious scientific journals, I am annoyed to see the computer science literature being polluted by more and more papers of less and less scientific value. As one who has often served as an editor or referee, I am offended by discussions that imply that the journal is there to serve the authors rather than the readers. Other readers of scientific journals should be similarly outraged and demand change.

"The cause of all of these manifestations is the widespread policy of measuring researchers by the number of papers they publish, rather than by the correctness, importance, real novelty, or relevance of their contributions."

Parnas goes on and explains why and how evaluation by counting the number of publications corrupts scientists and only encourages superficial research, insignificant studies, repetition, and large research groups.

While Parnas does not say anything about predatory publishing, I believe the existence of such publishers is a manifestation of the same problem: the numbers game. I don't share Moshe Vardi's view that the libraries being pickier and the digital publishing are the main culprits. I believe the real problem is perceiving a researcher who publishes 10 papers a year as "better" than one who publishes only one, without actually reading their publications. I also don't share Moshe Vardi's belief that only association publishing, where the members, publishers, authors, reviewers, and editors alike share commitment to scholarship, will work any better. The key words here are "commitment to scholarship". As long as the publish-or-perish pressure is there, the self-preservation instinct will kick in for most authors. No one wants to perish. So the real question is what can we do about stopping the numbers game?


Moshe Vardi

See http://poynder.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/oa-interviews-jeffrey-beall-university.html?spref=tw


Ann Seror

I read with great interest this commentary on the currents of change in scientific publishing brought on by the emergence of diverse publishing enterprises and electronic systems. The evolution of accelerated electronic markets has created synergies between the pervasive profit motive and authors’ publishing imperative – as well as important new opportunities to give voice to often ignored scientific communities of the third world. Such inclusiveness challenges the reader to review and redefine concepts of scientific epistemology, method and rigor, and to apply these criteria independently in evaluation of published research.

I disagree with the assertion that “association publishing” will protect traditional values and ethics of scientific research. Particularly in interdisciplinary and applied domains such as medical informatics, research is displaced from its disciplinary foundations, and “science” may be forgotten in service of “perspectives” on political and practical expediency. ( For example, the American Medical Informatics Association publishes a scholarly journal – JAMIA at http://jamia.bmj.com/ - where reviewing standards seem to break down in the process of publication on topics of current political concern in the reform of the US health care system. See my blog commentaries at http://eresearchcollaboratory.blogspot.ca/ on this case. )

At the confluence of money, politics and science, no institutional entity is above the violation of ethical values. Professional associations and scientific societies are all the more vulnerable as their core membership is more likely to enjoy tacit (and uncritical) consensus on ideological and cultural assumptions supporting research in their knowledge domains.


Anonymous

See Criteria for Determining Predatory Open-Access Publishers, at http://scholarlyoa.com/2012/08/04/criteria-for-determining-predatory-open-access-publishers/


Anonymous

Open access or commercial journal do indeed come with the dark side as Vardi points out, its also positive not to ignore the impact this development could have. The policy maker as a whole should be in the position to as a whistleblower and encourage ethical behaviour.


Anonymous

I see Open Access Journals are a big threat to Closed Access Journals. I love Open Science.


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