It Could Happen to a Dean: Open Access and the Problem of Predatory Publishers
The move towards Open (public) Access to published research, specifically research funded by the public purse, has gained significant momentum in the past few years. The initiative has real merit, even if not completely without its own issues. However, as with most system changes, it brings unanticipated and unwelcome consequences. One of the problems in this case is the emergence of Predatory Publishers. If we don’t get a grip on this now and stop it in its tracks the whole Open Access journal industry risks being tarnished, perhaps irreparably.
Publishing in peer reviewed journals is the primary means to disseminate quality controlled ‘knowledge’ in most academic disciplines. Through an accumulation of articles, each adding a small element to the body of knowledge, the field develops and grows over time. Journals then become the record of the academic conversation in a field. The importance of publishing has taken on a more explicit perspective in recent years as university/school/department rankings (see links below) have grown in prominence as proxies for performance measurement. The introduction of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and its sucessor the Research Excellence Framework (REF) added even more impetus to publishing in the UK. Whether these drives are in the best long term interests of science and the societies they serve is an argument for another day. The pressures are here now, and they have implications. At a micro level the implications for academics are that they have to, if they wish to progress in their careers, play the game and publish.
At the same time, as this pressure to publish increases, there is a growing backlash against profit making journal publishers and a drive for more Open Access. The argument for Open Access, in its simplest form, is that the public paid for the research to be done and so it should not have to pay again to read it.The big system shift here is that the author/institution pays to fund the publishing costs, rather than the publisher charging to cover the costs (and profit). The drive for Open Access received a significant boost this year when Harvard’s Faculty Advisory Council sent an email to all staff explaining that the costs were now prohibitive and asked them to consider resigning fom some journals that wouldn’t play ball. Harvard have their own Open Access portal (DASH) Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard (NUI Maynooth has a similar repository eprints repository). There is even a list of 13,000 academics who intend to boycott Elsevier, a major academic publisher, because of their ‘business practices’. Some institutions will of course embrace the change more whole heartedly than others and it is worth listening to Yale’s librarian to get an insight into some of the nuanced issues this initiative creates for academics but, generally, this initiative is gaining momentum.
The changes are bringing a number of particular conditions to bear on the “market” for Open Access journal. One, the concept of Open Access (and indirectly by default the concept of author pays) has been legitimised through the endorsement of the concept by Harvard and others. While this is an endorsement of the concept, it is easy, particularly in the early days, for publishers to equate all Open Access as being good – the small independent publisher taking on the giants for the benefit of society. It is little surprise then to see most Predatory Publishers make statements about being ‘fair to the authors’ and adhering to ‘principles’ of Open Access to create the air of an honourable organisation. Two, the increased pressure to publish has created an increase in the supply of articles without an equivalent growth in traditional publication outlets. As a consequence, authors then start to move further afield to look for publication outlets. Three, academics under increasing pressure to publish for career advancement and even job retention, may be less selective when choosing the journals they publish in and also look for quicker routes to publication. Four, Open Access is new and it is not always easy to be clear about which which journals are credible high quality outlets and which are less so. Five, technology advancements have created an opportunity to, at little cost, create a counterfeit presence with back office systems and then mass mail potential victims. The ability to create very credible looking websites at low cost makes this all too easy. These forces have lead to conditions for the emergence of what are now being called Predatory Publishers. Jeff Beall, Professor and librarian at the University of Colorado has a very active blog discussing the issue. The blog provides a list of questionable journals and I used it as a starting point for some investigating.
Just an evening of research and a few emails brought up examples worth sharing. Jeff’s journal list brought me directly to the Journal of Knowledge Management, Economics and and Information Technology (JKMEIT). This quite impressively designed site proudly notes that it is indexed in EBSCO (an extremely well known academic database). Many journal websites fraudulently make a similar claim but, JKMEIT is indeed indexed on EBSCO. (EBSCO is subscription access only – those with access can see the journal here). So, how do you get your paper into the EBSCO database? According to the submission process on the JKMEIT website you simply email the paper, receive an ID after review (no details are given on the process and no indicative time-lines are provided), and then send the money (€125). So, is it really that simple to get a paper in a recognised academic database? Well, actually it seems to be. This absolute gem on the subtotal button in Excel made it in. There is another issue though, the journal, JKMEIT, is on EBSCO but, not all of the ‘scientific’ publications on the JKMEIT website are indexed and there is no indication on the website which ones are or are not indexed. This dreadful example of what is described on the website as a “scientific paper” will give you some idea of the quality criteria for publication. It is listed with others that are in the ‘real’ JKMEIT journal without explanation of the difference (and it has a cover page with the JKMEIT logo). The site also shares that it is now listed on EconLit, which it is. The site statement reads that “We are proud to announce that since August 29, 2011 Journal of Knowledge Management, Economics and Information Technology is listed in EconLit. “…the journal has been evaluated and accepted for listing in EconLit” (Liz Braunstein, Production Editor, EconLit)”. I have written to EconLit to get there views on the example article above. I will update the blog if I get an answer.
So what JKMEIT seem to have done is to create a journal with some substance, publish it online, and have it indexed in EBSCO and listed on EconLit creating an air of credibility. Having created the journal it now co-exists on the website with other ‘scientific’ articles mixing the two without making this evident. Sticking with the ‘real’ JKMEIT journal for the moment; the first issue of the journal in EBSCO is Volume 1 Issue 4 2011 and if you follow the menu system on the website it brings you to a listing of the issue articles. I compared both the EBSCO listing and the JKMEIT website listing and found a discrepancy. One article, the final article on the website list for Volume 1 Issue 4 is not on EBSCO.
I then found that if you click on the first sub menu of the Journal Issues button, Volume1/2011 (and not on the Issue no. list) it brings you to a single PDF of the entire journal issue. Journal Volume 1 Issue 4 is here but the extra article is not. Moving on to the last issue of the journal currently available on EBSCO, Volume II Issue 1, and crosschecking, I found that this time there were two papers (1, 2) on the website that are not available in EBSCO or from the downloadable journal PDF.
I then moved on to some of the more recent ‘real’ journal papers and there is a dizzying collapse in quality. While earlier papers made some attempt to present a volume/substance, some of the later ones are monumentally poor – I am really interested to hear what EconLit think and how they would evaluate this. The slight of hand is the way the website interleaves papers that appear in the journal with others that are just listed on the website. Everything on the website purports to be JKMEIT. Some of the ‘scientific articles’ are published on the website with a JKMEIT cover page (but with no volume number etc.) clearly to give the impression to the reader and the author that the papers are published in JKMEIT. The site doe not make this distinction clear and neither does the submission process that will accept your €125 per article. My clear advice – stay well away from this journal.
A further scan down Jeff’s list and the very credible looking journal title of the International Journal of Business and Commerce caught my attention. The journal explains that the peer review process may take “2-3 weeks”. In a world where reviews are always measured in months and sometimes years, this is a red flag (it also plays to the need of a frustrated academic trying to publish quickly). Once the article is accepted the author just needs to pay the US$140 to have it published. All very straightforward but, unlikely to provide any real quality assurance for the academic community, let alone the casual reader. This journal has an associate editor in the US and in Europe. I contacted one of the US based Associate Editors who told me:
“As Associate Editor, my role is undefined; I think the journal is using my resume and reputation as Associate to bring in authors from the SE Asia and South Central Asian areas. Are they reputable, they were 1.5 years’ ago. Are they now? I really haven’t been in the loop to know their current activities and they editorial directions they’ve chosen.”
I am still waiting for a response from the European Associate Editor. I went on to review some recent publications in IJBC and spotted a paper in this journal from an academic in the well known Ashridge College in the UK. Ashridge have their own very comprehensive Open Access database and so I checked to see if the article was genuine, and indeed it was available for download from the Ashridge repository. I remember my mother chastising me for pulling on the end of a piece of thread in a woolen jumper – the result of which lead to some unravelling. So, nothing learned and article in hand I gave in to the impetuous desire to pull this particular thread. I cross referenced (on Ashridges own well functioning database) the article author to see what else they had published recently and found them to be quite prolific, with 12 publications in 2012 alone. As I scanned down the list I noticed one particular journal article “(2012) Diversity management in South Africa: Inclusion, identity, intention, power and expectations. African Journal of Business Management, Vol. 6(4), pp. 1749 – 1759”. The journal title caught my interest, I had seen it mentioned recently. Could it be the one that Jeff Beal and Anne-Wil Harzing had been discussing – well, yes, and yes. I was even more surprised to see that the third author on this paper is Ashridge’s Dean and Chief Executive, the highly respected Kai Peters. I wrote to Kai sharing the information I had on the journal and his response was pretty much as I suspected. The lead author in a search for publishing outlets in a world of scarcity had found what, at the time, seemed like a sensible journal to publish in. Lesson learned.
The shifting economics of the traditional model to the Open Access model brings with it a shift in incentives. Traditional publishers have to sell their subscriptions to libraries to survive. They need credible journals that academics want to read to be able to do that. On the other hand Open Access can serve the short term need of academics under pressure and in a hurry to publish. The Open Access journal is not selling “access to read” to a customer looking for knowledge but, “access to publish” to an academic in need of a publications outlet. Where being free and easy accepting journal articles will damage the profitability of the traditional publisher, it can enhance the profitability of a predatory open access journal particularly in the short term and while the existing market pressures exist.
The conclusion is straight forward. There are a growing number of journals, using a variety of mechanisms to present a credible front, willing to use dubious practices to lure Academics to pay for publication in Open Access journals that have little or know quality control and/or are open to manipulation. The issue is not the payment, somebody has to pay for the costs of publishing. The issue is the quality control in these journals and the integrity of their systems – editors with no real involvement, peer review without any real scrutiny, and unclear processes are just not good enough. If we don’t eradicate this problem the development of Open Access will undoubtedly be damaged, and a tarnished image can be difficult to shake off. I would urge major academic institutions to leverage their reputations and build their own (with independent editorial boards) Open Access journals and take the market away from less scrupulous operators. In the mean time everybody, institutions, libraries, schools/departments and academics, must work to ensure the integrity of their publication outlets. As the pressure rises on academics to move from traditional outlets to emerging Open Access, caveat emptor must be the order of the day. After all, it could happen to a Dean!
About the author – Robert holds the Chair in Strategic Management at the School of Business and is Co-Academic Director of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Conflict Intervention at the National University of Ireland Maynooth. He was the founding Head of the School of Business and served as Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. Robert was head of Executive Education at the Irish Management Institute and prior to this spent 18 years in industry.
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