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Predation

Predation
By: biot11 Posted On: April 02, 2018 View: 289

Predation

“Beall’s List”, as a way to keep track of predatory publishers, has been officially offline for some time now. Jeffrey Beall himself has said that it was taken down under “intense pressure” from his employer (the University of Colorado at Denver), although his employer says no, not at all, this was his personal decision. (I know which side of that story I believe more). The businesses in this area are a touchy and litigious lot – well, at least in threatening to file lawsuits, anyway – and many legal departments would surely just rather not deal with all of the potential trouble.

It now appears, though, that the list is back online in updated form, but is being maintained anonymously. One of the people behind it told Nature that they spend several hours a week dealing with inquiries and maintaining the site:

If the journal titles aren’t already listed, the manager says they carry out an “in-depth analysis” of the publishers’ policies, checking them against a set of criteria originally laid out by Beall, and researching whether they are indexed on journal ‘whitelists’, such as the Directory of Open Access Journals or Journal Citation Reports. Journals or publishers deemed untrustworthy by the manager are included in an ‘update’ addendum on the blog. By March 2018, the new site had added 85 stand-alone journals and 27 publishers to Beall’s original lists of more than one thousand titles.

Good for them. There are people who object to the idea that such journals are being called out anonymously, and there’s no doubt that the situation is open to potential abuse (although that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening so far). But what else to do when you’re barraged by threats if you do this work openly under your own name? Cabell’s is a company that has taken on the challenge, with a subscription model blacklist (and whitelist), and it would be interesting to know what kind of flak they get from the hack publishers of the world.

As that last link says, though, there can be some confusion (and has been on Cabell’s list and others) between low-quality journals and predatory ones:

So what are the problems? The most serious is that, as currently configured, Cabell’s Blacklist perpetuates the common problem of conflating low-quality journal publishing with deceptive or predatory publishing. In this case, the conflation happens because many of the blacklisting criteria Cabell’s applies are really quality criteria (“poor grammar and/or spelling,” “does not have a clearly stated peer review policy,” “no policy for digital preservation,” etc.) that can easily end up gathering fundamentally honest but less-competently-run journals into the same net as those journals that are actively trying to perpetrate a scam. Predatory and incompetent journals do often evince some of the same traits, but these traits don’t always indicate predatory intent.

These things overlap to a good degree, but not perfectly. Many of the predatory outfits, the we-have-three-hundred-journals-and-add-two-every-day folks, tend to be very sloppy and unprofessional quick-buck artists. But there are some rather slick ones, too, that at first glance don’t look that much different from actual journals. Meanwhile, there are actual journals, the smaller and/or newer ones, that can be rough around the edges.

What do I mean by an “actual journal”, then? There are perfectly good open-access journals, so we can’t say that the distinction is whether someone has to pay to read it. I’d say that the big distinction is some level of editorial control – and by that, I don’t only mean “Just a proportion of the papers make it in”, although that’s often the case. Even in more wide-open journals such as PLoS ONE, papers are reviewed to make sure that they appear to be technically sound (they just don’t make calls on a paper’s impact or importance), and the same goes for many of the other respectable open-access titles.

And that brings up another criterion: a real journal has some care for what it publishes. A fake or predatory journal, though, does not give a damn. Their reason to exist is to publish as many manuscripts as they can get and collect the payments for them, and if those manuscripts are faked, incoherent, or plagiarized? Oh well. Did the payment clear? All right, then. Plenty of other journals and their publishers are trying to make money – and how – but their method of doing so runs through some variation of “Attain and preserve some level of respect from the readers and authors”. That’s as opposed to “Shear those sheep and keep the line moving”.

It is impossible to publish everything that comes in the door and maintain that respect, because the stuff that comes in that door is seriously contaminated with garbage. Here’s a famous post from the science-fiction publishing world, from editor Theresa Nielsen Hayden, called “Slushkiller”, about what comes in the transom where she works. About 70% of the submissions can be dismissed out of hand, usually within seconds, because the writing is prima facie disjointed or incoherent. Another 25% of the stuff is written reasonably competently, but has a totally overused or borrowed plotline or has some other such flaw that would make it unsaleable. Now you’re down to the last five per cent or so, which is where the real editorial decisions actually start.

Scientific publishing is not as different as one might hope. I don’t know how many green-ink religious revelation manuscripts Nature or Science get, but I’ll bet its a nonzero number. There are surely a lot of papers that come in written in such a disorganized manner that they cannot even be reviewed. Beyond that, there are many, many manuscripts that are readable and apparently not wrong, but are still not right for the journal they’ve been submitted to (often because of those impact and importance factors, which is where PLoS ONE, Scientific Reports, etc. come in). Nature, for example, has said that it rejects about 60% of submitted manuscripts without review, so although the proportion is a bit better than it was at Tor Books, it still means that a solid majority of all submissions don’t even clear the first hurdle of editorial attention. PLoS ONE, for its part, has said recently that it ends up rejecting about 50% of its submissions.

The contrast with a predatory journal could not be greater. They can, and do, publish whatever gibberish comes in, as long as the money is good, while all the time pretending to be what they are not. Editorial attention of any type is incompatible with their business model. That, to me, is the difference, and that is why these journals must be shunned.

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