Between May 7th and June 7th, I received 24 invitations to submit papers to 21 journals that represent 14 publishers. One was from a well-established and highly regarded organization in archaeology. The others were from what are now sometimes called predatory journals. I decided to read the invitations and look into the journals behind them in some detail. My intention was to write a light-hearted blog post on those zany fake journals. I realized very quickly that this is a serious matter.

Of course, I did encounter a bit of zaniness along the way. There was that one journal for which the editor’s bio is an advertisement for home air purifiers. There was another one whose editor in chief last published in the 1960s. He is most likely not aware of his recent illustrious appointment. He is very likely, in fact, not aware of anything at all anymore. There was a journal that had a 226 word article on the benefits of capsaicin. I was very interested because I am a notorious fan of spicy food. Visitors to my office react variously to the presence of a bottle of hot sauce on my desk. Sadly, that article is representative of the other contents of the journal.

I was thrilled to be recognized in one of the invitations for my “academic excellence in the field of forensic odontology”. I must admit that I am pretty good at identifying my children’s teeth when they fall out. In fact, that experience of many years allowed me right away (from grainy emailed pics on my cellphone, no less) to see that a few teeth my students had found in excavation last summer were deciduous. But I am afraid that is the extent of my expertise in the field.

Even more interesting is the fact that fully 9 of the 24 invitations were for journals in the area of forensics. I do have co-authorships on a couple of papers that could have forensic applications. If you look hard enough, you can even hear my gravelly voice (on which students have remarked in evaluations) and my production skills on the audio slides for one of them. But I am not, by any stretch of any reasonable observer’s imagination, a forensic scientist. Perhaps my crowning achievement though, is in finally being invited to submit a paper to a journal on nuclear energy. I can sincerely say that a boyhood dream came true this month. I am even toying with the idea of submitting an article there. I might yet do that.

But things got serious when I got beyond looking at the publisher, the editors, and journals, and started reading the papers and looking up the authors. Even though three of the journals had no content at all, and several had mostly gibberish, a significant number of the journals actually published at least some reasonably interesting papers that were obviously written in good faith and are the result of hard work by some good people. Some, despite being written in good faith and being the result of hard work are still not viable. For example, there is the highly dubious craniometric study which has great data, is internally consistent in its assumptions, uses proper methods, but is theoretically indefensible (at least since the late 1930s, although the approach is still present in Current Anthropology into the 60s).

But I was expecting the proportion of ridiculously bad papers to be much higher than it actually is. The papers that I would consider viable would have greatly benefited from peer review and most were in dire need of a professional editor, but they are solid at their core. There is the heartbreaking case study of suicide by a novel method spreading via social media. It deserves to be read. There is the paper on recent gene flow in some isolated valleys that is not spectacular but certainly informative enough to be of interest to specialists of the region. There is the review of literature on the Neolithic transition, obviously drawn from a dissertation, which, recast to focus on a particular issue and then properly refereed, should be in a legitimate journal.

I detect a very worrisome trend in these viable articles in predatory journals. Their authors are overwhelmingly from the developing world and the BRICs, and/or they are junior. We senior western academics manufacture and amplify this trend by feeding the legitimate journals and publishers and using in turn their publications as easy (I would say lazy) metrics for restricting access to our club.

There is more good work out there by good people than there are slots in good journals, and certainly than there are academic positions. We privilege members of our club and their designated heirs (our students) for access to those slots. There are other barriers, such as language barriers which require authors to have their articles professionally edited before they are accepted by legitimate journals. That’s expensive and usually not possible. There is the fact that the amount of labour and therefore resources required to produce a complete article these days is going up exponentially. It is now very difficult to publish a simple, good, interesting result. The few available slots in reputable journals are taken up by large, well-funded teams that do far more work for a single paper than can be done by a junior, peripheral academic.

Predatory journals mimic the surface attributes of our legitimate journals, combine them with a hijacked form of the good and noble concept of open access, and capitalize on the need, which we create, for aspiring members of our club to have publications in journals. Their business model works because of us and because of the legitimate journals, not despite them. Saying that predatory journals are the problem is like saying that the monster in Frankenstein is the problem.

I’ve written before about the need to move away from our traditional publishing and career development model. This is more evidence for me of the urgency of getting it done. The current publishing landscape evolved as a beneficial social contract between scholars who needed access to each other’s work and publishers who had it reviewed and took on the mechanically complicated, trade specialized and labour intensive role of disseminating it. It accelerated research immeasurably. It has now clearly started to slow research down by limiting its dissemination. Worse, it restricts access to the academic world for people who have interesting and useful contributions to make.

It is time for a new social contact between scholars. We now have the tools we need to review, publish and curate each other’s work. Let’s do it.

One thought on “Predatory journals are not the problem. We are.

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