Unprofessional open access publishing a new industry

For a researcher to be successful, he or she not only needs to produce good research – it also has to gain exposure. However, there is competition for space in scientific and popular science journals. This has led to the growth of a grey area with unprofessional journals that take payment from researchers who want their work to appear.

Kristoffer Holmqvist

Kristoffer Holmqvist recommends the information on the University Library website about unprofessional OA journals.

The grey area for scientific journals is the larger of the two (see related article for popular science). New ‘open access’ journals pop up all the time – journals whose content is freely available online, but that are instead financed by the published authors.

The open access model brings advantages for readers – both private individuals and institutions – who do not have to pay the sky-high subscription fees charged by established publishers. However, it requires editorial control that is strict enough to guarantee quality. This is in place for the majority of open access journals, but not all.

“We see unprofessional journals as a problem, because they reduce confidence in the idea of open access. It can be difficult for individual researchers to judge whether a certain journal is serious or just after his or her money”, says Kristoffer Holmqvist at the University Library.

He knows that some unprofessional journal editors are very pushy, and will, for example, quickly contact all researchers who participated in a conference:

“They promise high impact if you publish your work in their journal, but their promises are really quite hollow.”

Kristoffer Holmqvist refers to the page Grey zone OA publishing houses on the library website. The page offers advice for those who need to assess a publisher, for example checking who is on the editorial board, whether there is good contact information available, and whether the publishing terms are reasonable.

An example of the sheer quantity of unprofessional journals was seen in the autumn. Research journalist John Bohannon wrote in Science about how he had tried sending a fake research article to over 300 open access journals. Claiming to be a researcher from Ethiopia, he said that he had found a fantastic cancer treatment in a type of lichen.

John Bohannon had invented his pseudonym, his university and his research results. The article also contained deliberate, elementary errors, such as the conclusions the author drew from his statistics. Even so, it was accepted by a huge 157 journals, in return for the appropriate payment. The majority of these uncritical publishers were based in India, with the US in second place.

“Open access publishing has become a new industry in India. All you need in order to create a journal is a computer with access to the internet”, says epidemiologist Madhukar Pai from McGill University in Canada. He became aware of the problem when he started receiving invitations to sit on editorial boards for journals in fields such as climate change, botany and physics – subjects that are far outside his area of expertise.

However, the occurrence of unprofessional activity in the field of open access does not mean that the traditional publishing industry is free of error. There are plenty of examples of flawed articles being published by ordinary, subscription journals, which have later had to retract the material. Just recently, it was revealed by Nature that the publishers Springer and IEEE had had to remove more than 120 texts full of what Nature called “computer-generated nonsense” that had been published in various conference reports.

Bohannon’s bogus article was also accepted by some open access journals owned by established publishers such as Elsevier and Sage. The dividing line is not between open access and subscription through traditional publishers, but is rather about the existence of a responsible peer review process.

“Just as there are good subscription journals and good open access journals, there are also poor journals of both types”, says Lars Bjørnshauge. He is a former university librarian in Lund and now heads DOAJ, a large directory of open access journals. DOAJ is working hard on guidelines that will make it more difficult for unprofessional companies to make it into the directory.

Kristoffer Holmqvist also emphasises that open access is a form of publication that aims to increase access to research results without eliminating quality controls. He urges all those who need advice on publication, whether scientific or popular science, to get in touch with the library.

“The faculty libraries are happy to answer questions, as are we at the Division of Research and Study Services at UB!” he says.

Ingela Björck

Research funding bodies unwilling to contribute to “adverts in disguise”

Popular science publications that take payment from researchers who want to gain exposure for themselves and their research have become a new niche market. Research funding bodies are warning researchers not to spend their grants in this way.

“The Swedish Research Council has been contacted for a couple of years by a number of journals that want to get Swedish researchers to publish information about their research for high fees”, writes the Swedish Research Council (VR) on its website. VR emphasises that they have never had any collaboration with these journals, which are commercial and do not use peer review.

International Innovation is one such journal. A number of decision-makers and high-level managers in Sweden have been interviewed for free in the journal, and this has then been used in their marketing. Jenny Björkman from Riksbankens Jubileumsfond explained in VR’s online magazine Curie that a number of researchers who have funding from the Jubileumsfond had been contacted by International Innovation, who wanted to do an interview for payment.

“The problem for us at Riksbankens Jubileumsfond is if the money that we granted for research goes to what should be regarded as an advert. That’s not what we want to fund”, says Jenny Björkman.

Forskarbladet, Science & Technology and Public Service Review are similar publications and websites mentioned in articles in Curie and on the Karolinska institutet website.

Ingela Björck

To read more about the issue:

• Lund University Library advice on open access publishing

John Bohannon on his spoof research article and the results of his experiment

Nature article about computer-generated nonsense articles

• Curie on popular science articles for payment (in Swedish)