The Open Access (OA) movement sprang from a noble intent: to return scholarly publishing to its original purpose, which is to spread knowledge freely without price barriers. However, it has unwittingly facilitated the spread of bogus predatory journals, which are mistaken by unwary researchers for reputable ones.

This problem was traditionally thought to affect only those in developing countries. However, a new study has found that even researchers from well-known institutions in first-world countries, such as Harvard and the Mayo Clinic, are falling prey.

A relatively small amount from reputable American institutions

A new analysis of 1,907 articles published in journals suspected to be predatory finds that a whopping 15% of them came from the United States – second only to India. Nearly three quarters of submissions reported no funding sources, while most that did, listed the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“If they publish in a predatory journal, it’s not going to be disseminated or used. It’s wasteful,” explained Kelly Cobey, a researcher at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, also one of 32 authors of the paper, which was published in Nature.

The term was first used by Jeffrey Beall, a research librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, who kept a list of suspected predatory journals and publishers on his blog. “It started when I was on tenure track in the last decade, and I started to receive these spam emails,” he said. “They were for journals I’d never heard of before.”

The list proved invaluable for researchers performing the analysis, as they examined systematic reviews and primary biomedical studies from 92 of these potentially predatory publishers. They found that these papers tended not to fully report the methods used, clinical trial registration numbers, or approvals from ethics committees.

Such “problem papers” can be found in more mainstream journals as well, but were found to be more common among the potentially predatory journals. Of the 1,907 papers investigated, nine were from Harvard, 11 from the University of Texas, and eight from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Insufficient safeguards against predatory journals

Sadly, Beall’s list remains the most authoritative listing of such predatory publishers that scientists have, even though it is created only by one individual, and “his criteria… weren’t necessarily completely transparent,” as pointed out by Cobey.

The researchers then emailed authors and universities to understand why they would submit papers to such journals, concluding that the level of awareness of risks by such bogus journals was still too low. Of the 18 researchers who responded, three asked for educational materials about predatory journals, while seven stated that they had, in fact, been recommended to submit to these journals.

This critical lack of awareness has not gone unnoticed by other scientists. “It’s something that you encounter after you’ve published your first article: You start to receive unsolicited requests for manuscripts,” said Jimmy Gonzalez, a clinical assistant professor at Western New England University.

The dangers of predatory journals

Most journals work by allowing access of academic publications only to those who pay a monthly subscription fee. However, researchers can opt for their work to be open access. They typically pay a fee to cover the costs of publishing, so that readers everywhere could gain access and use the article for free. Some journals also offer other benefits of opting for OA, such as priority in publishing – attractive to researchers in a hurry to do so.

A good journal is typically selective with the submissions it accepts – and takes at least a few weeks to complete the whole peer reviewing, proofreading and publication process. In contrast, predatory journals often accept and publish papers immediately with no peer review; as in the case of the 'Star Wars’ hoax, part of a sting operation to root out such publishers. They may also charge researchers exorbitant prices, and even threaten those who opt to withdraw their papers from publication.

Unfortunately, it is not always easy to distinguish whether a journal is predatory or legitimate – researchers, eager to publish, may miss the fact that the name of the journal differs from its reputable counterpart by a mere “s” added on to a word, or an ampersand instead of an “and”.

Predatory journals create two different sets of problems: one, where legitimate research goes unread and uncited because the contents of such journals cannot be found on the indexes used by academic libraries; two, that poor, unreviewed research does turn up in academic searches, and goes on to be cited and used in the scientific community.

The latter has, perhaps, even more far-reaching effects in the field of health and medicine. For example, a sting study about the purported benefits of dark chocolate for weight loss was published by another journal on Beall’s list, International Archives of Medicine, and promptly covered by mainstream news outlets. It is easy to imagine how adversely erroneous health advice can affect the average consumer.

“What if it was about the measles vaccine?” asks Rick Anderson, associate dean for collections and scholarly communication at the University of Utah’s library. MIMS

Read more:
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The important milestones of clinical trial evolution
The scourge of false medical information is spreading online