There are definitely publishers who come to mind when I hear the expression “predatory publishers.” My first thought is of the high-profile academic publishers who are increasing their journal prices by ten or 20 percent per year, leaving libraries with impossible choices to be made between maintaining their journal subscriptions in key fields or buying that year’s monographic production. None of these are on Jeffrey Beall’s “Possible Predatory Publishers” list at the Scholarly Open Access site, however. Beall’s list consists of newly formed open access (OA) journals that charge authors a fee for each article published but that allegedly do not follow accepted academic practice for quality publication or are even fraudulent in nature.
Most likely you have been getting an increasing number of “cold call” requests to publish in OA journals. These may be new OA journals being developed by known scholarly publishers, such as the recently announced “IEEE Access,” which lists among its positive qualities “rapid, binary peer-review process with a decision of accept/reject” and “convenient author-pays publishing model, with an article processing charge of US$1,750 per article.” Others may be asking you to submit articles to journals entirely unrelated to your field of activity, or even to join the editorial board of such a journal. These email messages have alerted many of us to a new phenomenon of what I would call “the gold rush in scholarly publishing.” Many of these newly formed publishers of OA scholarly journals online are inspired by what I think of as the “Hindawi model.”
Hindawi is a scholarly journal publisher founded in 1997 with, initially, a small number of print journals. In 2003 it began to transition to an OA business model and was carefully watched by the academic community. Since then, Hindawi has flourished and now has over 500 journal titles and a staff of at least 200 at its offices in Egypt. Other scholarly publishers are experimenting with the OA model, but none have taken it as far as Hindawi. What is key about this model is that OA has the potential to reach a broader audience than those served by printed publications because there is no cost to receive the content. The cost of OA may be paid for by institutions hosting the journals or using an “author pays” model.
The editorial boards and author lists of the Hindawi journals are made up primarily of scholars from Asia and South Asia, with some from Latin America. In terms of participation in the global scholarly conversation, these are relatively untapped resources. China is considered the most fruitful emerging market for scholarly publishers, but there is still a very large gap between scholarship in the developed world and that in the developing world. Open access publishing has some potential to help bridge that gap, and some publishers see the developing world as an upcoming market for scholarly publishing.
Hindawi appears to have started an OA publishing gold rush, and scores of new publishing ventures have popped up in the last few months. Like the gold rush of 1849, it is unlikely that latecomers will get a sizable share of the mother lode. The rush has been encouraged by the development and availability of journal publishing software specific to this kind of endeavor and the low cost of entry. An individual publisher may initiate anywhere from one dozen to upward to 50 or more journal titles on various topics—almost always, however, in the sciences, as those are the academic areas with monetizing potential. It is a subset of these publishers that is ending up on Beall’s list.
Beall’s analysis of the upstart publishers following in Hindawi’s footsteps (and undoubtedly hoping for a similar success) often mentions their place of origin in a developing country with a possibly implied negative. Yet the tiered nature of scholarly publishing between the developed and the developing countries is not new: statistics show that authors in top-tier scholarly journals are overwhelmingly from wealthy Western environments. Although scholarly publishing has existed outside of the dominant West, few Western libraries carry these publications, and few Westerners would consider publishing in them. Similarly, not a great deal of scholarship from the developing nations is published in the dominant Western literature. With open access publishing, the scholars from developing countries have a chance to become visible, if not to Western scholars, at least to one another.
While many hopefuls flock to the gold rush, so do the cheats, charlatans, and scoundrels. Some of these exploit the situation for their own gain, others go further and take advantage of the trust of others. In the rush to print, and the hopes of attaining prestige, unscrupulous authors can place identical or near-identical articles in multiple journals. Where the journals themselves are not providing rigorous peer review and editorial oversight (and, admittedly, some may not be providing any at all), the rules of academic engagement are thus broken.
Even worse are those publishers whose actions may be fraudulent in nature. Some journals misrepresent themselves by using titles such as “American Journal of…” or “European Journal of…” when they are not associated either geographically or academically with those regions. (I assume that “International Journal of….” is open to all.) There are journals whose editorial boards list fictitious persons or persons who have not agreed to be on the board. The worst plagiarize articles from other sources to fill in their alleged “back issues.”
It is true that the “author pays” economic model is open to exploitation, but nothing excuses outright fraud in any kind of publishing. The dishonest players in this arena are unfortunately making it more difficult for honest but struggling publishers that may eventually be part of a sea change in the exchange of scholarly information that can begin to bridge the gap between the “haves” and “have nots”; between the more privileged scholars with access to top-tier scholarly literature and enviable research budgets; and the scholars from developing countries who could greatly benefit from open access to the world’s academic literature.
However, I see something important in this story beyond the possible existence of dishonest publishers. What concerns me even more is the complicity of the academic world in general, and in particular the Western academic world, in the substandard publishing endeavors. Many of these upstart companies have found First World academics who are willing to lend their names to the publications but who may not be doing anything to make a positive difference in regard to bridging the research and publication gap between the developed and the developing world. The willingness to put one’s name on a journal that is not following best practices in publishing is a moral failure in academe that needs to be addressed at an institutional level. It is not enough to lend your name to the board of a journal, adding to your own CV; such a position should only be taken by those willing to work toward the development of quality scholarly research and publication. Scholars working in First World academic institutions have a particular obligation to endeavor to level the playing field between the haves and have-less’s in the research arena.
Beall’s list (officially called “Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers”) attempts a binary division of this complex gold rush: the good and the bad. Yet many of the criteria used are either impossible to quantify (“The publisher dedicates insufficient resources to preventing and eliminating author misconduct…”), or can be found to apply as often to established OA journals as to the new entrants in this area (“Depends on author fees as the sole and only means of operation with no alternative, long-term business plan…”). Some of the criteria seem to make First World assumptions that aren’t valid worldwide, such as, “The publishers’ officers use email addresses that end in .gmail.com, yahoo.com, some other free email supplier.” It isn’t difficult to find Third World university websites with entire faculty lists that use Yahoo! email, undoubtedly because of minimal technical support at their institution.
Even more difficult for the generalists among us is any determination of the cultural and scientific value of the published papers. I have been a reviewer for international conferences and for international journals, and from my vantage point it is very hard to know what will serve as useful information for scholars outside of my environment. At all costs we must avoid making judgments based on our First World assumptions and definitely not based on culture or race or anything other than the potential contribution to scholarship somewhere in the world.