April 19, 2018

Of Predators and Public Health | Peer to Peer Review

Why would one decide to publish a journal on public health? It sound like a rhetorical question, but it may be more serious than we think. The obvious answer is to improve the health of the public. But if that really is the goal, a publisher in public health would need to try to reach the largest audience of the public that was possible. So a recent announcement from one prominent public health publisher casts doubt on that intent, and the purpose of the journal overall.

The American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) has been publishing for 102 years, and has an impact factor of 3.9. It is ranked by Thomson Reuters Web of Knowledge (formerly ISI Web of Knowledge) as having the third greatest impact in its category. This is hardly the picture one thinks of if one follows the recent discussion of predatory journal publishers. Yet its public access policies have always been very restrictive, and they are about to get more so, in a way that makes “predatory” exactly the right word.

At the moment, AJPH, which is published by the American Public Health Association (APHA), is listed by the SHERPA RoMEO database as a “white” publisher, which means that authors are not allowed to self-archive either a pre-print or a post-print of their articles. From the journal’s own web site we learn that the only rights authors retain if they publish in AJPH are the rights to use their own work in dissertations, theses, books or other journal articles they are writing “at no charge.” And even the exercise of those “retained” rights apparently requires a formal permission request from APHA.

Most significantly, from the perspective of promoting public health, AJPH makes articles open access only under two conditions—if an open access fee of $2,500 is paid, or on the journal’s own website after two years. The public is told that linking to those two-year-old open access articles is permitted “for educational purposes,” as if APHA believes it can prevent linking for other purposes to material it makes openly accessible.

From these policies as they stand, we should be able to discern that profit is more important than fostering public health to the Association. But even with that context as preparation, the message they sent to authors late last month was a shock. Those authors who did not pay for immediate open access believed, at the time they published, that their articles would be fully accessible after two years. But on June 1, the APHA is changing the rules, according to an email from their Publications Editor. The window for open access will be closed much further—only articles that are ten years old or older will be open access. The American Journal of Public Health has decided that the public deserves access to only decade-old materials it has published, which is a useless gesture, given the pace of health-related progress.

If there is a public health-related justification for this change in policy, I can’t think of what it could be. I emailed the Publications Editor asking for comment or an explanation, but received no answer. What his original email does suggest, however, is that there is a clear motive to increase profits behind this move. Authors who were informed of the change were also told that, if they still wanted public access to their articles in spite of the APHA having slammed the public access window closed, they could buy such access for the “steeply discounted rate of $1,000 per article.”

So it seems clear that authors who have already published with APHA over the past decade are being treated as cash cows that can be milked for additional funds—“pay up or the public loses the benefit of access to your work in public health.” And eight years of health-related information is clawed back out of public hands (except for those articles also available by federal mandate in PubMed Central). I have sometimes complained about lists of predatory open access journals because I think the criteria used are not always the right ones. But if any publishing practice can be viewed purely as an attempt to exploit open access in order to extract money from authors while offering little added benefit, this change in policy is such a practice.

I take three lessons from this remarkably mercenary and regressive step by the APHA.

First, impact factors are deceptive, because they measure only a tiny slice of true impact. For a journal in public health, the most obvious impact would be on the public and on those who provide health services to the public. But it is this audience that will be most obviously affected by the removal of articles from public access. On the other hand, this change will almost certainly not have any negative impact on the impact factor, which only measures citations of AJPH in other journals. So the association will continue to be able to brag about its impact factor while reducing its actual ability to influence public health. All for the purpose of drinking from a new revenue stream.

Second, this announcement illustrates the urgent need for the implementation of the White House directive on public access to federally-funded research and for passage of the FASTR Act—Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act, now pending in Congress as H.R. 708 and S. 350. These are initiatives to require that the public have access to the articles that grow out of research funded by taxpayer money. Publishers often express opposition to such measures for a variety of reasons, but often one of those reasons is the claim that they, the publishers, are making research articles adequately available without being compelled to do so. But with the APHA we have a “non-profit” society publisher (they are a 501(c)3 entity and will happily take your donations) that is pulling back on public access in the quest for new profits. The only articles they cannot close up fully are those in other databases, because of funder mandates. So the benefits of open access, especially in a field as important as public health, cannot be entrusted to groups such as this (much less to publishers who are more open about profit motives). We have here a clear and compelling lesson that mandates must be employed to promote science and the public welfare.

Finally, we should learn from the negative example that the AJPH has offered and fight for the shortest possible embargo periods for all public access mandates. A ten-year embargo in public health is simply absurd, and it should remind us that not only must we require public access, but we should require it at a point where the taxpayer-funded research can still do some good. The standard publication process is already very slow, so a one-year embargo is really an 18- to 24-month delay. There simply is no excuse for embargos of more than six months. Publishers might tell us that they need a longer period of exclusivity, but the AJPH illustrates clearly and painfully that this is a “give them an inch and they will take a mile” proposition. Once we compromise on the basic principle that the public deserves access to research they have funded and that is intended to create a public good, we will lose that principle entirely, as the window through which citizens can peek gets closed further and further.

It should be painfully clear, thanks to the American Journal of Public Health, that the only group we can really trust to have custody over public health research and information is the public itself.

Kevin L. Smith About Kevin L. Smith

As Duke University’s first Director of Scholarly Communications, Kevin Smith’s (kevin.l.smith@duke.edu) principal role is to teach and advise faculty, administrators and students about copyright,intellectual property licensing and scholarly publishing. He is a librarian and an attorney (admitted to the bar in Ohio and North Carolina) and also holds a graduate degree in religion from Yale University. Smith serves on Duke’s Intellectual Property Board, Digital Futures Task Force and Open Access Advisory Panel. He is also currently the vice chair of the ACRL’s Scholarly Communications Committee. His highly-regarded blog on scholarly communications discusses copyright and publication in academia, and he is a frequent speaker on those topics.

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  1. The Public Health/Health Administration Section of the Medical Library Association is planning to draft an official response to the 10 year embargo; please encourage others to do so as well.

  2. Barbara Fister says:

    Bravo! That’s really quite appalling. I wonder if the members realize what their organization is doing? Very contrary to … um, public health.

  3. Patricia Clegg says:

    I love the article. I wholly agree.

  4. The tacit premise of this piece is that AJPH is the only outlet for public health research. Of course, this is not true. There are many other good journals in the field, many of them open-access. There are also dozens of predatory (truly predatory) public health journals.

    Stand back and take a broader view. AJPH is only a single journal. If it fails to please authors and readers it will suffer, even without your condemnation. The ‘either/or’ argument put forth in this article is misleading. If authors want to make their public health research available open-access, there are plenty of additional options.

    • Kevin Smith says:

      I am confused, Jeffrey. You say in this comment that we need not criticize AJPH because there are many other journals in the field where authors can publish. But isn’t that also true of all of the OA journals you criticize in your blog? All of them are subject to market pressure, to a degree, at least, so I am not sure why some journals are legitimate targets of criticism for predatory practices, while others should be immune.

    • Kevin,

      I regret your confusion. Nowhere did I say that we need not criticize AJPH as you mistakenly report, perhaps due to your admitted confusion.

      You are correct that all the publishers I list in my blog are indeed subject to market pressure; indeed, many are beginning to fail. My main goal is to advise scholars that they should avoid the journals I list. There are much better options.

      Same with AJPH. If public health authors want to reap the benefits of OA, they best publish elsewhere.

      Have a good Memorial Day weekend,


    • Kevin Smith says:

      I am please to hear this, Jeffrey. I will look forward to your blog post warning your readers about AJPH.

      Enjoy the holiday,


  5. I think that the comments of Kevin Smith and Jeffrey Beall are both needed– by different audiences or different segments of the same audiences.

    Researchers/authors/members of the association need to hear Smith’s critique (as do other publishers) and the the same people also need to Beall’s broader view comments.
    Ann Viera
    Pendergrass Library

  6. Will Robertson says:

    A timely article which I hope gets wider circulation. As a public health practitioner in East Africa with no interezt in publishing I find the predatory nature of journal publishing quite abhorrent. I actually agree with an above comment that there are other options. Perhaps authors should reflect on whether they are publishing for impact factor for their CVs or for impact in public health practice.