Legal update

Predatory publishing: Implications for lawyers and social scientists

A brief overview of how predatory publishing is affecting the field and tips to avoid predatory publishers.

By Christina A. Studebaker, PhD, MLS

The internet has dramatically expanded the opportunities to publish scholarly and academic research. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, increasing numbers of scholars and academics began to push for “open access” to scholarly research, which provides for online publication of research articles that anyone can access without charge.

Advantages of open-access publishing include substantially lower operating costs, broader reach and potentially greater impact of the research. Rather than relying on subscription fees charged to libraries (as publishers of traditional printed journals do), open-access publishers typically charge authors fees to publish their articles and sometimes for just submitting an article for consideration. However, some open-access publishers have been accused of charging author fees without providing legitimate editorial and publishing services. Such groups have been labeled “predatory publishers.” Many scholars are concerned that predatory publishers are motivated to publish as many articles as possible in order to make as much money as possible, giving little regard to the quality of the underlying research. Such a practice would have obvious negative implications for preserving the quality and integrity of published research findings in the social sciences, as well as other fields. Further, because expert witness opinions often rely in whole or in part on published research findings, such a practice would complicate the admissibility analysis of such opinions.

The publishing practices and standards of open-access publishers were tested in 2013 when journalist John Bohannon submitted a “fake but credible” research manuscript with obvious scientific flaws to hundreds of open-access journals (Bohannon, 2013; see article). The extent and nature of the flaws were intended to be easily identifiable by a competent peer reviewer and to make the manuscript “unpublishable.” The manuscript was sent to 304 journals operated by open-access publishers. Specifically, 167 of the 304 journals were listed on the Directory of Open Access Journals, which claims to use quality control standards and to certify only journals that support principles of best practice in scholarly publishing. In addition, 121 appeared on a notable list of journals published by predatory publishers, and 16 appeared on both the DAOJ and predatory publisher lists. Among the 255 journals that made a publishing decision, 62 percent accepted the manuscript. Although 82 percent of the journals operated by predatory publishers accepted the manuscript, it is also notable that 45 percent of the journals that are believed to use quality control standards accepted the manuscript. Furthermore, about 60 percent of the decisions (acceptance or rejection) occurred with no sign of peer review. Bohannon reported that, “Only 36 of the 304 submissions generated review comments recognizing any of the paper's scientific problems. And 16 of those papers were accepted by the editors despite the damning reviews.”

In 2014 a Canadian news agency submitted a paper consisting of “a garbled blend of fake cardiology, Latin grammar and missing graphs” to Experimental & Clinical Cardiology, a Canadian medical journal that had been well-respected in the past and then sold to offshore owners in 2013. The article was accepted for publication and an authors’ fee of $1,200 USD was charged. Surely, there have been other, similar instances of open-access journals publishing seriously flawed research.

The bottom line is that publication of an article no longer serves as a reasonable basis for assuming that the underlying research meets or exceeds certain minimum standards of research practice. For social scientists, this means a familiarity with predatory publishing practices is important for protecting one’s own research findings as well as for assessing the quality of other publications. For attorneys, this means cross-examinations of expert witnesses in the social sciences and other fields should include questions about whether the expert has ever: (1) published an article in an open-access journal, or (2) paid author fees to have a research article published. Knowing the details surrounding either of those circumstances will help attorneys evaluate the expert’s published research and general qualifications. Attorneys can also independently review an expert’s list of publications and compare the journals in which the expert has published to lists of journals operated by “potential, possible, or probable” predatory open-access publishers.

Lists of “potential, possible, or probable” predatory open-access publishers and associated journals are compiled and published annually by Jeffrey Beall, an academic librarian at the University of Colorado Denver. In addition, in light of the ongoing proliferation of open-access publishers and journals, Beall has developed 54 criteria (PDF, 172KB) to consider when attempting to determine whether an open-access publisher is “predatory”. The criteria include:

  • The publisher’s owner is identified as the editor of each and every journal published by the organization.
  • The journal does not identify a formal editorial/review board.
  • No academic information is provided regarding the editor, editorial staff and/or review board members (e.g., institutional affiliation).
  • The journal has an insufficient number of board members, (e.g., two or three members).
  • There is little or no geographical diversity among the editorial board members, especially for journals that claim to be international in scope or coverage.
  • The publisher demonstrates a lack of transparency in publishing operations.
  • The publisher provides insufficient information or hides information about author fees, offering to publish an author’s paper and later sending an unanticipated “surprise" invoice.
  • The publisher lists insufficient contact information that does not reveal its address and/or has a “Contact Us” page that only include an email address or web form.
  • The publisher publishes journals that are excessively broad (e.g., Journal of Education) in order to attract more revenue from author fees.

A recent examination of open-access predatory publishers between 2010 and 2014 indicated that the fields associated with the highest number of published articles are engineering, biomedicine and social science. Raising awareness of this issue among legal psychologists, as well as among social scientists more broadly, will help to protect the integrity of our field, as well as the integrity of judicial opinions that may rely upon the results of publications within our field.