Monday, 8 May 2017

Predatory Publishers - Problem or Business Model?

A lot of the training I give as part of my role happens as a result of questions and interest from Cambridge librarians. Like a Bat Signal, if they're getting questions on a particular scholarly communication topic that they don't know how to answer I step in with some training. Recently I started getting a lot of questions about so-called 'predatory publishers' so last month I put together a training session on how best to determine if a certain publisher is appropriate to your work. The following blog post summarizes this training and my slides can be found at the end.

What do we mean by the term 'predatory publisher'?

So-called predatory publishers are a growing phenomenon in the world of academic publishing. These firms typically contact potential authors directly via email offering a chance to publish. To the novice researcher this can seem like a very tempting offer but it often comes with a sting in the tail. Unhelpfully there isn't one single definition you can point to to showcase what a predatory publisher is and the more you explore the topic the more it becomes clear that the term can mean different things to different people. 

Most librarians will have heard of predatory publishers thanks to the (in)famous Beall's List maintained by Jeffrey Beall, a scholarly communication librarian from the University of Colarado. Beall maintained a list of publishers which in his words "unprofessionally exploit the gold Open Access model for their own profit" (paywalled article - ironically). This list was removed without warning at the start of 2017 causing a number of online conspiracy theories about the reasons why to develop. 

Essentially predatory publishers are taken to be those who charge a fee for the publication of either articles or books without providing any of the publication services an author would expect such a fee to cover. This exploits the Open Access publishing model which charges for publication but provides author services such as peer review to ensure that academic standards are met. Missing out these important steps can result in bad quality research entering the scholarly landscape. 

Some of these publishing firms have also started to branch out into academic conferences. Having received a few invitations myself I know that these these can be very flattering but a quick Internet search will show that the reality of these events is not always so great. There are reports of several conferences being held at the same time in small hotels with little room and time for interaction with colleagues. Sometimes big names on the programme fail to turn up having never been contacted in the first place. As speakers have to pay to attend these events it can often prove to be a waste of money for little gain in academic reputation. 

Are these publishers a problem?

It depends on what you want from the publication process. Traditionally the motivation for publishing your work includes enhancing your reputation and visibility as an author and getting recognition of the work you have done. Some so-called predatory publishers meet this need but there are significant downsides. Many of these firms will do nothing to enhance an author's reputation and in extreme cases it may even result in damage. Even if your research is sound the lack of editorial and peer review services means it may end up sitting alongside work that is substandard or even wrong. 

Typically publishing with one of these firms means that the author has signed a copyright transfer agreement which may mean that they lose the right to use their material in better publications. Even if the work can be withdrawn at a later stage this often incurs a hefty fee and the damage may already have been done.

Having said this there is an argument that these publishing models are fulfilling a need. Different countries have different academic reward systems and if what you need is a physical copy of your work then this is a business model which works for you. In some countries it is also common to see authors trying to avoid the risk of (and lengthy time associated with) rejection by traditional publishers. If these researchers are prepared to pay to see their work in print should be just accept that these publishers are going to work to meet this need?

Checklist of things to consider

So given all this how do you spot a predatory publisher? There are a number of factors you can think about but be careful not to consider them in isolation. Just because a publisher meets one of the criteria doesn't mean they're not legitimate.

  • Transparency - a good publisher will share their information and details such as location, contact information and a mission statement should be easy to find. If a publisher claims to focus on a huge range of topics then treat with caution as this may indicate a for-huge-profit approach. If you receive an invitation to publish then check it's from a professional address rather than something personal like Gmail. Check for spelling and grammatical mistakes but be aware of cultural differences which may explain overly formal language.
  • Indexing - being listed in the typical indexes and databases for their discipline is a good sign but remember that there may be perfectly valid reasons why a particular title doesn't appear (it may be too niche or new). If you can't find a specific title then check for others by the same publisher.
  • Quality of previous publications - look at previous articles in the journal in question. Do these look like good quality articles or are there spelling and grammatical mistakes? Does the abstract make sense? Some journals have been known to publish abstracts with mistakes because they simply don't understand the terminology of the subject.
  • Fees - any author fees should be clearly accessible and explained prior to publication. Be aware of hidden fees - if the journal starts asking for extra payments then alarm bells should be ringing.
  • Copyright - if the publisher claims to be making the work available Open Access then check whether a Creative Commons or other type of open licence is being used to make sure that the resource is available. The publisher should also be upfront about the rights that the author will retain after publication.
  • Peer review - robust peer review is key to the academic publishing process and a good publisher should set out clear guidelines for both authors and reviewers. Be wary of the promise of review periods which seem to be fast - these are often too good to be true and may indicate a lack of thoroughness.
  • Editorial board - members should be listed on the website, with a named person acting as Editor in Chief. These people may be names you recognize but they should have some connection with the field the journal is publishing in. It may also be worth checking the web presence of some of the members to see if they mention their affiliation with the journal as some publications have been known to use the names of people without actually asking them!
  • Website quality - check that the website looks professional but be aware of cultural differences here. What may look sophisticated to someone from a large UK university may be out of reach of a smaller publisher in another country.

Above all, trust your judgement

If something doesn't feel right then you need to investigate further. Think of the publication process as you would online shopping - if a shop looks unreliable you are unlikely to give them your credit card details so exercise a similar level of caution!

For those who prefer their information in a more visual form the (slightly edited) slides from my presentation can be found below.


2 comments:

  1. There's a very narrow opportunity space where the publisher does more work than a vanity press, but is not predatory to the extent of exploitation. This opportunity space is "self-publishing" or "print-on-demand". You may have a thesis that you would like available through Kindle for example. Or you want a couple of dozen hardbacks to present to friends and family. Then, as Claire mentions, there may be requirements to have a printed or published version of the thesis as part of the conditions that must be fulfilled for a degree to be approved. I have also come across one case where a distinguished scientist wanted an autobiography published privately (but properly in the technical sense) in order to give many presentation copies to colleagues. But, as I say, it is a niche opportunity space that should be checked out carefully.

    Simon Mitton, Life Fellow, St Edmund's College

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    1. Thanks Simon, that's an excellent point. There are many reasons why an author would want to have their work published as a physical copy. Until I started the research for this presentation/blog post I hadn't fully realized the range of arguments out there

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