Predatory Open-Access Journals?

Last summer, I worked with NESCent and Google’s Summer of Code to write a small piece of software. I think it’s quite useful for the specific thing it does and some researchers in my immediate peer group who have used it agree. I wrote up a short manuscript describing the program and very quickly got it rejected from Molecular Ecology Resources and Bioinformatics. It went on the back burner for several months until I got a solicitation from a new open-access journal that was offering a discounted rate for articles received before a certain date. So I submitted to this journal, after looking up some of their papers and a few people that have published there and convincing myself it wasn’t a flat-out scam.

One day after I submitted, I got an email asking me to review my own article. I know, right? How could that ever happen with a legitimate journal? I declined, they sent it to others to review and about a month later I got three reviews back that were short (0.5 – 1 page), but addressed real questions about my manuscript and included helpful suggestions. I incorporated the changes as best I could and resubmitted. About a week after the resubmission, I saw Beall’s List of Predatory Open-Access Publishers, which includes the aforementioned  journal on the list of “questionable, scholarly open-access publishers”. The author of the list says: I recommend that scholars not do any business with these publishers, including submitting articles, serving as editors or on editorial boards, or advertising with them. Also, articles published in these publishers’ journals should be given extra scrutiny in the process of evaluation for tenure and promotion.

Then, this morning, I got final acceptance of the manuscript and I’m not sure what to do.

I’m not trying to pull one over on anyone and I don’t necessarily disagree with the above text, but I don’t think this paper will be able to go anywhere else and I’m not convinced this journal is Bad. Not a lot of places publish small pieces of discipline-specific software (if you know of any, let me know). I believe this would be a really useful tool for some biologists and in fact, there are a couple of people waiting to cite the manuscript. I don’t want to encourage predatory journals, but open-access articles that do not-super-important science might actually have a place in our field.

I would LOVE thoughts on this. I certainly don’t view this manuscript as equivalent to a Molecular Ecology or Evolution publication – but do all pubs have to be top (or middle) tier? Is there a solution here, like including impact factors on CVs? Or maybe new fangled software like Google Citations can alleviate this problem since they show the overall publishing record of an individual/article? Please weigh in!

(PS – I’m not usually a fan of baby pictures, but come on. It’s a fat, funny baby. He looks like he’s made of marshmallows.)

(PPS – There’s a follow-up post here.)

13 comments on “Predatory Open-Access Journals?

  1. During training, folks used to make fun of the low-tier journals. Then we became assistant professors and decided they were good enough! Some really important findings got their first reports in “bad” journals because reviewers would not accept the early evidence of a paradigm shift.
    I’m not certain what they mean by “predatory” though.

  2. Chris Smith says:

    Well, the ‘review your own paper’ bit is disturbing. Was there an associate editor handling the manuscript? Or was it all run by the publishing house staff?

    • Hird says:

      One of the reviews was non-anonymous so I assumed this person was responsible for the decision, but the reviews were independent (i.e., just sent to me without a synopsis decision). So…a little of both, I guess.

  3. On the one hand, there are some journals that are not much more than vanity presses. The potential for abuse is real.

    On the other hand, I have colleagues who are on the editorial boards of journals in the Beall’s list. They’re putting in honest effort. I doubt they’d do that if they believed they were part of a scam. They are trying to make their journal an actual, proper peer-reviewed journal.

    “Do all pubs have to be top (or middle) tier?” Not if you have a reasonable expectation that the audience can find it.

    I can give one personal anecdote of a manuscript where I submitted it to a journal that was the zero-th tier – it was the first issue. The journal was a complete unknown. I’m not even sure it ever had a second issue. I submitted the paper because I liked what the editor was trying to do with this new journal, and because I thought that the manuscript might be difficult to get into more “regular” venues.

    And darned if that paper hasn’t been accumulating citations at a faster rater than just about anything else in my career.

    Now, I didn’t just leave it up to chance for people to find. I promoted that article. But people didn’t have to cite it. This is why article level metrics are better than journal level “tiers” or Impact Factor in showing that your science has reached its audience.

    • Hird says:

      This is very helpful information! Thank you for sharing!

    • Yoder says:

      I think this squares with my feelings: go ahead and agree to the publication—but then make sure there’s a PDF copy hosted on your personal site, where you know it’ll stay in place for people to find, even if the journal turns out to be ephemeral.

  4. Erol Akcay says:

    I think asking you to review your own paper is a bad sign, making you wonder who runs the editorial process. I don’t think the real worry here is about publishing at a low-tier journal. I would be mainly worried about the case where this journal turns out to be a fraudulent operation, since there might be a negative spill-over to your reputation. But even that is a very unlikely scenario (not them turning out to be frauds, but you somehow getting associated with them).

    Another option would be to post your ms on Arxiv and tell people to cite the Arxiv submission. (They get tallied up by GScholar.) It’s a perfectly acceptable practice in some fields, and something we need more of in biology in my opinion. Usually, people are (rightly, unfortunately) worried about the reputation effects of “non peer-reviewed” work. But from what you describe, it seems doubtful that adding this journal’s name to the citation would change its perception or impact greatly at this point, either upwards or downwards. So the opportunity cost is lower than usual, and it would be less of a hassle, cheaper, and less fraught with ethical dilemma. Plus, you’d retain the possibility to submit it to a journal later on (e.g. if you expand your package).

    In any case though, I wouldn’t sweat the decision too much.

  5. The open access journals that are most troublesome are those owned and operated by traditional publishers…the fees are not competitive with mainstream open access journals and they are simply a PR campaign intended to make the larger publisher appear more culturally in-tune.

  6. RMaia says:

    The “asking you to review your own paper” has happened to me before in a pretty respected journal in my field. I’ve also been requested to review papers from my own advisor and lab, which could have been avoided with very little research by the handling editor (I refused every time, obviously…).

    My point is that keep in mind this might happen not only due to the “shadiness” of the journal, but maybe because there’s a small community of qualified reviewers, and if the editor is handling several manuscripts at once, ending up back to the author after a round of searching for reviewers may be more of an “oops” moment than anything else!

  7. Hird says:

    Thanks for all the comments, everybody! I really appreciate hearing outside opinions, since I think I’ve gotten into my own head about this. I am currently leaning towards just going ahead with publication, since I haven’t heard any “this will absolutely ruin your reputation and the field of bioinformatics” and the reasons to publish it seem sound (enough) to me: it was peer reviewed, it is a low impact paper that probably won’t go anywhere else despite the fact that people have/do/will use the software and it is relatively cheap (i know that shouldn’t matter, but it does). Not going to act for another couple of days, though, to think about it some more. Other comments still welcome!

  8. […] after this post, Dr. Todd Vision, with NESCent and UNC Chapel Hill, emailed me and asked if he might be of help. […]

  9. […] of the emerging dangers we’re seeing is the rise of predatory open access journals. The website, Scholarly Open Access, has a list of these dubious publishers based on a […]

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