It isn’t easy. Let’s get that out the way up front. The individuals perpetrating these frauds are complex, intelligent people who are motivated by greed, fame, and sometimes, even a real misplaced belief in their ideas. They even manage to pull the wool over fellow professionals, who may lack the knowledge necessary to judge the fraudster’s particular field of expertise. Importantly, no field is immune to this. All suffer equally, data science, virology, pharma, clinical, the list is as endless as the motivators for deception.
These confidence tricksters, which is essentially what they are, motivations aside, set about creating a web of intricate, supportive lies for their concepts or products and one of their go-to tools over the last decade has become the open-access model of predatory journals.
Unlike the con that may cost you a few dollars and a sheepish grin when you recount the tale to friends, these cons can and do occasionally exact the ultimate price. Your life.
Medika Life is developing a repository of quacks and questionable, sometimes life-threatening products and devices. As the EIC, I am intimately involved in the project and over the course of the last few weeks, a clear, if highly disturbing, modus operandi has emerged for many of these medical charlatans.
To create trust among both laypeople and professionals, these con’s turn to predatory journals. These ‘scientific’ publications have become their very lifeblood and sustain everything from highly questionable new drugs to bogus medical devices, and yes, questionable papers are often co-authored by medical or scientific colleagues whose motivation will remain, for the moment, irrelevant.
The scale of fraud and deception being committed on both the public and the medical/scientific sector is mind-numbing as more and more quacks and snake oil sellers realize the potential of these predatory publications. By now you’re wondering perhaps as to the exact nature of the beast I have been describing. Allow me to explain in detail.
Sharks in the water
There are many established, and reliable journals, publishers of medical and scientific papers, authored by ethical students and professionals in their chosen fields. With numerous disciplines that each require specific knowledge, this community of publications numbers in the thousands. Science, as we all know, is a vast and complex subject.
These publications serve essentially as validatory mechanisms that rely on a system of peer review. They use other specialists in the same field to rigorously check and question the contents of any submitted paper. Rejection rates are high, and those that make it through this rigorous review process are rewarded with publication.
It is an old and time-honored system that has served the industry incredibly well. It’s effective. It weeds out fraud or points to errors in logic and research that the author/s may not have been aware of. In short, if a publisher accepts a paper, it’s a guarantee of sorts that the materials contained are both plausible, possible, and properly researched. It is validation by your peers and it means a lot in the industry. Or it used to.
As with all things, this time has now passed, thanks in no small part to the age of the internet. A large percentage of scientific publications are no longer reliable. The industry has been fundamentally changed by the introduction of open access (OA). Fraudsters and less than ethical companies and players have entered the market with profit as their only motivation.
You can now publish a paper in many predatory journals without concern for the annoyance of peer review. All you need to do is pay to get your paper published, and thousands upon thousands of authors take advantage of this on a daily basis. You can then reference your published ‘scientific’ article on pigs flying and roadrunners living underwater.
Do this multiple times across multiple journals, attend a conference or two, offered by the same journals, and suddenly you appear to the layman, and apparently a large percentage of the scientific community, to be credible.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The serene pond that previously represented the scientific publishing community is now a shark-infested, turbulent sea of deceit and deception. The phrase predatory publication was coined to describe these sharks, whose primary goal is not the rigorous monitoring and dissemination of reliable scientific knowledge, but rather money. A pay to publish club. Checks and reviews be damned. It’s a free for all that many take advantage of.
This feeding frenzy is partly fuelled by the scientific community itself. It keeps pushing new swimmers into the water. Your reputation in your profession is broadly determined by the number of papers you have published or co-authored. The more, the better your chances of promotion, peer recognition, etc, etc. It is, in this author’s opinion, a flawed system that encourages deception and deceit and powers predatory journals.
The consequences for Science and Medicine
Before we explore these publications in more depth and I will provide numerous names and resources to enable readers to make their own evaluations of these, let’s examine why this matters so much.
It all boils down to one simple thing. Trust. It’s the biggest asset enjoyed by both science and medicine and any mechanism that eroded that trust needs to be addressed, and aggressively so.
In case you’ve forgotten, the anti-vaxers trace their origins to a 1998 paper published in The Lancet by a now-disgraced British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, and 12 of his colleagues. Despite the paper having been proven to be fraudulent and subsequently retracted, for 12 years it stood. After years of criticism and proper peer review, the Lancet retracted the paper. Wakefield was exposed as a liar, having manipulated data used in the research, but the damage was done. Vaccines have been under attack ever since.
The Lancet is a highly prestigious and respected journal. It values its reputation and goes to great lengths to ensure the validity of the papers it publishes. If Wakefield was able to intentionally evade, even if only temporarily, their quality control mechanisms in 1998, how much more simple in 2020 with a smorgasbord of dodgy and cash to publish journals touting for business.
The irony of anti-vaxers using a paper from journals they claim to distrust to justify more attacks on the same industry is apparently lost on these misdirected souls, but that isn’t the point. They are laypeople who have been misled by a paper that was published in a respected medical journal. The author managed to fool his colleagues and in this instance, the process of peer review failed. Trust was eroded and we know in this instance what the ramifications were.
We are at a point, in a pandemic ravaged world, where trust has become a watchword and the lack of credibility enjoyed by the scientific community is gravely worrying. We are in large part to blame for this sad state of affairs.
Regulatory bodies and watchdogs have been slow to keep pace with the internet and how it has fundamentally changed the face of scientific publishing. Sadly, fraudsters on both ends of the scale, both published and publishers, have been quick to exploit the lack of regulation and literal free for all created by the worldwide web.
If we are to restore credibility in the eyes of the public, we need to clean house. Aggressively. What the scientific community does, matters, and at no point in its entire history has this become more evident than now. Covid has brought this truth home to roost.
You cannot help the public or engage with them in a meaningful way if they no longer perceive you to be reliable.
And that my friends, is why this matters so much. Why the list of companies I will highlight below need to be policed, monitored, and potentially closed if found wanting. They are a blight on the scientific landscape, insidious cancers that will destroy an old and robust patient, that was, until a few years ago, the picture of health.
OA and the birth of Predatory Journals
In principle, Open Access or OA is a good thing. Its goal is to make scientific papers more accessible. In particular, developing countries struggle to access and publish papers, costs are often restrictive, and writing one paper may require accessing thirty others in a diverse range of journals.
This process costs money and undoubtedly, OA has addressed this issue by improving access. Sadly, the very market OA sought to help is now one of the primary targets of the predatory journals.
This exceptionally lucid article on the Open Access topic from the Association of College and Research Libraries describes the problems in more depth. Entitled Beyond Beall’s List: Better understanding predatory publishers, the article is well worth reading and offers a very fair assessment of the OA model, considering the authors are supportive of the model.
Charging a fee is not itself a marker of a predatory publisher: many reputable OA journals use APCs to cover costs, especially in fields where research is often funded by grants. (Many subscription-based journals also charge authors fees, sometimes per page or illustration.) However, predatory journals are primarily fee-collecting operations — they exist for that purpose and only incidentally publish articles, generally without rigorous peer review, despite claims to the contrary.
The name Jeffrey Beall has become synonymous with predatory journals. In the last decade, Beall became the self-appointed guardian of published literature and a vocal campaigner against predatory journals. His now-infamous Blacklist (discontinued in 2017) even made it into the NYT and became a go-to resource for those wishing to filter out the scammers from legitimate publications.
Unfortunately, Beall’s tendency to link OA to predatory publishers has tarnished, unfairly so, the reputation of Open Access and it is the main reason I have tried to avoid the use of the terms together in this article. The concept of OA remains sound, it is the execution that has to date been flawed and it will now require a serious overhaul to regain credibility. Identifying and rooting out predatory journals from the global pool of scientific publishers is key to this process.
Beall was a firm and outspoken advocate of Elsevier. The quote below is lifted directly from Elsevier’s page on pricing and APC (Article Publishing Charges) and is an indicator of their adoption of Open Access.
Where an author has chosen to publish open access, which typically involves the upfront payment of an article publishing charge (APC), we will also make their article immediately and freely available upon publication on Science Direct, in perpetuity, with the author’s chosen user license attached to it. Elsevier’s APC prices are set on a per journal basis, fees range between c$150 and c$6000 US Dollars excluding tax, with prices clearly displayed on our APC price list and on journal homepages.
The Hustlers and the Watchdogs
There are a few key indicators of a journal’s acceptance and recognition within the scientific community that do not rely on Bealls List. They are important tools in sifting through the dregs to find legitimate publications. Here in no particular order are three points of reference. The first two have been guilty of accepting errant journals in the past, but are more rigorous now in vetting applicants, in particular, DOAJ.
The Directory of Open Access Journals is a watchdog that focuses on producing a trusted list or Whitelist of non-predatory publications. The CRLN article says the following about their quality control.
At the basic level, a journal must be chiefly scholarly; make the content immediately available (i.e., no embargoes); provide quality control through an editor, editorial board, and peer review; have a registered International Standard Serial Number (ISSN); and exercise transparency about APCs. Journals that meet additional requirements, such as providing external archiving and creating persistent links, are recognized with the DOAJ Seal. DOAJ receives an assist from the ISSN Centre, which in 2014 added language reserving the right to deny ISSNs to publishers that provide misleading information.
Next up is the Open Access Scholarly Publishing Association. Again, according to CRLN
Members must apply and pledge to adhere to a code of conduct that disallows any form of predatory behavior. OASPA has made errors in vetting applicants, though: it admitted some publishers that it later had to reject (e.g., Dove Medical Press).
Private individuals, similarly driven to rid the industry of charlatans, have also created websites that identify charlatans and fraudulent or predatory journals head-on. Sarah Beaubien and Max Eckard have created a rubric of sorts called Open Access Journal Quality Indicators to assist authors in identifying reliable journals. This list is worthwhile repeating and is shown in full below.
- Scope of the journal is well-defined and clearly stated
- Journal’s primary audience is researchers/practitioners
- Editor, editorial board are recognized experts in the field
- Journal is affiliated with or sponsored by an established scholarly society or academic institution
- Articles are within the scope of the journal and meet the standards of the discipline
- Any fees or charges for publishing in the journal are easily found on the journal website and clearly explained
- Articles have DOIs (Digital Object Identifier, e.g., doi:10.1111/j.1742–9544.2011.00054.x)
- Journal clearly indicates rights for use and re-use of content at article level (e.g., Creative Commons CC BY license)
- Journal has an ISSN (International Standard Serial Number, e.g., 1234–5678)
- Publisher is a member of Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association
- Journal is registered in Ulrichsweb.com, Global Serials Directory
- Journal is listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals
- Journal is included in subject databases and/or indexes
- Journal website is difficult to locate or identify
- Publisher “About” information is absent on the journal’s website
- Publisher direct marketing (i.e., spamming) or other advertising is obtrusive
- Instructions to authors information is not available
- Information on peer review and copyright is absent or unclear on the journal website
- Journal scope statement is absent or extremely vague
- No information is provided about the publisher, or the information provided does not clearly indicate a relationship to a mission to disseminate research content
- Repeat lead authors in same issue
- Publisher has a negative reputation (e.g., documented examples in Chronicle of Higher Education, listservs, etc.)
It may be worthwhile adding two more telling aspects for identifying a predatory journal. Business registered to mailboxes with foreign owners is a clear indicator accompanied by a noticeable absence of information on the parent or company that clearly identifies who you are dealing with.
A cursory check on the editors and editorial staff will often expose non-existent individuals, qualifications, or people who are not even aware of the fact they have been added to the pages of the journal.
Two additional open resources that list actual journals and publishers known to be predatory can be found here. This link will take you to the homepage listing of actual predatory journals. If it’s publishers you’re interested in they offer this resource on a separate page. You can simply tweet to notify them of any journal that does not appear on their comprehensive list.
Now we’ve dealt with a few of the self-imposed industry regulators, let’s examine the big players in the predatory journal market.
Let me introduce you to OMICS and its subsidiary company called Pulsus. Omics acquired the Candian based Pulsus Group in 2016 and has rapidly established itself as the king of the hill when it comes to predatory journals. Based in India with offices in the UK and Canada, the company aggressively pursues authors and couples its publications with an aggressive conference schedule to extend their “sales” beyond simple publication.
According to a Wikipedia entry on the company;
OMICS Publishing Group is a predatory publisher of open access academic journals. It started publishing its first journal in 2008. By 2015, it claimed over 700 journals, although about half of them were defunct. Its subsidiaries include iMedPub LTD and Conference Series LLC LTD. Other organizations linked to OMICS are EuroSciCon Ltd, Allied Academies, Trade Science Inc, and Meetings International.
OMICS is a slick, well-oiled machine built to intentionally exploit the Open Access model of publishing within the scientific community for the purposes of financial gain. This fact was acknowledged by the US Courts when they handed down a fine to OMICS International in excess of $50 million in 2019 for misleading practices.
This was after the U.S. National Institutes of Health sent a cease-and-desist letter to OMICS in 2013, demanding it to discontinue with false claims of affiliation with U.S. government entities or employees.
According to an article in the Scientist, which covered the 2019 case;
US District of Nevada Judge Gloria M. Navarro has ordered OMICS International to pay the US government fines to the amount of over $50 million, according to a court report released March 29.
OMICS is a publisher and conference organizer, and has been reported to engage in predatory publishing. According to the OMICS website, they publish over 700 journals and organize over 3,000 conferences globally. Topics covered include medicine, pharma, engineering, science, technology, and business.
OMICS also claims to have over 50,000 leading experts as editors for their journals. Scientists who were listed have reported they never received manuscripts to review or were not aware of their names being on the editors list, Ars Technicareports.
“I am neither on the rolls of OMICS nor am I the editor of any of those journals. I didn’t even know that they were using my name on their website. In fact, my affiliation on the site is not accurate. It was possibly lifted from the cover of one of my earlier books,” Rajesh Malhotra of AIIMS-Delhi tells Indian Express.
Pulsus, who owns and runs various journals, enjoyed a relatively reasonable reputation prior to being bought out by OMICS. It has since degenerated into a model that replicates the business practices of OMICS. I checked in on some of the publications, and as a simple example, chose this English journal based in the UK, (according to a mailbox address) called the International Journal of Clinical Skills (IJOCS).
It is a textbook example of a predatory journal, you don’t even need to look into the journal, just follow their Twitter feed or peruse their articles. A list of Editors and editorial staff has been made available and I have reached out to each individual member to confirm their association with the journal. Further evidence is provided by their APC page which states the following completely unethical bull.
If authors wish to retract their paper after 7 days of submission, he/she will be labelled to pay 50% of the total expenses on their article as a fee for withdrawal charges. Since, the publication process requires input of Editors, Reviewers, Associate Managing Editors, Editorial Assistants, Content Writers, Editorial Managing System & other online tracking system to ensure that the published article is of good quality and is in its best possible form.
Sorry, but isn’t that purpose behind the APC charge you levy upfront on the authors? Charging authors to edit or remove papers from a journal is unethical and not conducive to encouraging the correction of errors after publication. It is a commonly employed tactic of a predatory journal.
Similarly, the Scopus registration they boast on their front page is no longer valid. Here is the Scopus report on the journal. Yet more bull.
- Scopus coverage years: from 2012 to 2013, from 2016 to 2017(coverage discontinued in Scopus)
- Publisher: SkillsClinic Ltd.
It is important to remember that many of the current predatory journals were once well-respected publications that have been bought out to simply exploit their reputations and these journals may retain a semblance of respectability for some time. It’s a thin veneer and although organizations like SCOPUS may have terminated the journal, other organizations may be slower to respond to the change in ownership and ethics.
An imposing mountain
That’s probably the easiest way to refer to the problem. How many publications are we talking about? To get an idea of the scale of the problem, here are two lists of the journals operated by Pulsus and OMICS respectively. The lists are maintained by Wikipedia and cumulatively total well over 800 journals.
OMICS has added a new trick to the predatory repertoire in the form of conferences. In addition to publishing journals, OMICS also organizes conferences. In 2017, about 3,000 such conferences were organized. The conference arm makes up about 60% of OMICS’ revenue.
A Bloomberg News investigation in 2017 noted a tendency of pharmaceutical companies to publish in these journals, which might have stemmed from a self-interest in skipping rigorous review procedures. They were also the major sponsors of OMICS conferences.
Where to now?
I don’t have to point out the obvious dangers posed by OMICS and other predatory journals and publishers out there. Danger to public health and danger to the professions in general. How much of the disinformation spread during the covid pandemic was and still is being enabled by these confidence tricksters?
The public is most susceptible to this sea of misinformation and often, the information is designed and published specifically to mislead them about a product, service, or idea. It is the most dangerous and destructive marketing tool we could have unleashed on the scientific community and an unwary public at a time when we can least afford it.
Stopping it now from within the industry appears to be forlorn hope and regulation may be the only alternative. If the FDA can sanction companies and businesses for misrepresenting information about Covid, they may not be too far off entering the fray. Whatever happens, let’s hope it is timeous.
In the meantime, do what you can to rid us of these insidious journals. Use common sense when selecting a journal to publish into, take due care for the future, your reputation, and your credibility as an ethical member of the scientific community. Report the tricksters when you cross their path. Electing to use these less restrictive journals now could well prove to be career-changing in the future, and not in a good way.