In a political climate filled with false facts, ignorance of data, and exaggerations of the truth, it is no wonder informed citizens are looking to scientists more than ever before to make claims based on proper evidence. Scientific journals allow researchers to publish their findings, furthering scientific advancements and understanding. Publishing in these journals is essential for scientists looking for research funding and promotions in their field. Usually, research is peer-reviewed when included in a journal to ensure high-quality research and conclusion. The journals are maintained by a group of editors, who have the privilege of checking the methods used by authors and managing the peer-review system. Being an editor is important in achieving credibility as a researcher and academic, which makes it a desirable position.
But in recent years, members of the scientific community have noticed that not all scientific journals are truly “scientific.” The rise of the internet has encouraged the open-access journal model, creating journals that are free and widely available where authors pay a fee to have their work peer-reviewed. There are many benefits to this model, but, sadly, it has been widely abused. Many journals don’t even offer peer-review, are rife with grammatical errors, and are “basically pay-to-publish operations.”
If you want an example of what this looks like in the real world, you can look no further than Professor Anna O. Szust, from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. Szust applied to 360 journals to be on their editorial boards, looking to beef up her resume. Szust does not have a single citation in any literature database, her CV has no articles listed as published in any academic journals, and she has zero experience doing anything resembling editing. All in all, she would be a terrible choice for an editor.
You might be surprised, then, to find out that Szust’s lacklustre application was actually accepted by 48 journals. You might also be surprised to find out that she isn’t real: her books do not exist, and neither do the publishing houses they were supposedly printed under. The Polish word Oszust actually means “fraud.” She is the creation of scientist Katarzyna Pisanski and her colleagues to expose the issue of “predatory journals” in the scientific community.
The term “predatory journal” was coined by librarian Jeffrey Beall in 2009 to define pay-to-publish operations where “you just need a web site and a journal title, and you can be in business in a day.” Beall (until recently) kept an open list of these journals, 40 of which accepted Professor O. Szust’s editorial application. These journals do not require peer-review, barely read the articles they publish (if at all), and even create fake conferences around their journals. It is staggering seeing how far they go in publishing fake information—scientists have even started making a game of it. My personal favourite is Christoph Bartneck’s response to an invitation to participate in the International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics. This invitation would be all well and good, if Bartneck’s speciality was nuclear physics… and not information technology. So Bartneck typed up a paper by writing “atomic” and “nuclear” on his phone and let auto-complete write the rest. The journal accepted the paper three hours after he submitted it.
While there is a humorous side to these ridiculous journals, the reality is it showcases a frightening epidemic that science and proven facts now face. Predatory journals threaten the open-access movement that allows more people to access information and research. They devalue proper scientific research that is legitimately peer-reviewed, and confuse the public and scientists alike, choosing journal names similar to reputable ones. Moving forward and trusting scientific analysis is difficult when everyone has to constantly question the legitimacy of research.
And some are beginning to question the roles of journals overall. A recent piece in The Economist highlights the inefficiencies of using scientific journals for communicating research, especially when it is urgently needed, like in the case of the recent Zika virus outbreak. Researchers often hold on to important results whilst waiting for publication in a prestigious or well-known journal, when it could be communicated much sooner. The article suggests that science should “stop relying so much” on journal publication and look to refine the process by allowing scientists to add their research to a public depository while awaiting publication. Certainly, with the complications brought about by the open-access model and the importance of quick communication of research, the nature of science and the dissemination of ideas will likely change.
Fortunately, the open-access model is still very valuable to the scientific community, and many foundations are finding ways to establish credible and efficient platforms that allow easy public access. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, announced this month it would be launching its own open-access venture, that will cover all article processing charges. The foundation’s platform, Gates Open Research, will be modeled after the Wellcome Trust model started last year. Models like those of Wellcome Open Research allow for quicker turnaround of research articles, usually appearing online one week after submission and passing peer review in a median of 27 days. The European Commission, one of Europe’s largest spenders on scientific research, is also considering setting up a platform to encourage the open-access model in Europe.
All in all, the scientific journal is facing serious challenges as well as large-scale changes in how research is distributed, edited, and reviewed. With increased awareness of predatory publishing, and the shift towards responsible open-access, many are hopeful for the future of scientific publishing and access. But for now, proceed with caution, and don’t be duped by journals as credible as the fake and unqualified scientists that edit them.