Open access for scholarly publications, part 13 – Questionable journals

The National Library of Sweden has held the appropriation directive from the Swedish Government to produce recommendations for the change to an open access scholarly publication system. These recommendations are presented by Henrik Schmidt, librarian here at KIB, in a series of blog posts.

These days, when we define and discuss scientific publications, we usually add the term ”peer reviewed". When the Swedish Research Council defines what a scientific publication is, it does so in precisely these terms: ”… articles subject to peer review and conference reports, as well as books …” The Swedish Research Council like other actors (universities and research funding agencies), thus stresses the importance of differentiating peer reviewed publications from those that are not. The process of peer review has recently received renewed attention, not least in light of questionable journals, which have appeared in connection with the transition to an open access publication system.

If you combine the pressure to publish that many researchers (particularly young ones) experience (”publish or perish”) with an increasing number of journals that allow authors to pay for publication, it is almost understandable that rogue actors will appear; actors that do not examine content or ensure that it is of scientific quality. This rogue method of publication can potentially erode the trust in the scientific publication system and constitutes a genuine threat to serious research.

We can no longer call this a marginal problem, shrug our shoulders and wave it away as a triviality. Studies have shown the extent of the unserious publishers’ operations, as well as the large amount of money that is being circulated. Cabell’s database (accessible to everyone at KI) currently lists 12,834 rogue journals; another database lists approximately 1,200 questionable publishing companies.

Nor can we wave away the problem by suggesting that it is only a problem for researchers in low-income countries. In one study, approximately 2,000 articles from 200 questionable journals were examined. More than half of the authors of the articles in question were from high- or middle-income countries. In the best case scenario, we are talking about serious research which have been supported by large resources but which has been published in a journal that do not require peer review and that are not visible in established databases such as PubMed or Web of Science. The title of this study summarizes its conclusion: Stop this waste of people, animals and money.

At the Karolinska Institut (KI), we are not spared from this problem either. Aggressive email-campaigns are just the tip of the iceberg; research from KI also occasionally ends up published in questionable journals. Sometimes this occurs as a result of an honest mistake; the titles of questionable journals are often very similar to those of established, peer reviewed journals. You can read more here (only in Swedish) about how KI, as well as other Swedish educational institutions, regards this issue.

An additional, unfortunate effect of all this “predatory” activity is that it generates suspicion about the transition to an open access scientific publication system. Changing the business model from a subscription-based system to one that builds on article processing charges has nothing to do with how concerned a journal is about quality and integrity. Regardless of business models, scientific quality is most effectively assured through publication channels where a rigorous peer review process is a deciding factor in publication.

Many research organizations have issued a variety of guidelines, rules and statements intended to prevent the spread of rogue journals. The American Medical Writers Association, the European Medical Writers Association, and the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals, have listed a variety of characteristics typical to questionable journals and publication companies.

So, in order to protect the integrity of research results, support the peer review process, follow European guidelines regarding research ethics, be visible in established databases and counteract questionable journals, choose to publish your research, and to do peer review, in high quality, serious journals. At KIB we have listed a few initial tips to consider as you choose a journal in which to publish your research.

The 13th recommendation from the National Library of Sweden is, actually, not about questionable journals or unserious publishing companies. It is rather about producing and establishing technical as well as educational support services with which to assist the editorial work of scientific journals published in Sweden. But a desire to make people more aware of the phenomenon of questionable journals could possibly be integrated into such educational support. Either way, universities and other research agencies, publishing companies, editorial boards, research funding agencies and others must work together to actively counteract these questionable journals.

Recommendation 13 reads as follows: That the National Library and educational institutions share responsibility for establishing support services that facilitate journals’ editorial work.

Find out more about the description of and argument in favour of this recommendation in the report: Ekonomiskt och tekniskt stöd till tidskrifter som publicerar med öppen tillgång (only in Swedish).

All blog posts in this series

Henrik Schmidt

Librarian engaged in research support in various forms. Teaches doctoral students and researchers in areas related to literature search, publishing strategies and publication analysis.