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Do we really have a problem with low quality academic journals?

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Low quality journals might be seen as a problem for some policymakers and funders, but not as any harm to the development of knowledge. In fact, it seems like we have completely the opposite problem: young, talented researchers are afraid of publishing in well recognized journals with moderate Impact Factor, because they want to have only top class entries in their CVs.

I had the pleasure to read two interesting blog posts yesterday. The first one was an entry by Jeffrey Beall in which he claimed that he discovered journals established only “to game” Google Scholar. The second one, by Emanuel Kulczycki (in Polish) asserting that there are too many academic journals, and that a lot of researchers are starting new journals to easily publish the works of their colleagues.

And this made me wonder, are low quality serials a real problem?

The fact that researchers are trying to enlarge their publication score and citation count by any means possible, including unethical or even illegal methods, is quite well known. We can mention here plagiarism, publishing the same paper with small changes (referred sometimes as autoplagiarism), publishing one study in several parts, just to name few. The main reason for these phenomena is that researchers experience a constant pressure to be efficient in achieving high scores in some quantitative measures. And this is quite normal, that if you make one’s biography dependant on one or two measures, he or she will start to look for the easiest way to gain high scores in these measures. This is the reason why there is such a big market for fast and easy, low quality publications.

How many is too many

Kulczycki claimed that there are 3,6 thousand journals in Poland, where there are 120 thousand active researchers (including PhD candidates, which are also very active authors because they are very often under strong competitive pressure), which is too much. However, if we assume that every researcher is required to publish 1 article annually it give us 33,3 articles per journal per year, which is a normal publishing volume. Even if we assume that today researchers in Poland publish less (since a lot of them simply do not have to publish at all as they are not evaluated in any way), if current trends continue, the number of articles will have o increase as larger groups are coming under the “publish or perish” rule.

Another question is, does it make sense for an average sized European country with small expenditure on academic research to publish 120 thousand papers a year? Do Polish researchers produce enough significant research to publish so much? Who will read it? Who will pay the publishers for it (every paper needs the work of several editors, and these costs have to be covered)? At this time, academic libraries are extremely weighed down with publishing expenses and it seems that publishing volumes will only continue to rise.

Predatory and simply poor

There are two main types of low quality journals, and together they probably represent the majority of all existing academic journals. The first type emerges when a group of researchers realises that they and their colleagues have a serious problem with achieving high publishing scores and appropriate citation counts in the existing publishing environment. Therefore, they start a journal that offers fast publication for their colleagues and co-workers “without making problems”. This seems to be quite a common distortion of the academic journal formula. Usually, it is launched by unknown researchers that are affiliated at equally unrecognized institutions and are only able to publish a few articles annually, written by their friends. Usually a journal like this has to rely on small subsidies from their home institution (or from the public sector, which is quite common in some countries), on volunteer work and cost reductions. Sometimes it happens that a journal of this kind is acquired by a large, commercial publisher (but it is hard to say why, by mistake or just to expand a portfolio) that invests in the journal, which may or may not improve its quality, but in any case will extend the journal life span.

The second type emerges when a “publisher” or simply, one with enough money to launch a website and send spam emails, decides to provide low quality publishing service to authors who just want to “publish something” and are ready to pay for it. Journals of this kind are usually referred as “predatory open access journals”. They are usually open access because nobody would subscribe to them and because free access to readers justifies somehow charging authors for publication (however, some of them are trying to charge both readers and authors). In fact a “predatory publisher” does not offer authors with any service, apart from putting their content on-line, under a name that resembles an academic journal, but also very often sounds quite creepy (“Journal of British” is among my favourites). Recent estimations by Bo-Christer Bjork state that there are 10 000 journals of this kind globally, although the majority of them do not have any content at all or have few articles written by totally unknown researchers.

Problems on the top

And here we come to another problem in academic publishing. That there is no sense in dividing the number of manuscripts by the number of existing journals, since manuscripts are extremely unevenly distributed between publication venues and the publishing environment is probably even more hierarchic than academia itself. One can find thousands of empty serials waiting for some content, while top tier journals reject thousands of manuscripts annually. (By the way it is quite interesting how many authors lose time trying to publish their papers in top journals, and eventually never get published anywhere). And academics can easily figure out which journal belongs to which category.

No one will offer you a good academic position or significant grant funding when all your publications appeared in bottom tier journals, affiliated to unknown institutions and edited by researchers with a low reputation. I have also never heard of a person receiving funding solely because of his or her Google Scholar citation count.

Thus, low quality journals might be seen as a way of wasting public money (by direct or indirect subventions, subscriptions, or even sometimes APCs), but not as any harm to knowledge development. So they might be a problem for some funders and policymakers, but not for researchers.

Can we judge?

In fact it seems like we have completely the opposite problem: young, talented researchers are afraid of publishing in well recognized journals with moderate Impact Factor because they only want to have top class entries in their CVs. The pressure to publish in high quality venues is so strong that it may block the development of good and excellent quality journals for years, only because they are newer or somehow innovative. Because the academic community is very conservative and it reluctantly grants exclusive status.

And finally, is it a real problem that some dubious conclusions from low quality serials will be presented by popular media as the “recent findings of scientists?”. I think it is not. For two reasons: firstly scientific journalists usually do not follow unrecognized journals and secondly, prestigious venues routinely publish false information. And the real problem is that people are taught to believe in everything which is labeled as “scientific”, while organized skepticism is at the core of scientific method.

The most serious issue lies in the reason for the existence of low quality journals. This problem (which is already well described) is the publish or perish rule. Do researchers really need to publish so much? Maybe it is better to publish one good paper than 5 moderate ones? I would agree, but for managers, accountants and politicians, who are governing research, and who are not researchers themselves, it is hard to measure the real quality of academic work, which is usually easy for members of the academic community in a given field. Measures used by managers, which are designed to examine quality of works, very often directly or indirectly promote quantity. And this is why we have so many bottom tier journals, and so much noise in academic communication. But this noise not dangerous, since it can be easily filtered.

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