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Where not to publish? Do we need a list of pseudo-journals?

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Do we need a Beall-like blacklist of journals? Even if so, it should be crowd-sourced and not focused on open access only.

The irony is that one of the most well-known blogs on open access is authored by a person who has a negative attitude towards any form of opening scholar communication. Jeffrey Beall, the author of “Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers list”, and the the “Scholarly Open Access” blog, which is written in an investigative-like manner, is currently the only authoritative source of knowledge about pseudo-journals. And Beall is focusing on venues that claim to be open access only (despite the fact, that traditional publishers also publish pseudo-science).

The very same Jeffrey Beall attacked the open access movement for wanting “to deny the freedom of the press” and more recently called Scielo – an open access platform supported by several Latin American goverments – “a publishing favela”, which is equally false and abhorrent (I don’t think Scielo is ideal, but I also don’t think that someone unprejudiced would name it this way).

I’ve responded to Beall’s first attack, but after the Scielo case I’ve decided that writing about him is pointless. However, despite the fact that Beall’s blog is shifting from discussing facts to pure speculation, and it has been clear for some time that it can not be regarded as a credible source of information, Beall’s posts and his list are still widely discussed. This makes me wonder ‘why?’.

Do we need a list?

Beall simply blacklists journals. He searches the web for fake publishers and journals, lists them and publicizes the news – reportedly to prevent researchers from publishing there. He writes about journals that claim to be open only. At the same time he is doing his best to strengthen the association between open access journals and very low quality publications. He is mixing the terms “predatory” and “open access”, and sometimes he uses them as semantically equivalent in his writing.

By the way, I would call these very low quality serials “pseudo-journals”, instead of calling them “predatory journals”, because I believe the fact that they are providing no services to the community is more important than the intention of their owners or managers. I know that such pseudo-journals operate in both traditional publishing and open access. We have both cutting edge open access journals (as e.g. Nanophotonics), and fraudulent toll-access venues.

But finally, the most important question for me about Beall is would his work have any value to the community, even if he was not biased? So, do we really need any kind of journal blacklist? Or maybe we need a white-list, a list of good journals only? Finally, maybe listing journals and ranking them according to their quality is not needed at all, since researchers know venues operating in their fields, and perhaps no list constructed on the basis of arbitrarily chosen criteria is needed?

All of these questions recently came to my mind when I saw a Mike Tylor’s tweet about his OpenCon session. Tylor “proposed the idea of a crowd-sourced blacklist of open access journals (so simply the equivalent of Beall’s list, that would be managed by the community and not by a single person). I’ve tweeted about his idea from the OpenScinceNews account, and received very mixed responses. In general, I agree with the argument that any kind of list will not replace the unique skills of researchers in judging the quality of papers and the journals that publish them. But there are also some arguments for this kind of list.

Why say yes?

I have two major arguments supporting the need for some kind of quality-centered list of journals.

1) The myth of low quality of open access journals has gained some popularity by now, and it is too late to simply ignore it. So if there is no easy and credible way to determine the quality of a journal, every open access journal could be seen as a suspicious one. So we need to develop good criteria to judge all kind of journals, including new ones. This does not necessarily mean that we need a blacklist, but it is an argument for any kind of easy-to-use judging solution.

2) It is a fact that there is a large group of psuedo-journals, started just to make money quickly without providing any valuable services to the academic community. A big part of these journals claim to be open access, but “(…) a lot of subscription based journals, set up by major publishers in narrow fields are very low quality. They exist only thanks to the big subscription deals, and would not be able to survive on the market as stand alone journals” – as told me Bo-Christer Björk, one of the most cited open access researchers. This problem has already been widely publicized. People are afraid of the possible negative impact of pseudo-journals on research. So this problem has to be solved somehow.

Is it a BIG problem?

Pseudo-journals (both “open” and “toll-access”) are usually struggling to get any articles published, most of them are simply empty. This is why I have been writing about how we pay too much attention to these phenomenon, since it is hardly possible that someone would mistakenly think that these pseudo-journals are legitimate publication venues. Most of the authors publishing in these journals know that their are fake. They are simply cheating their supervisors and trying to get promotions on the basis of fake publications, which is unfortunately possible in some institutions with less strict academic standards. How many people are cheating the system this way? And how successful are they? These are interesting questions that would need some research. Research focusing primarily on academic authors and institutions, not on journals. By the way, we will try to partially answer this question on the basis of our Key Challenges of Research Communication 2015 survey, but we will probably only be able to start a discussion about it.

What really needs to be done?

Theoretically it is possible that someone would mistakenly choose a pseudo-journal as a place of publication for his or her work, that otherwise could be published elsewhere. These possible cases should be prevented. And there is a need for increasing awareness on how to choose a journal to publish academic work in. Traditionally, researchers were introduced to the literature in their field (important journals and book series) by their more experienced colleagues. In this model, younger researchers simply read and published in journals recommended by their seniors. This model probably still works, but in the global environment of mass education we can no longer assume that this process is successful for every Phd student or Early Career Researcher.

Probably there are just a few researchers in the world who might be in danger of submitting their work to pseudo-journals by mistake. But even if there is only four of them we should solve this problem to rest our conscience.

After all, it is possible that less experienced researchers need some help from the global academic community in the search for credible research literature and for good places to publish. The Think, Check, Submit campaign may be seen as such a move. It provides a step-by-step guide to determine journal reputation, which employs both colleagues of a researcher and some well-known quality marks, such as being indexed by DOAJ. I made such a guide of my own some times ago, but I have to agree that most people try to save time and energy on every step of their work, so those who are really overwhelmed with research work, will maybe want some simpler solutions.

The List is good for those in a hurry

The list is a simple and quick method for checking journals. A blacklist might be needed because no single white-list can be complete. The DOAJ is an example of a white-list of open access journals, but it is neither ideal nor complete. Some journals might not be covered by it simply because they are new or because their editors have not treated submitting to DOAJ as an urgent thing. So you cannot reject a journal just on the basis of it not being in DOAJ. And sometimes you may want to show a black-list to your colleagues to support your arguments against publishing in a particular journal. People may also need a blacklist just because they got used to having one. The popularity of Beall’s list might be a reason for creating an alternative blacklist, that could be competitive to this one managed by one, biased person. Maybe Beall has effectively created the need for a blacklist of psuedo-journals.

But there is no need for this list to be focused on open access journals only, and for it to be managed by one librarian only. We therefore probably need a crowd-sourced list for the whole industry. This list could simply be a place where anyone can add and rate an existing journal using a wiki-like, front end interface (so that you would be able to add or rate journals from the same webpage on which you are browsing them). Therefore, it could be one list that covers all journals from the top to bottom tiers of academic publishing. This list would reflect current changes in reputation of each venue and host a discussion about each journal. It could be somehow similar to the existing Quality of Open Access Market website, but for all types of venues and also indexing “pseudo-journals”.

It would be good to have such a platform, but of course all the people managing the platform, as well as those allowed to add and rate journals, would have to be verified as academic authors, not representatives of the publishing industry. Therefore, my role in this, unfortunately not yet existing project ends with this post. But I will be eager to promote it here, on this blog, when only you, dear academics, decide to start it.

Image credit: I cropped the image tweeted by Graham Steel from COASPAsia.

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