Scholarly open-access publishing has helped make research free for all. That is, there are no price barriers to research published using the open-access model—anyone can access and read it. Unfortunately, this model has been poorly implemented, and it has become a publishing free-for-all, meaning that it has become disorderly, prone to scams, and full of research misconduct (Mudgal and Unnikrishnan, 2013). This article highlights the positive and negative aspects of scholarly open access publishing, focusing on open-access publishing scams and how to avoid them.
Researchers make discoveries and want to share them with other scholars. This sharing is called scholarly communication, and it can take many forms. The most common is the scholarly journal article, but books, conference presentations, and even academic blogs are other modes. One of the advantages of journal articles is that they are a relatively quick and conventional way for researchers to disseminate their research findings.
Moreover, articles in scholarly journals pass through the peer review process, a kind of quality control for science. In peer-reviewed journals, papers are read by a number of peer reviewers who confirm that the methodology, statistics and science in a paper are sound. Often the peer-reviewers, who generally are unknown to the author, make suggestions form improvement, advice that authors take into account as they revise the paper prior to final submission and publication.
We're all familiar with the traditional model of scholarly publishing. In this model, libraries and others subscribe to a journal and access the content either in print or online. In the traditional model, authors pay nothing; only the consumers of the research pay for the content, generally libraries and individual subscribers.
Within the past decade, new models of scholarly publishing have emerged (Crawford, 2011). The gold open-access model is one of these. In this model, the journal content is free to anyone with internet access, so we call it open-access or free. The financing of this model comes from the authors, who are charged a fee by the publisher when their papers are accepted for publication in the open-access journals. This fee is called the article processing charge or APC.
Unfortunately, while the gold open-access model was developed with good intentions—free access to scholarly research for everyone—recent developments are serving to show that the good intentions may have paved a road to Hell for some authors.
The source of the problem with the gold open-access model is the article processing charges (Beall, 2013). Unscrupulous open-access publishers quickly learned that the more papers they accept, the more money they can make. This flaw in the model has led to what I call "predatory publishers," that is, publishers who exploit the gold open-access model for their own profit.
Because this author-pays model incentivizes publishers to accept more papers, there are a number of problems the model is creating for scholarly communication overall. The first is the increasing number of predatory publishers. I track them on my blog called Scholarly Open Access <http://scholarlyoa.com>, and there are now over 300 of them. Many use deception to attract manuscripts and the accompanying article processing charge. For example, some claim to operate from Anglophone countries but really operate from Asia. Others hide their true locations altogether. Some claim to have a genuine peer review process but accept almost all papers that are submitted.
These publishers use spam emails as their marketing tool. Most scholars have received some of this spam, asking them to submit an article to a publisher they have never heard of before (Haug, 2013). Often this spam is written in poor English, promises a quick peer-review process, and does not mention the article processing charge. Many predatory publishers hide the fee requirement until after the paper has been published, sending an invoice to the unsuspecting author.
Unfortunately, some researchers are taking advantage of these pay-to-publish operations by submitting plagiarized or low quality research to them. Because the publishers do no or little actual peer-review, the submitted papers are accepted and published after the author pays the fee. Many researchers face strict publishing demands and their institutions pressure them to publish in order to achieve tenure or promotion or to meet an annual quota. This pressure, plus the easy publishing process provided by the predatory publishers, means that an increasing number of open-access journals contain research misconduct, such as plagiarism, self-plagiarism (when an author copies his previously published work in a later article, without indicating the work was published previously), image and data manipulation, and ghost authorship (when the actual writer of an article is not credited as a co-author) or honorary authorship (when someone is credited as a co-author but did not contribute substantially to the work). This misconduct occurs because the authors are eager to publish, and the publishers are eager to earn the fees from the author. Standard quality control practices such as peer review are done lightly or not at all.
This inattention to authentic peer review means that some non-science or pseudo-science is being published as if it were true science. For example, the field of cosmology attracts many authors with intriguing but non-scientific ideas about the origin of the universe. Authentic journals do not publish such articles because they are rejected in the peer-review process. Counterfeit journals, on the other hand, want to earn the article processing fees, so they tend to accept and publish such articles.
Digital preservation is the process of maintaining backups of data and converting old data to new formats as they become available. It is a standard practice for high-quality online publishers who want their content to be kept safe. Unfortunately most of the predatory publishers pay little or no attention to digital preservation, so their content is not backed up and may disappear at any time. They live in the moment and cater to the needs of authors rather than readers. For them, the deal is done when the article processing fee is paid.
Another characteristic of predatory publishers is that they especially prey on junior faculty, graduate students, and postdocs. One very successful strategy they use is to send personalized emails to individual researchers, praising an earlier paper the researcher wrote in a standard journal and inviting another. Many fall for this scam, and the publishers hardly ever mention the article processing charge in the email.
Finally, I should mention that there are some benefits of the open-access publishing model. There is some evidence that open-access articles generally have a higher readership and get cited more often than articles published behind a pay wall. The higher citation rate is known as the open access citation effect (OACE) (Doty, 2013). Researchers want their work to have a measurable impact on their colleagues and on science, so readership and citation rates are important factors to consider when choosing a publishing model. Not all open-access publishers are predatory; there are some what are completely ethical in their practices. Additionally, some open-access publishers do not charge an article processing charge; they are subsidized by organizations, so they avoid the conflict of interest that the article processing charges create. I call these fee-free OA publishers platinum open-access publishers.
All scholars' publication records will stay with them for the duration of their careers, so it's important that they publish in the best venues possible. Scholars should resist the temptation to publish in a low-quality journal that accepts nearly everything — this may hurt them in the future. The publication process for high quality research often takes a lot of time, so researchers should patient with the publishing process and seek out the best possible journals for their work.
Academic authors should become familiar with the top journals in their fields. Scholars who don't know their fields' top journals should ask senior colleagues to guide them, for predatory publishers have become very adept at appearing legitimate. Researchers should look for publication metrics, such as the impact factor, to help them determine the best journals. When considering individual journals, one should closely examine the individual articles. Do they appear high quality? Are they well copyedited? Are they written by top scholars in the field? Most important, researchers should question whether they would be comfortable with their work appearing alongside similar articles? Finally, authors should determine whether any of the names in the list of reviewers are familiar to them and are the reviewers affiliated with reputable colleges and universities?
As a consumer or reader of scholarly research, one must also be careful. One of the great strengths of the traditional scholarly publishing model is that it performed a validation function. Scholars generally recognized that the journals in the original model were high quality. This was because establishing and successfully maintaining a scholarly publishing company involved much cost and risk, so only the most serious and the best funded were successful. Now with the internet, the barrier that one must overcome to become a scholarly publisher is low — all one needs is a website, some journal titles, and an email address. There are several free journal publishing platforms available, and the predatory publishers frequently use these. One of these is called Open Journal Systems, made available by the Public Knowledge Project.
There is another publishing model called green open access or author self-archiving. Using this model, authors publish in a high-quality subscription journal, but they make an online copy of their work openly available in a digital repository. Many universities and colleges make such repositories available. Also, many discipline-specific repositories exist. One of these is the Social Sciences Research Network <http://www.ssrn.com/>. Some journals do not allow such archiving. Among those that do, most do not allow archiving of the final PDF of the article. Instead, authors typically archive a pre- or post-print. The pre-print is the author's Word copy of the article when it was first submitted to a journal; the post-print is the author's Word copy after making the revisions suggested by the peer reviewers. Green archiving combines the higher readership benefits of open access with the prestige associated with top-tier journals.
Because authors generally sign over copyright when they publish in top-tier journals, green archiving can only occur when publishers allow it. Sometimes it is possible to negotiate with a publisher to allow green archiving.
Finally, researchers should be aware that many of the predatory publishers also sponsor and organize scholarly conferences. Many of these share characteristics with the predatory journals. They accept almost all proposals and charge high prices for conference registration. Researchers should avoid attending questionable or low-quality scholarly conferences and should attend the best conferences offered in their disciplines.
Scholarly communication has a long tradition and is an important component of science. New research builds on existing research already recorded in the scholarly literature, so the scientific community must strive to maintain the quality of the scientific record. Predatory publishers threaten to poison and harm this record. Society itself also benefits from legitimate, published science, which is used in legal trials, public policymaking, and in medical innovations.
Moreover, the media frequently report on scientific research, so maintaining the integrity of science is of paramount importance. Unlike the past, today's scholars have to be aware of publishing scams and must learn to recognize and avoid them. Don't be lured into questionable publishers' traps and their promises of easy publication. Researchers' high quality work deserves exposure in the best scholarly publications.
Beall, J. (2013). Predatory publishing is just one of the consequences of gold open access. Learned Publishing, 26, 79-84.
Crawford, W. (2011). Open access: What you need to know now. Chicago: American Library Association.
Doty, R. C. (2013). Tenure-track science faculty and the 'Open Access Citation Effect'. Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, 1(3), 1-13.
Haug, M. (2013). The downside of open-access publishing. New England Journal of Medicine, 368, 791-793.
Mudgal, P.R. & Unnikrishnan, M.K. (2013). Research and publication ethics. RGUHS Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, 3(1), 6-13.
Jeffrey Beall, is Associate Professor, Scholarly Initiatives Librarian, Auraria Library, University of Colorado Denver He can be reached at. firstname.lastname@example.org