Predatory journals: no definition, no defence – a response

The following article appeared in Nature, and I made a long response to it on the Australian OA Community email list, I thought I’d repost it here.

Predatory journals: no definition, no defence
Leading scholars and publishers from ten countries have agreed a definition of predatory publishing that can protect scholarship. It took 12 hours of discussion, 18 questions and 3 rounds to reach.

Nature 576, 210-212 (2019)
doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03759-y

Tēnā koutou,

Thanks for that Richard.  On a first reading I understand the motivation of this group is to find some kind of litmus test to identify predatory journals – create a definition that will help assess a  journal as ‘definitively’ predatory.

It starts well.

Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship…

If it ended there, I’d be happy.  This encourages a bigger discussion on how publishers and editors provide value for the scholarly publishing system, and at what cost.  It lets us look at business models, and issues around gender, intersectionality and colonialism.  But then it goes on, and becomes problematic.

…and are characterized by false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial and publication practices, a lack of transparency, and/or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices.

I’ll list one point per clause.

“characterized by false or misleading information” – this is a sheet anchor on publishing novel and surprising results.  Which could be wrong, but a researcher wants to get them out tomthe community to get more brains and eyes on it.

“deviation from best editorial and publication practices” – Because the system old white men have developed works well in _all_ cases, right?  Who are your to tell me what best editorial practice is in my discipline?

“a lack of transparency” – Hmm.  More transparency (as appropriate) feels like a good thing to me, I’ll give them that.

“and/or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices.”  Because, let’s face it, spam is the worst part of the whole thing, right?  People: spam is a result of filter failure!  Learn to work your email!

I don’t doubt that questionable publishing is a problem for naive researchers, but let’s look at a few real mitigations other than a reductionistic approach

  • Open Access, especially with authors retaining copyright. Then if you release your work in a questionable journal, you can re-release it somewhere more appropriate later, potentially after going through a more rigorous review process
  • Use someone who is specialist to do your journal assessments for you.  As we lose touch with journals while the atom of research is the article, we publish in journals we may never have read.  I’d recommend talking to a librarian.  I love doing these kinds of assessments.
  • Fewer Journals.  There are too many journals publishing too many articles, creating a drag on the whole process.  Why are researchers so busy?  Because they’re working for free for publishers!  (OK, that’s a bit simplistic, but…)
  • Preprints.  Don’t publish in a crappy journal just because it’s quick.  Use a good disciplinary (or institutional) preprint server.  Reputable journals should have no problem taking the diamonds in the rough there and presenting them once they have provided the value we know they add.

Yep, that’s messy, and doesn’t result in a list of do and don’t publish journals.  There is a reason for that – life is messy, and information literacy is not as well established amongst academia as librarians have been trying to achieve for the last, ooh, couple of decades. 

So, those are my first thoughts.  I’d love to hear what others think.


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