Predatory Journals Undercut Scholarship and Deserve to be Starved

Predatory journals are journals that appear to be scholarly and seem to apply a good peer-review process when selecting articles for publication but which actually don’t. They are preying on authors who want their efforts to be recognized as intelligent and notable and can access money. The publishers are preying on readers who want to rely on this as more of the gold standard for hard research.

These journals are willing to publish intellectual stupidity without admitting it. This isn’t about an article that’s a mistake. That happens with the best journals, although rarely. This isn’t about the sincerity of the authors and their academic mentors. They’re probably sincere. Instead, this is about most of what’s in a journal being hardly scholarly at all, despite what they say.

Scholars who see the difference across academic disciplines have noticed. Some are journalologists. They recognize the problem but they can’t solve it alone. As a result, the crummy stuff, largely unchecked, may be spreading.

This garbage gets mixed into real scholarship, misleading authors, academics, and readers. It turns up in Google results. It likely harms people who depend on the readers to have good judgment, in the way that patients depend on doctors who read (or should read) professional peer-reviewed medical journals.

Gold Standard Models

Traditional good-quality journals depend largely on subscriptions and article downloads to pay their way. If users of a library never wanted a certain journal, the library would stop paying to subscribe to it and, if enough libraries and others were not subscribers, the journal would struggle for credibility among scholars and might go out of business.

However, good traditional journals have gotten expensive, so expensive that large quantities of copies of their articles get stolen and offered free (or maybe cheaply) on the Internet.

So, another business model has developed, in which distribution is free but authors pay for articles to be published. That could be legitimate. Peer review is still offered. With IT automation, publication can be quick, which helps an author compete to be first with a proof, which advances a scholarly foundation on which others can build and advances a career.

Ideals Brought Down in Real Life

But many of these journals are not legitimate. Their peer review is slipshod or nonexistent. For some fields, there may not be enough qualified peers to serve good journals and bad. Accepting almost anything as long as someone paid to publish it will almost always fail as rigorous scholarship. The content is more likely to be wrong.

One was okay. One article I read in part, which was on computer science, was not embarrassing. But it would have fit a regular magazine or website without a claim of peer review.

But I read another one of those articles, one on math, doing the best I could to struggle to read it. The journal title seemed authoritative enough to trust it. But the author relied on what he wrote was a growing body of evidence. That can be fine for astronomy, psychology, or archaeology. But mathematics can be more rigorous; and it is. In math, Fermat’s Last Theorem took over three centuries to solve; before it was cracked, there was a growing body of evidence that it would eventually be proven true, but that growing body was not itself the proof. This article, not one on Fermat’s note but the one I was now reading, was not rigorous enough. Because of that, its ultimate conclusion, stated in its title, was flat wrong. Unfortunately, it took me 20 to 30 minutes to find out that it was in a predatory journal and I needn’t have wasted my time. That’s unfortunate because most lay people would not have spent 20 minutes trying to find out. They would likely have believed the article’s bad conclusion. That’s the danger of predatory journals.

Look in Lists

There are lists of predatory journals, at least two significant ones, but one’s out of date and the other probably is. They seem to have no maintenance.

The criteria for the lists are largely indirect and suffer from a couple of problems: a criterion may only represent that a publisher is cheap or unimaginative. Worse, indirect criteria can easily become discriminatory. Open-access publishers may be a route to publication for students who can’t produce at the level demanded by a few top peer-reviewed journals with limited page space, but who have intellectual contributions of moderate quality to offer. They should have a chance somewhere, not in the top journals but somewhere appropriately peer-reviewed. More journals, provided they have meaningful peer review, which requires enough peers to go around, are needed, and open access can reduce publication costs so more students can contribute. But predatory publishers offer only a false hope, a mirage duping the deluded and the misled. We need a way to distinguish between the little-known moderate-quality journals and the trash masquerading as having decent quality.

Better criteria for lists generally require better research, which is not free. Indirect criteria can be used not for final judgments but to identify which journals deserve a closer look. The research would be to study journals we could reasonably suspect are predatory, to see if they really are. But these lists, although not ideal, at least are reasonable efforts to publicly identify some bad actors.

But if you don’t know that some bad journals have been identified as such, you probably don’t know how to check whether a journal is bad. Some midling media organizations fell for a hoax about chocolate in a diet and probably didn’t have journalists who knew enough about science to uncover that the source shouldn’t be trusted. They probably used general assignment journalists and not specialized science journalists, because they probably didn’t have enough money to hire the latter. General assignment journalists have to be good enough in so many fields that they don’t have time to develop specialized skills they won’t often use. If the lists existed yet, the reporters probably didn’t know about them.

Even with those lists being online now, Googling a journal title probably won’t reveal that it’s on one of those lists unless you dig deep into Google’s results, and most people don’t go past the first page of results, or maybe even past the top of page one. To make the predatory quality more obvious in the results likely requires that at least one entire Web page be written about each predatory journal. The page must clearly state what’s wrong with that journal. They can’t use soft-pedaling language as code for stronger opinions, because not everyone knows the code and people can take it literally, leading to understatement and ineffectuality. Then, those pages have to become popular enough that Google sees backlinks to them and considers them trustworthy as sources and then upranks them in the results. Writing a page for each is a lot of work. It’s not clear anyone is available to do it, unless money can be raised to pay for it.

What Will Happen and What the Law Does

Even if that’s done, there’s good news and bad. The good is that any system that is good at identifying predatory journals will discourage authors from paying to publish in them. The predatory publishers will lose income and be discouraged from continuing.

The bad news is that the initial loss of income will bring the ire of the predatory publishers. And those publishers have remedies. One is to make their journals good, but that’s expensive, so they probably don’t want to do that. Another, at least in the United States, is to sue their critics.

On what theory? Likely, trade libel, colloquially called veggie libel. The theory behind that is, probably, that if what’s said against a product would be libel if said against a person and if the product is made by people (even an extractable needs people to extract it) then it’s libel. Losing that case could be expensive for a critic.

(A product not made by a person would not come under this theory. Thus, if someone plucks a wild apple off a wild tree, eats it, and suffers an injury from it, the person who ate it would have to sue themself as the plucker and server. That case would likely be pointless and would likely be dismissed by a court without a judgment on the merits.)

A trade libel claim can be defended against if the statement in question is true, but then the defendant has to prove that the statement is true. That can be expensive to do. If the truth wasn’t already established in litigation (like when a person is found by a court as guilty of a crime then subsequent news reports can describe the person as guilty and not merely as allegedly guilty) or if the plaintiff hadn’t confessed to the misdeed, then the defendant must affirmatively prove the truth. That can be hard against one journal. To do so against, say, a hundred journals can be a hundred times harder. A defendant might do so against one entire publisher on the basis of some of its products, but that may not carry the day in court for other journals from the same publisher.

Efforts to do something about predatory journals have included trying to set up a system based in Canada. I’m skeptical. While I don’t know Canadian law, culturally and historically Canada is strongly influenced by the United Kingdom and the United States (and other sources). U.K. law has made it unlawful to publish some embarrassing information even if true and allows prepublication censorship by secret court order. I wonder if Canada has a law like that, or a law conceptually in between U.K. and U.S. law. If either is the case, a system that criticizes predatory journals by name and on these grounds may have to stay out of Canada and be based in the U.S. or somewhere else with strong enough law for clear commentary by private parties. Even that may not be good enough.

I don’t know if predatory publishers have been threatening critics with lawsuits. I don’t know, but I think it’s likely. The compiler of one of the lists said that the university where he worked raised a legal concern, although his immediate supervisor said that there was no order to take the list down. I believe both; and the supervisor, when I raised the possibility of institutional concern, did not deny it. I think a threat to sue could be effective simply in making list maintenance too costly, because legal bills could pile up.

The predatory publishers seem to have the upper hand. Just one publisher may have a hundred journals. They may be making good money. They likely have enough motivation to sue. And they may have trade libel law as a weapon.

Trade libel law may have gone too far. It’s logically based; but, for lay people, it turns discussing a product’s bad qualities into a quagmire of legal unawareness (e.g., what’s a legal violation?) and evasive language (like, if a car’s brakes don’t work, saying the car is not the safest). We either violate the law by telling people of a problem or we keep our mouths shut and don’t tell them. Either way is awful.