Representative image, of journals stacked on a shelf. Photo: yeaki/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
- In 2018, the US Federal Trade Commission exposed the ‘deceptive’ practices of the Omics Group, a publisher of predatory scientific journals.
- Even as independent experts regularly discover and expose predatory journals, the journals have been finding new ways to evade scrutiny and continue operating.
- A new report recommends combating these journals by starving them of resources instead of expecting individual scholars to keep a bigger and bigger eye out.
New Delhi: Predatory journals have adopted new methods to make themselves attractive to authors, including publishing ‘bootlegged’ copies from other journals and rebranding themselves to disassociate from notoriety that they may have gained, according to Nature News.
Predatory journals are defined by their habit of charging authors – scientists, to be precise – to publish their papers but not providing services like peer-review, archiving and indexing, which legitimate journals use the money for. More pertinently, predatory publishers are frequently (if not by definition) associated with very low-quality papers, even those that don’t make any sense or advance pseudoscientific ideas.
Many research institutes, in India and around the world, require researchers to publish a particular number of papers to be eligible for promotions but often don’t check whether the papers meet a quality threshold. Such academic policies have as a result created fertile ground in which predatory journals can flourish, and have flourished.
This said, not every researcher who has published a paper in a predatory journal can be said to have malicious intent.
The Nature News report is centered on the example of Omics, an infamous publisher based in Hyderabad that has been accused of publishing multiple predatory journals. Of late, however, Omics appears to have invented ways to sidestep scrutiny and pass off questionable titles as legitimate ones.
This isn’t entirely new: predatory journals have been making ‘cosmetic changes’ to avoid detection, as The Wire has reported before.
In 2018, an investigation by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that Omics had accepted and published nearly 70,000 articles with little or no peer review, based on deceptive business practices, and subsequently fined it $50 million.
According to Nature News, however, the judgement “proved difficult to enforce” even if Omics’s publishing volume has fallen by 40% since.
With a view to taking a closer look at Omics, the authors of the Nature News report – Kyle Siler, Vincent Larivière, Philippe Vincent-Lamarre and Cassidy R. Sugimoto – put together a database of publishers, which they called Lacuna.
Journals that publish science papers are typically ‘indexed’ in databases, and over time, each of these databases comes to define the line between good and bad journals based on which ones they’ve included and which they’ve left out. Two popular databases are Web of Science and Scopus.
In this case, Lacuna also includes journals that haven’t been indexed in either of these, or others like them. In all, it has some 10 publishers, which together publish 2,300 journals, and which have together published over 9 lakh papers.
According to the report, Lacuna revealed that many of these titles had had the Omics branding removed and replaced with the names of other brands that are subsidiaries of Omics, in an attempt to deflect attention.
Lacuna also reportedly indicated that predatory journals have been reissuing “actual, peer-reviewed articles that have been published elsewhere” on their pages, without any consent and on their own initiative.
In 2020, Omics changed hundreds of URLs and overhauled websites and typesetting to “remove references to Omics”, according to the report. New brands, including one called ‘Hilaris’, were introduced. The titles of the rebranded journals are listed on Omics web pages – but the journals’ homepages don’t mention Omics, potentially misleading potential consumers about their ownership.
As the report stated:
“We think OMICS is retconning the publishing histories of many of its journals. Here’s an example: Advances in Pharmacoepidemiology & Drug Safety published its first issue in 2012 under the OMICS imprint, then removed the OMICS logo in 2015 and appeared as a standalone journal until it was rebranded as a Longdom imprint in 2019.”
This journal, at the time it was born, listed Robert H. Howland of the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Richard L. Slaughter from Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, as its editors-in-chief. But Howland told the FTC that he had been listed without his consent or knowledge.
His name has since been removed under the Longdom branding, but Slaughter is still listed as the editor-in-chief – even though he died in 2016.
The Nature News report also says another alarming practice its authors uncovered is that predatory journals are republishing “bootlegged copies” of papers from legitimate sources. These articles are published under new data object identifiers1 “without crediting the original journal, and sometimes not the original author”.
The authors found at least nine papers in the Journal of Bone Research and Reports, published by an “iMEDPub LTD”, had been lifted directly from the Elsevier journal Bone Reports. They reported it to the latter and said Elsevier is now investigating the matter.
The authors uncovered this practice after noticing that some author names were bizarre – such as ‘Urban Center’ and ‘Parliamentarian’. Other author names also had an extra character at the end: John Smitha and Mary Jonesb, for example. According to him, this indicates that the corresponding articles were copied from a document containing superscripts – i.e. to say “John Smitha and Mary Jonesb“.
Publishing institutes also had “nonsensical” names like “university of canadian province” and “urban center university”.
Sometimes, the journals also modified the titles of the articles by using synonyms. “A novel application of the ultrasonic method” became “a completely unique application of the unhearable [sic] technique”, the Nature News report says.
To the authors, this could be a sign that Omics used “some sort of rudimentary synonym-generating software” or that the papers were translated from English to another language and then back to English.
(On a tangent, the Omics Group signed a memorandum of understanding with the Uttar Pradesh government in February 2018 to create a 1,000-seat facility in Noida translate papers published by the group into various Indian languages.)
In some plagiarised articles, Omics reportedly claimed that the work was presented at “vibrant, professional events” – i.e. conferences that are a significant source of revenue for the company but could be predatory in nature themselves.
Omics could be going to all this trouble to seed fledgling journals that will soon attract paying customers, the authors speculate.
Predatory journals, once described by India’s principal scientific advisor K. VijayRaghavan as a ‘Hydra’, the mythical many-headed monster, are also proving to be adaptable. As the report continues:
“If a publisher gains notoriety, creating new websites under other brands is cheap, easy, and profitable. The low marginal costs of online publishing allow scam journals to operate from anywhere, particularly where their business practices can operate with impunity.”
The Nature News report recommends that instead of repeatedly “severing heads for new ones to regrow”, predatory publishing should be combated by starving them of resources.
The first of its recommendations is that instead of relying on dead links on websites, poor grammar or lack of listings in quality-control institutions to identify predatory journals, evaluators should focus on the content of peer review: “If journals are unwilling to publish their peer reviews, these should be subject to audit by funders.”
Another is based on the fact that predatory journals are generally expected to have a hard time falsifying peer review on a large scale. So journals that share their peer reviews online, anonymised if necessary, could flag that they’re non-predatory. “Sharing blinded peer reviews online – or at least confidentially with stakeholders – would allow funders, researchers, librarians and institutions to identify scams and encourage good practices in legitimate journals.”
The last suggestion that the authors make is that universities and funders shouldn’t value quantity as much as they do or use ill-informed metrics to gauge the quality of researchers, and research.
Indeed, numbers are unidimensional and say nothing about the contents of papers themselves, allowing false journals to publish thousands of papers while most of these documents say nothing at all of value.
An alphanumeric string permanently assigned to every scientific paper and used to identify it↩