The academic world recognizes it has a problem. Industry predators have created venues that mimic legitimate peer-reviewed journals, but publish anything submitted – for a fee (1, 2). Some researchers may have been fooled into submitting manuscripts to these illegitimate journals, but it is clear that many have deliberately decided to exploit an opportunity to evade meaningful peer review (1, 2).
A Sign of Deeper Problems
The emergence and enormous expansion of predatory journals is a sign things are amiss in the academic community. ‘Publish or perish’ has long been the paramount rule and it is easy to envision how that might exact a toll on quality. The old platitude about sizing up candidates for hiring and promotion by weighing a curriculum vitae in a literal sense sums it up well – the more publications, the more favorable the impression. For those needing to bulk up a c.v. predatory journals are like anabolic steroids. Intense competition for positions and grants, heavy demands on faculty time, a drive to achieve tenure or reach career advancement goals may tempt some to take such measures (1, 2). Persons passing off these pay-to-post publications as equivalent to peer-reviewed works are engaging in academic fraud.
A substantial fraction of people exploiting predatory journals might do so only to help themselves. But, beyond allowing less qualified persons to enter and remain in academics, could there be larger ramifications? The ‘reproducibility crisis’ of science, the concern that many studies cannot be replicated (3), may be exacerbated by generating a large body of un-reviewed publications of dubious merit. Asked in a survey to speculate about the issues negatively impacting reproducibility, scientists again cited competition for positions and resources, pressures to publish along with time constraints (3). The swift growth of predatory operations and the fact that knowledgeable parties constitute a significant portion of their customer base (2) is an unmistakable red flag of danger from a system under stress.
How Far Might This Cancer Spread?
Could the tentacles of this problem extend beyond academia? It could be that there are (or will be) more temptations in play than the academic rewards for inflating a c.v. Willful failures of a high-profile cancer investigator to disclose major competing financial interests (4) and ghost writing of papers by industry research underwriters (5) suggest that additional forces may come into play other than getting a few more manuscripts published. Although the reputable journals have sometimes done a poor job patrolling these areas, perhaps journals with even more lax conflict-of-interest rules would offer less stressful and faster routes to credibility through results publication. And for medical operations that appear to be unscrupulous (6), completely bogus or scientifically dubious publications may be nothing more than a means to mislead prospective customers into believing they are paying for research-validated treatments.
Metastasis Beyond the Borders of Academe
Predatory publishing has prompted a great deal of discussion in academic fora and major news media outlets. Educating faculty about the issue, offering guidelines to expose the hallmarks of predatory publications and creating ‘blacklists’ of known offenders to ensure persons evaluating professional credentials are not misled by fake publication list inflation will minimize the problems in the Ivory Tower. Unfortunately, securing the Ivory Tower is only a partial solution to a much larger problem.
Persons and organizations outside the sanction of academic institutions or funding agencies may be immune to traditional punitive measures. Perpetrators of scientifically-camouflaged biomedical frauds, entities seeking to undermine faith in authority/social institutions for specific causes or with broader interests in sowing civic discord (7, 8) may soon discover predatory publications are extremely useful tools. A failure to arrest the threat of predatory publishing operations may ultimately allow their impacts to spread and reverberate through the whole of society as well as our political processes.
Academic institutions, dedicated to research and education, have generally placed public outreach efforts on the lowest levels of their priority lists (9). When it comes to the threat posed by predatory publishing, the general public and academic community share urgent, common cause which makes mutual communication between the spheres essential. Active engagement and leadership by the academic community to disseminate information about the issue along with strategies to combat the problem is now vital. This is a good moment for the academic community to devise ways to reward public outreach efforts as has long been in vogue for producing long lists of publications very few people ever read. Despite all its power and many impressive accomplishments, the Ivory Tower cannot stand by itself.
(1) David Crotty. Predatory Publishing as Rational Response to Poorly Governed Academic Incentives. The Scholarly Kitchen, 28 February 2017. https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2017/02/28/predatory-publishing-rational-response-poorly-governed-academic-incentives/
(2) Gina Kolata. Many Academics Are Eager to Publish in Worthless Journals. The New York Times, 30 October 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/30/science/predatory-journals-academics.html
(3) Monya Baker and Dan Penny. 1,500 Scientists Lift the Lid On Reproducibility. Nature, 25 May 2016. https://www.nature.com/news/1-500-scientists-lift-the-lid-on-reproducibility-1.19970
(4) Peter Sidaway. Editorial – The Murky World of Disclosures. Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology, 27 September 2018. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41571-018-0106-z
(5) Matthew Warren. Ghost Authorship Haunts Industry-funded Clinical Trials. Nature, 9 October 2018. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06986-x
(6) Denise Grady and Sheila Kaplan. F.D.A. Moves to Stop Rogue Clinics From Using Unapproved Stem Cell Therapies. The New York Times, 9 May 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/09/health/fda-stem-cell-clinics.html
(7) Jacqueline Howard. Why Russian Trolls Stoked US Vaccine Debates. CNN, 24 August 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/23/health/russia-trolls-vaccine-debate-study/index.html
(8) Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich. Truth Decay. RAND Corporation Research Report.
(9) Chris Woolston. University Tenure Decisions Still Gloss Over Scientists’ Public Outreach. Nature, 4 October 2018. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06906-z