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'Predatory' Online Journals Lure Scholars Who Are Eager to Publish

March 4, 2012

'Predatory' Online Journals Lure Scholars Who Are Eager to Publish

Benjamin Rasmussen for The Chronicle

Jeffrey Beall, metadata librarian at the University of Colorado at Denver, keeps a running list on his blog Scholarly Open Access of what he calls "predatory" publishers and journals. He said he has identified about 50 so far, and comes across a new one nearly every week.

By Michael Stratford

Amy L. Reynolds, an associate dean at Louisiana State University's Manship School of Mass Communication, had never heard of the Journal of Mass Communication and Journalism when she first received an e-mail soliciting submissions for it. But she took a quick look at the journal's Web site, recognized some friends and colleagues on its editorial board, and sent a note about the publishing opportunity to all of her school's graduate students.

That's a decision Ms. Reynolds says she now regrets. Several weeks later, she was shocked to learn that one of her doctoral students had submitted research to the journal and received an $1,800 invoice in return. Even though the student refused to pay the fee and withdrew the paper, the journal published it. To make matters worse, the version that was posted online contained several mistakes, including a formatting error that made it appear the student had plagiarized someone else's work.

As Ms. Reynolds and the student found out, OMICS Publishing Group, the company that runs the journal, is an open-access publisher operating under an author-pays model. Unlike traditional journal subscriptions in which readers or institutions pay to read content, OMICS relies on its contributors for financial support.

Although the author-pays model is not a new phenomenon in the realm of open access, its recent popularity has attracted some companies that try to exploit it. Some legitimate, peer-reviewed journals support themselves on the author-pays model, but other journals using the model are essentially vanity publishers that accept virtually any article to collect fees from the authors. The distinction between those two extremes, though, is not always clear-cut.

OMICS insists that it falls squarely into the legitimate camp. With more than 12,000 Facebook fans, 200 journals, about 20,000 editorial board members, and dozens of conferences each year, the company says it is positioning itself to become a leader in open-access scholarship. But numerous authors, faculty members, and open-access advocates have raised concerns about the practices of OMICS and the quality of its journals. In some cases, faculty members say they were named to editorial boards without their consent and cannot get OMICS to remove their names. Some authors allege that despite the company's claims, their articles were not peer reviewed and have even contained mistakes that should have been corrected in previous drafts. Others say the company's fees, which can be as high as several thousand dollars, are excessive and are not transparent.

Fee Outrage

In the case of the LSU student whose work was published without her permission, a firmly worded e-mail from Ms. Reynolds eventually prompted OMICS to remove the student's paper from the Journal of Mass Communication site.

Ms. Reynolds said she was appalled at how the company handled the situation and feels duped. Before she forwarded the journal's call for papers to her students, she said she took a cursory look at OMICS.

"It had a professional look," she said. "It never occurred to me to do any meaningful due diligence."

The OMICS Web site has a professional appearance, but a closer look reveals a significant number of typographical errors and grammatical mistakes. The site boasts "special features," like the ability to use social media to discuss journal articles, that would be obvious to a typical Internet user. For instance, OMICS touts the availability of articles translated into 50 different languages, but the translation feature merely directs users to the free Google Translate service.

Journals like those run by OMICS often appeal to prospective contributors in part because of their quick turnaround time; it usually takes just several weeks to have an article reviewed, accepted, and published. For graduate students and junior faculty members under pressure to publish, a company's promise of such a short review process can be an attractive prospect. By contrast, the review process at established print journals can last for months.

The speedy process for publishing an article, which OMICS widely promotes as within 21 days, was one attribute that attracted Ms. Reynolds. But in retrospect, she said, it should have been a red flag. She was also lulled into a sense of security, she added, when she recognized the names of several friends and colleagues listed as being on the journal's editorial board.

The editorial boards of the OMICS journals, which typically list several dozen members, serve to attract submissions as well as the support of those who serve on those boards. For some faculty, joining OMICS editorial boards appears to offer an easy means of professional advancement. Several professors and researchers said they agreed to serve on OMICS editorial boards to add a line to their résumés; others said they joined because were intrigued by a new journal in their field of study. Nearly all of the half-dozen editorial board members contacted for this story had limited knowledge of how OMICS operates and how the peer-review process works.

Several members of the editorial board of the Journal of Mass Communication said they agreed to sign on because they, like Ms. Reynolds, had recognized people already on the editorial board.

Yahya R. Kamalipour, a professor of mass and international communication at Purdue University, said that even though he was on the editorial board, he had minimal contact with the company and did not know it charged authors publication fees. After learning about the fees, Mr. Kamalipour resigned from the board. He said he felt the company was insufficiently transparent and he objected to the practice of charging what he considers to be high fees.

"Operations like this have taken advantage of the technology and the eagerness of junior faculty and graduate students to publish and establish a record, by charging them an unreasonable amount of money," Mr. Kamalipour said. "I do not think that taking advantage of graduate students or junior faculty members is a good policy."

Another former member of the mass-communication journal's editorial board, Thomas J. Johnson, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, also said he resigned from the editorial board because he thought the company was not upfront about its fees.

Agreeing to be on the editorial board in the first place "isn't something I gave a lot of thought to," he said. "In hindsight, I should have investigated more."

Mr. Johnson said he was particularly annoyed that he had to send the company three messages of resignation before it agreed to remove him from the board. OMICS responded to his first two e-mails by pleading with him to remain on the board, he said.

OMICS's fee structure is not mentioned anywhere on its home page, but it is included at the bottom of submission instructions on the individual journal pages. Different journals appear to charge different fees, which range from $900 for a paper from an author in a low-income country, like India, to $3,600 for a paper from those in a high-income country like the United States. OMICS uses the World Bank's classification for determining a country's income category.

Ripe for Abuse

The practice of charging authors to have their work published is not inherently problematic, said Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado at Denver, who tracks open-access publishers­ that operate on an author-pays model.

"There is nothing wrong with the model itself," Mr. Beall said, citing author-pays publishers he considers to be legitimate, like the Public Library of Science (PLoS). But, he said, because the author-pays system features an inherent conflict of interest—publishers make more money if they accept more articles—it is ripe for abuse.

Such abuse is becoming more prevalent, Mr. Beall said. On his blog Scholarly Open Access, he keeps a running list of what he calls "predatory" open-access publishers. Mr. Beall said he uncovers one new predatory journal or publishing company about every week, and his list now totals more than 50 publishers and individual journals.

Mr. Beall defines a "predatory" publisher as one whose main goal is to generate profits rather than promote academic scholarship. Such publishers, he said, "add little value to scholarship, pay little attention to digital preservation, and operate using fly-by-night, unsustainable business models."

OMICS has earned Beall's "predatory" distinction, along with other open-access publishers like Insight Knowledge, Knowledgia Scientific, and InTech. Also on the list is Bentham Open, which attracted attention in 2009 when it accepted for publication a nonsensical article that had been written by a computer program and submitted by a graduate student who questioned the journal's claims of peer review.

The owner of OMICS, Srinu Babu Gedela, said that his company is not a "predatory publisher" but an organization poised to become a "leading player in making science open access." Mr. Gedela said he was prompted to start open-access journals because he had difficulty getting access to academic literature when he was a Ph.D. student at Andhra University in India.

Mr. Gedela, 29, started his first open-access journal in 2008 and began several more journals in 2009 as he started OMICS. Over the past two years, the company has significantly increased the number of journals it publishes, adding its 200th two weeks ago, the Journal of Integrative Oncology. The journals tend to focus on hard sciences but cover a broad range of topics, including thermodynamics, dentistry, and hotel management.

But only about 60 percent of those journals have actually published anything, according to what can be seen on the company's Web site. Of those journals that do have content, many have started within the past several months and feature only one or two issues.

Mr. Gedela, who agreed to answer questions only by e-mail, declined to comment on his company's financial situation. But he said some of the initial support for OMICS came from alumni of Stanford University while he was a postdoctoral student there. (Mr. Gedela was at Stanford for just three months, according to the university, even though the minimum postdoctoral appointment is nine months.) He said he provided the rest of the financing himself.

"I invested most of my scholarship money in starting and managing the journals during my Ph.D. and postdoc period," he wrote.

The company has about 500 employees and operates mostly out of Hyderabad, India, according to Mr. Gedela. Even though much of the company's e-mail correspondence lists a Los Angeles address, the company does not have a physical office there. The Los Angeles address, and a Nevada address that is also used on the company's Web site, serve merely as mailing addresses for legal purposes.

Questionable Recruiting

OMICS has also come under fire for how it recruits people to serve on its editorial board. The company regularly sends mass e-mails to professional listservs to find potential editorial board members and solicit submissions. One science blogger dubbed the company "spammer of the month."

Others say they have received invitations to the editorial boards of journals that are unrelated to their area of expertise. Steven H. Caplan, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, posted on his blog an e-mail OMICS sent him inviting him to serve on the editorial board of a chemical-engineering journal.

Robert K. Vincent, a professor of geology at Bowling Green State University, is listed as a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Earth Science & Climatic Change. Mr. Vincent said he was "pretty confident" that he never agreed to be on the editorial board, but he did remember receiving several e-mails from OMICS soliciting his membership. After learning from a reporter that his name was on the journal's Web site, Mr. Vincent e-mailed OMICS his resignation from the board but said he had not heard back from the company in nearly a month. As of last week his name was still listed on the journal's site as a member of the editorial board. Other scholars writing on blogs and Internet forums have described their surprise at finding themselves listed on editorial boards of OMICS.

Mr. Gedela said OMICS finds editorial board members through the conferences it organizes and suggestions from other editorial board members, in addition to recruiting through mass e-mail.

OMICS seeks "written agreement" by e-mail from people before placing them on the editorial boards of its journals, Mr. Gedela said. But resigning from an editorial board, as Mr. Gedela describes it, appears to be more difficult.

"There has to be a valid reason (time factor etc) for resigning from the editorial board, as it [is] an honorable position," he wrote in an e-mail. "We verify a lot of things before removing [someone] from the editorial board. ... It is [a] somewhat lengthy process."

The quality of work in the OMICS journals appears to vary widely. The company says that it rejects 30 percent of submissions due to poor quality and that each article is reviewed by a minimum of two reviewers, except for "rare cases" in which only one person reviews an article.

But in some cases, that peer-review process does not appear to have happened. Last year, for example, the company's Journal of Earth Science & Climatic Change published a paper that suggested a causal link between Stonehenge and global climate change. The paper was written by Otis D. Williams, a Detroit man with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice who says he taught himself physics and biology in the past 10 years. In the published paper, Mr. Williams posits that Earth is literally a living organism and that Stonehenge is evidence of an infection on the European continent. Global climate change, he argues, is Earth's immune system responding to the infection with "fever and chills."

OMICS has since removed the paper from its site, but Mr. Williams said in an interview that it should never have been published in the first place. He says he explicitly told OMICS not to publish the article, which he planned to revise, after it sought to charge him a $1,600 publication fee. Mr. Williams said he rejected a second offer of an $800 fee and was displeased to learn that the company published the article anyway. Compounding his frustration, he said, was the fact that the journal included his home address and telephone number in the published article.

Beyond the logistical disputes over publication of the article, Mr. Williams said that he never received any reviewer's reports or comments from an editor. In an e-mail, Mr. Gedela said that the journal assigned Mr. Williams' article to five reviewers. He directed further comments on the matter to one of his employees, an associate managing editor, who did not respond to e-mails asking for comment.

OMICS removes from its site about one out of every 300 articles published because of an author's request or for quality reasons, according to Mr. Gedela. Each month, the company publishes 800 to 900 articles, he said.

While the Stonehenge paper appears to represent a lapse of quality control at one OMICS journal, some of the company's other titles have produced well-received scholarship. For instance, the Journal of Bioterrorism and Biodefense last year published a paper—written by a renowned anthrax expert, Martin E. Hugh-Jones, and two co-authors—that challenged aspects of the FBI's investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks. The chairwoman of the Government Accountability Office said at the time that the paper raised questions that deserved further consideration.

Mr. Hugh-Jones, who is a professor emeritus at Louisiana State University, said he was impressed with the rigor of the journal's editorial process, including the peer review. But he noted that the quality of the editing from the OMICS headquarters in India was lacking and made for a stressful experience.

"We had about 10 days of tearing our hair out," he said, adding that the paper was not carefully proofread and there were problems with the numbering of footnotes.

Mr. Hugh-Jones said he and his co-authors submitted the paper to the OMICS journal after being rejected by their first choice, an established journal that he declined to name. While he was previously unfamiliar with the Journal of Bioterrorism and Biodefense—and has not had time to go back and look at the journal since—Mr. Hugh-Jones said it was attractive because it was willing to publish his time-sensitive research quickly.

"We needed to get the paper out quickly," he said. "In retrospect, it may have been a dubious journal to publish in, but it fulfilled what we needed at the time."

Nicholas E. Burgis, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Eastern Washington University who was responsible for editing Mr. Hugh-Jones's paper, also defended the quality of the bioterrorism journal's peer-review process.

But Mr. Burgis, who has since been named the journal's editor in chief, conceded that the quality of the editing process at other OMICS journals may need improvement. He said it appeared the company was leaving it up to professionals in the field to police the quality of research in its various journals.

The authors of the paper paid OMICS $916 to publish it, which was a 50-percent discount off the normal rate, according to Mr. Hugh-Jones.

The anthrax paper has also served as a publicity tool for OMICS. The company touts the media coverage of the article prominently on its home page. In fact, all 10 of the featured "recent news" items link back to news stories from October that refer to the anthrax paper.