Scientific Journals Accused of Behaving Badly

I discussed peer review in my previous post, and immediately came across an article on “Predatory Publishing” (Science367, p 129). They report that six out of ten articles published in a sample of what they call “predatory” journals received no citations, i.e. nobody published a further paper referring to the work in these papers. The only reasonable inference that could be taken from what followed was that this work was very much worse than that published in more established journals. So, first, what are “predatory” journals, are they inherently bad, is the work described there seriously worse than in the established ones, or is this criticism more to defend the elite positions of some? I must immediately state I don’t know because the article did not give specific examples that I could analyse, neither science nor journals, although the chances are I would not have been able to read such journals. There are so many journals out there that libraries are generally restricted by finance on what they purchase.

Which gets to the first response. Maybe there are no citations because nobody is reading the articles because libraries do not buy the journals. There can, of course, be other good reasons why a paper is not cited, in that the subject may be of very narrow interest, but it was published to archive a fact. I have some papers that fit that description. For a while I had a contract to establish the chemical structures of polysaccharides from some New Zealand seaweeds and publish the results. If the end result is clearly correct, and if the polysaccharide was unique to that seaweed, which was restricted to being found in New Zealand and had no immediate use, why would anyone reference it? One can argue that the work ended up being not that interesting, but I did not know that before I started. Before starting I did not know; after completion I did, and by publishing, so will everyone else. If they never have any use, well, at least we know why. From my point of view, they were useful; I had a contract and I fulfilled it. When you are independent and do not have such things as secure salaries, contracts are valuable.

The article defined the “predatory” journal as (a) one that charged to publish (Page charges were well established in the main stream journals); (b) they used aggressive marketing tactics (so do the mainstream journals); and (c) they offered “little or no peer review” (I have no idea how they reached this conclusion because peer review is not open to examination). As an aside, the marketing tactics of the big conglomerates is not pretty either, but they have the advantage of being established, and libraries cannot usually bring themselves to stop using them, as it is an “all or nothing” subscription with a lot of journals involved, with at least one or two essential for a University.

The next criticism was these upstarts were getting too much attention. And horrors, 40% of the articles drew at least one citation. You can’t win against this sort of critic: it is bad because articles are not cited, and bad because they are. I find citations are a bad iindication of importance. Many scientists in the West cite their friends frequently, irrespective of whether the article cited has any relevance because they know nobody checks, and the number of citations is important in the West for getting grants. You cite them, they cite you, everybody wins, except those not in the loop. This is a self-help game.

The next criticism of them is there are too many of them. Actually the same could be said of mainstream journals; take a look at the number of journals from Elsevier. Even worse, many of these come from Africa and Asia. How dare they challenge our established superiority! Another criticism – the articles are not cited in Wikipedia. As if citations in Wikipedia were important. So why do scientists in Africa and Asia publish in such journals? The article suggests an answer: publication is faster. Hmm, fancy going for better performance! So, if it is a problem, the answer would surely be to fix it with the “approved” journals, but that is not going to happen any time soon. Also, from the Africans’ perspective, their papers may well be more likely to be rejected in the peer review of Western journals because they are not using the most modern equipment, in part because they can’t afford it. The work may be less interesting to Western eyes, but is that relevant if it is interesting in Africa? I can’t help but think this article was more a sign of “protecting their turf” than of trying to improve the situation.