How to talk about “Predatory” Publishing: Reclaiming the Narrative

A few weeks ago someone urgently shared on the Summon ListServ that a keyword search for the word “Transgender” on Summon produced a obscene and pseudo-science article as the first search result. The community immediately echoed this frustration when many of them discovered they got the same result.

Summon, echoing the community’s outrage,  immediately scrambled to get this article removed from their search results and reached out to the Vendor hosting this article to see if they could remove it from their end as well (Summon aggregates its search results from a knowledge base of resources hosted by third-parties). This Vendor quickly responded that they were shocked how this Predatory Journal managed to get through their indexing process and that they would remove it from their database completely.

Algorithmic bias and its affect on search terms is a serious issue. It’s frustrating how these incidents keep happening with our search tools and terrifying to think about the affect these kind of findings have on our users.

There is a lot happening in this situation that would benefit from a critical analysis (e.g. Who is more responsible here? The librarians who activated it this resource? The search tool provider? The Vendor? The Journal?), but I just want to focus on one particular bit for this blog post. Namely, that the Vendor immediately responded to this problem by calling the journal predatory.

You see, I don’t think this journal is predatory. Yes, this article and others published by this journal are mostly offensive, incorrect, and non-scientific. However, this is because this is a bad publisher, not a predatory one.

I think it is pretty clear that the term “predatory publishing” has unfortunately become a misused catch-all for any Open Access Journal that isn’t up to par. Similar to Trump’s uses of “fake news”,  the accusation of “predatory publishing” is now being used for any Open Access Journal whose practices you disagree with.

So what is the difference between a predatory and bad publisher? Let’s use the fake news analogy a bit more here. There are clearly black and white cases of fake news/predatory publishers. Content providers that don’t care at all about the truth of their content, they are just there to make money. e.g. Those Macedonian Teens who were creating fictional news stories or Journals that accept nonsense papers or add Dr.Fraud to their editorial board.

There are also a lot of grey areas. Publishers that do care about the truth of their content, but they are just a bit more flimsy with how they handle truth. This flimsiness can be due to bias (e.g. Breitbart News or “anti-big science” journals) or just more honest mistakes that are a usually the result of lack of infrastructure (e.g. The Publisher MPDI). Sometimes even journals with a robust infrastructure can can make these mistakes. Retraction Watch shows this weekly.

When open access publishers that exist in this grey area are given the label “predatory” it scares away potential authors and readers. It can become a self-fulfilling cycle. As use of the journal drops, often so will the quality. Calling a journal “predatory” might just make it so.

Ok. Time to talk about Beall’s List. I know he took his list down a few months ago, but it is still seen as the foundational text for identifying predatory publishers so it is important we talk about it.

Beall did a great job of collecting researcher feedback about journals and posting them on his blog. This made it a good starting spot when trying to review a journal. Also Beall’s knowledge of different publishers practices was extremely impressive and worth consulting.

There are some big problems with using Beall’s List though. These are well documented by Walt Crawford in Ethics and access 1: the sad case of Jeffrey Beall [PDF] and Beyond Beall’s List by Monica Berger and Jill Cirasella. Both of these are well-worth the read. I just want to point out two facts that I believe firmly establish that his list should only be taken with a grain of sand:

  1. 90% of additions to Beall’s List had no justification why they were on there. Jeffery Beall is just one person who was doing a next to impossible task. There were no external checks and balances on him. No peer review. Relying solely on Beall’s List does not suffice.
  2. Beall is anti-open access. He has made conspiracy-based statements about the open access movement. Now if he can make his case for these opinions than sure, but it doesn’t make sense to ask someone’s opinion on an open access journal when they are against open access publishing in general does it? That’s like asking someone who hates video games which video game you should rent. Maybe you should ask someone else?

I say all the above because people actively relying on Beall’s List is still a problem. I know of librarians who have recently ‘on faith’ deactivated all of the journals on Beall’s List from their search tools. Just last year during my MLIS program a LIS professor stated in class that Beall’s list was the gold standard.

Let’s be clear here: If you are a librarian who recognizes the unfairness of the scholarly publishing industry and wants change, you can’t also be telling your patrons to rely on (an archived version) of Beall’s List. These are positions are in direct conflict. Beall’s list is pro-status quo and he wants the authors to continue publishing via current processes with the large scholarly publishers.

Beall’s list just doesn’t allow new open access publishers to get off their feet. It doesn’t allow them breathing room to make mistakes. This is the problem in general with Blacklists. Once you are on a Blacklist once, that’s how you are remembered. It’s easy to get on a Blacklist and incredibly hard to get off. Whitelists are different, they are are hard to get onto and very easy to get taken off. Blacklists are technically infeasible, practically unreliable and unethical. Period.

Now, I know I am saying nothing new here. A lot of critical thought has been devoted to predatory publishers over the last few years. If you’re reading my blog you probably agree with me on most of the above. Mainly, that there is a lot of grey space when it comes to predatory publishing. It is complicated and this creates a problem because researchers really need it to be simple.

So. What do we do? To really understand the problems with predatory publishing, you need to understand the larger picture of scholarly communications issues. This isn’t an easy thing to explain. John Dupius does a good job of this in a recent presentation of his. I am especially fond of this line: ” “Predatory” publishers are symptoms of a broken publishing and academic system, not the disease itself “.

With all this in mind, I’ve listed below 4 bullet points that I try to mention every-time I get asked a question about predatory publishing.

  1. Beall’s List is far from perfect
    • “Beall’s List is a good starting place, but…”
    • “Beall is just one person, no peer review or checks and balances. He is going to make mistakes”
    • “Beall has made multiple anti-open access statements. He may not be the best resource for evaluating open access journals”
  2. Use Whitelists or review tools not Blacklists
    • “Blacklists inevitably damage new open access publishers and journals that make honest mistakes. Once on, hard to get off it”
    • “There are numerous Whitelists out there which allow you to quickly determine if a journal is reputable. Also good check-list tools like
  3. Subscription-based and established Publishers have predatory practices too
    • “Large subscription based publishers have a monopoly on the publishing market which they have benefited from by charging high amounts and increasing prices drastically over the years. This is referred to as the serials crisis”
    • “Predatory journals may be robbing researchers, but large scholarly publishers have been forcing libraries to pay ridiculous high prices for years. Some publishers have 30% profit margins, one of the highest of any industry”
  4. Don’t give up on Open Access. It’s important and things are getting better.
    • “The Scholarly Publishing Landscape is changing slowly. The Number of Open Access publication is growing every year. There are lots of exciting recent Open Access Initiatives such as… (e.g. Science Open, Knowledge Unlatched)”
    • “There are also numerous ways now to make your work Open Access through Green Open Access options….(Sherpa/Romeo)”

I know I am missing a lot here. What I am trying to do with these four points is move researchers away from using blacklists and keep them open to trying new open access publishing routes.

I’d be curious to hear what the bullet points of other librarian’s responses to predatory publishing are.

Published by Ryan Regier

Doing lots of different stuff. Follow me on twitter at: @ryregier

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