The Dubious Science of Predatory Journals

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Researchers are likely to be the easy victims of an academic scam

BACK IN 2012, when GS Seethapathy was pursuing a Master’s degree in Biotechnology in Trichy, he wrote a piece about nutraceuticals and the role they could play in dealing with cancer. Nutraceuticals, from the words ‘nutrition’ and ‘pharmaceuticals’, are laboratory-made medical products derived from food sources that are believed to possess health benefits. The piece—a review article of a subject of his choice—was mandatory in Seethapathy’s curriculum. Satisfied with the way it had turned out, he thought he should try getting it published in a science journal. “It was a time that I did not know anything about research and publication,” he says,“[just a bit] theoretically.”

So he did what many researchers now increasingly do in India. He went online and found a journal. The one that the search engine threw up—called the International Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences—looked like any other scholarly publication. It claimed to be peer-reviewed and it boasted an editorial board of researchers from across the world, from those in the US and Europe to those in countries like Malaysia, Egypt and India.

When Seethapathy submitted his manuscript, surprisingly, his paper was almost instantly accepted. Usually journals take months before final publication. There are several rounds of back and forth between writers and reviewers, where proposed papers undergo detailed scrutiny and corrections are worked out. But in Seethapathy’s case, all he was asked to do was improve the language of the piece and resubmit it. And once he shelled out Rs 3,000, the piece was published.

The publication, as Seethapathy later came to realise, was a predatory journal. There is a dark side to academic research, especially in India, and at its centre is the phenomenon of predatory journals. These imitate the appearance of highly regarded scholarly publications. They claim to be indexed in the most influential databases, say they possess editorial boards that comprise top scientists and researchers, and claim to have a rigorous peer-review structure. In look and feel, they are exactly like any reputed journal. But in truth, as long as you pay, you can get anything published.

Some like Seethapathy stumble upon these journals. But a large section of researchers and scientists across the world are at the receiving end of nothing short of an academic publishing scam. Paul Vaucher, currently a professor at University of Applied Sciences in Western Switzerland, once received an invitation to submit a paper in a special issue of the Journal of Forensic Research. The journal is one of over 700 open-access science journals brought out by OMICS International, a Hyderabad-based publisher which in the last few years has become one of the largest publishers of science journals in the world. Vaucher was then a PhD student at the University of Geneva who had worked in biomedical research for over a decade. “I was indeed a bit opportunistic as I knew the journal was not indexed and was new,” Vaucher says. “It was an appealing offer to have a written article published for free and promote open source at the same time.” Vaucher took the bait.

A few days after he had turned in his manuscript, an anonymous managing editor of the publication sent him a message saying the paper had been accepted. There was also a solitary line from an anonymous reviewer. ‘The manuscript is well organized in the field of traffic medicine and good for publication. Author has not explained how it is related to forensic medicine?’ it read.

The paper however was still raw, as Vaucher knew it, and there were several mistakes and errors, from author affiliations to spelling and grammatical errors. He turned in these rectifications. But the paper showed up online a few days later without any of the corrections. And now he was told that he owed them $900 as fee. “I only started noticing something was wrong after they put the article online before having me proof read it. I had specifically asked to do this as I wanted the English to be corrected only after revising the article,” he says. This was in June 2012. For the next three years, he would have to constantly write to the publisher, most of which went unanswered, first asking for corrections to be made and later to unearth what exactly had happened to his paper. “I was also very surprised they charged me for the article. Invited articles are usually free of charge and there had been no communication whatsoever on future charges,” he says.

Vaucher paid the $900 and eventually got his corrections in, but he also began to probe the matter further. He managed to contact the editor of the special issue, Thomas Holt, who it turned out had never even seen Vaucher’s paper and had long resigned from the journal. He wrote to Vaucher saying, ‘… Unfortunately, I have experienced the same frustrations and am no longer associated with the journal. They are completely unresponsive to the most basic questions or requests and I have tremendous concerns about their practices.’ Vaucher now realised something was really wrong with the journal. When he pressed for details about the reviewer, he received an email from an anonymous Editorial Assistant, saying, ‘This is to bring to your kind notice about the article... is strongly recommended for the publication in the peer review process by one of the reviewer who is expert in this field. So, the manuscript got acceptance to publish with the initial submitted file.’ He began to press the journal’s editor in chief, Jaiprakash Shewale, for help. But the publishers stalled Shewale as well. When Vaucher wrote once again in December 2013, he received a reply from Shewale. He had quit.

THERE ARE ESSENTIALLY two types of revenue models for academic journals. In the traditional model, publishers obtain revenue by charging subscription fees of libraries and individual users for access to these journals. But in the last few years, with the emergence of the internet, a new model of open access journals has emerged. Here, authors are charged fees to make their articles freely accessible to all. Predatory publishers have been using this open-access concept to fleece gullible researchers. Jeffrey Beall, an academic librarian at the University of Colorado in Denver, who, until recently, ran a popular blog among science researchers blacklisting predatory journals, had identified 18 such publishers back in 2011. This had rapidly grown to 923 by 2016. A large number of them are based in India. Over the years, Beall has often been legally threatened by publishers found guilty of alleged predatory practices. The blog was shut down a few weeks ago. Although no reason has been offered, Lacey Earle, vice-president of business development at Cabell’s International, which brings out a directory to help scholars choose journals, tweeted that Beall ‘was forced to shut down [the] blog due to threats & politics’.

We are producing junk science. This can mislead researchers into wasting resources on information that is not real

According to researchers, these journals spam researchers from across the globe, trying to find if they have work that needs to be published or invite them to be part of their editorial boards. When contacted, Kishore Vattikoti, a legal advisor at OMICS, confirms they use bulk email services. “There are over 700 journals with us. 700 (journals) multiplied by 100 (invitations). We need to send these invitations. We have so many journals,” Vattikoti says. As Vattikoti sees it, as the group expands and the number of journals increases, invitation numbers will only go up.

Sometimes the names of researchers on editorial boards are listed without their consent. And very often the journals hide the fact that article processing fees will be levied on the author until closer to publication. ‘Some publishers even offer membership in the editorial board of their journals, and some gullible scientists think it is an honour,’ Muthu Madhan and Subbiah Arunachalam from the DST Centre for Policy Research in IISc, Bangalore say in an email interview. ‘... We know of individuals working even in reputed institutions whose names are included in editorial boards of predatory journals without their knowledge or consent. Even when they ask their names to be removed, the publisher wouldn’t!’

Some time ago, five researchers from Manipal University in Bengaluru were similarly deceived by a predatory publisher. Yogendra Nayak, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology at Manipal College of Pharmaceutical Sciences who helped resolve the matter, says, “You keep getting these emails, written in this nice attractive language. And then you get tempted to try out an article.” Once the researchers sent in their pieces, they were each sent an invoice of about $300. “Initially they had said nothing about a processing fee. Later, they told us they had a rule that communicating via email was believed to be an acceptance for publishing in their journal,” Nayak recounts. When the researchers wanted to withdraw their articles, they were told they would have to pay an equally large withdrawal fee. “It was a trap,” Nayak says. The researchers however decided to wait it out. And the journals eventually gave in and withdrew the articles without charging them any fee.

Predatory publishing exploits a fundamental weakness in academic research—a researcher’s need to publish papers to advance their careers. It is cut-throat academic world, where you either publish or perish. This is particularly so in India, where in 2010, the University Grants Commission (UGC) made it mandatory for all faculty in higher educational institutions to publish papers to become eligible for promotions. This was done no doubt to increase research output, but has also given a fillip to the practice of predatory publishing. Madhan and Arunachalam say, ‘Regulatory and funding agencies should take a large part of the blame. For example, UGC stipulates at least two research papers, of which at least one must be in a refereed (peer-reviewed) journal, as minimum qualification for the appointment in teaching positions— meaning that the other paper could be in a non-refereed journal.’

It is necessary for the Indian scientific community to fight against publishers’ predatory behaviour and show that quality science does emerge from India

A paper that is to be published in the journal Current Science, authored by Madhan and Arunachalam, apart from researchers Siva Shankar Kimidi and Subbiah Gunasekaranc, finds that Indian researchers have published more than 37,000 papers in over 880 open access journals from 61 countries from 2010 to 2014. This is about 14.4 per cent of India’s overall publication output, considerably higher than the 11.6 percent from the world. ‘Indian authors have used 488 OA journals levying article processing charge (APC), ranging from Rs 500 to $5,000, in the five years to publish about 15,400 papers... We estimate that India is potentially spending about $2.4 million annually on APCs...,’ the authors write.

To check this phenomenon, the UGC recently published a list of 38,653 recommended journals where researchers must publish their work. The problem with this approach, as several researchers point out, is the continuation of a system where how many papers you publish is more valued than what exactly you publish.

Many of these predatory publications also organise fake conferences. While in real conferences, researchers’ papers and presentations are thoroughly scrutinised before being accepted, in these fraud conferences, anything is accepted for a fee. “It will be something like a multiple discipline [conference] going on all together,” Nayak says. Pointing out how the UGC’s expectation of applicants for teaching posts to have at least two conference papers is also leading to a boom of fake conferences, Madhan and Arunachalam say that in these sessions which last 45 to 60 minutes, organisers accommodate around 30 or 40 papers.

In the last few years, despite discussions around how India has come to be viewed as the hotbed of predatory publishing, apart from a few universities, as Seethpathy claims, very few have taken steps to prevent researchers from publishing in such journals. Last year, Seethapathy along with some other researchers published a study looking at this issue. They randomly looked up 3,300 papers published by Indian authors in 350 predatory journals between September 2015 to February 2016 to understand which institutes predominately publish in predatory journals and whether Indian academics are aware of predatory journals. It has been assumed that most Indian researchers publishing in such journals would hail from mediocre government- run colleges. But Seethapathy found a huge number of them from some of the country’s top institutions. There were researchers from the Indian Institutes of Technology, National Institutes of Technology, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, among others.

When Seethapathy and his co-researchers contacted the authors of those papers to ask them to fill an online questionnaire, about 480 of the 2,000 authors agreed. A large number of them admitted that they were aware about the concept of predatory publishing. ‘They probably submit to them well aware of the circumstances and take a calculated risk that experts who evaluate their publication lists will not bother to check the journal credentials in detail,’ Seethapathy points out in the study.

In most cases, Madhan and Arunachalam say, Indian authors willingly publish their work in these journals because they know their papers would not be accepted in decent journals. ‘There are academics who start journals in their own institutions. A new breed of entrepreneurs—service providers in the paper and thesis writing business—is emerging in India and one can literally get a paper written to meet the requirements of universities without actually doing any research.’

CITL Projects, a Bengaluru-based firm, which was pointed out by Madhan and Arunachalam, provides, among other services, the option of getting research papers written by them and made ready for publication in a journal. When contacted, posing as the relative of a researcher, an employee named Venata, assured us that a paper could easily be written and later published for a fee.

“Please understand, he has a poor grasp over English,” I say.

“Don’t worry,” Venata replies. “We can write it for him.”

“He is also a poor researcher.”

“Yes, yes… Don’t worry we can provide [the] matter also... Just tell us what subject he is interested in and we will get back.”

LIKE PAUL VAUCHER, Julio César López-Valdés from the Autonomous University of Tamaulipas in Mexico received an email last year with an invitation to publish any paper at a journal belonging to OMICS. López-Valdés was then working at the Department of Teaching and Investigation at a Federal Mexican Health Institution and he wrote about a case related to a rare malformation of the gastric tube in a patient.

Five months after he submitted his manuscript, he was asked to propose the names of potential reviewers due to the difficulty of the topic. A week went by after the names were suggested. “After that, my manuscript was accepted in a magical way,” he says.

His encounter turned out to be somewhat similar to Vaucher’s. The paper had hardly been edited. It was filled with errors and typos. And soon an invoice appeared. They were asking for $1,099. When he refused, they asked him to pay a lighter fee, about $100 less. ‘They wanted to charge me my friends’ review as ‘review fee’,’ he wrote on an online forum. When López-Valdés refused to entertain their emails, the journal published the paper in its ‘dirty’ version, without the changes that he had requested.

OMICS has now been formally charged by the Federal Trade Commission in the US for deceiving researchers and hiding large publication fees. Vattikoti argues that OMICS is a respected publisher and the allegations against it have been directed against it by competitors.

Without naming OMICS directly, Madhan and Arunachalam claim the group has more than 1,500 employees and operates under different names, with offices outside India as well. ‘There are many smaller publishers with a few, 1-10, titles,’ they say. ‘If the former is like a multinational corporation, the latter is like a cottage industry. Indeed, India is known as the world capital of predatory publishing.’

López-Valdés refused to pay and had a ‘dirty’ version of his work published. Vaucher, who paid up, however, pursued the editors and management at OMICS for over three years, eventually threatening legal action, before he was able to get the paper removed from the journal. ‘I retrieved my article and lost $900 but kept my scientific integrity,’ he says in one comment online. ‘Open source has provided a way to publish quality research that might have little interest out of a small group of researchers. The review and editorial process needs to be of quality. All of science is at stake if this is not guaranteed. The emergence of pseudo-science is a major problem in a world where each one of us has access to all the information without necessarily having the required knowledge to sort what is quality science and what is ‘garbage’ science,’ he says. ‘India suffers from predatory-behaving publishers, given [that] so many spams and fake scientific journals emerge from there. This leads to a global false impression that whatever comes from India is of low quality. It is necessary for the Indian scientific community to fight against publishers’ predatory behaviour and openly show quality science does emerge from India.’

Since then, Vaucher has been actively trying to deal with this issue. He has been writing about his experiences in online research forums. He contacts editors-in-chief of journals with dodgy publishers to inform them that their reputation is at stake. He claims he recently managed to get an editor who was organising an event resign after he managed to detect that OMICS was behind the operation. “I now do not stay passive,” he says. “Predators often benefit from the feeling of victim’s guilt. I felt stupid but am not ashamed of admitting my errors… To all victims, I can only recommend you speak out and take action to defend your values and recover your feeling of pride and integrity.”