2018-11-27 Heiko Herwald, Vice-Dean Faculty of Medicine, Lund University

Popular science rather than predatory journals

Powerful and influential stakeholders try to force researchers to publish their data in open access journals. Yet researchers tend to place more trust in research that is published in highly regarded journals. To really make research results available to everybody, the focus should not be on original articles, but on popular scientific contributions, argues Heiko Herwald, Lund University.

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Heiko Herwald

In September the European Union announced to make open access publishing mandatory from 2020 for EU supported projects. This decision has boost an ongoing discussion whether open access is superior to traditional publishing. To address this question it is worth exploring the advantages and disadvantages of open access publishing.

“In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power.”

This is the opening sentence of Yuval Noah Harari’s new book entitled “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, which was published in August 2018.

It is a sentence that truly sums up the problem in modern publishing. We are currently experiencing tremendous changes in the scientific landscape. This is combined with an attempt by powerful and influential stakeholders to force researchers to publish their data in open access journals. Considering the current momentum of this trend, one might wonder whether there has been time for interim analyses or critical reflections.

Over the years some publishers have succeeded in launching open access journals that publish tens of thousands of articles a year. The logistics of such giant journals appears to be a considerable challenge and requires editorial boards with over one thousand members. The reason for these strategies is obvious as in contrast to the traditional subscription system, the profit from open access journals is based on the number of published articles. Thus, it is no surprise that some journals lack a “reject button” or mention in the instructions that a sound “Material and Methods” section is sufficient for acceptance.

Fraud in the publishing world is increasing, as shown by the growing number of predatory open access journals. These journals offer open access publishing without any peer-reviewing. Many of these journals can be found on Beall’s List of Predatory Journals. In 2015, BMC Medicine reported that the number of articles published in predatory journals increased from 53 000 in 2010 to 420 000 in 2014 (1). These articles were published in more than 7 000 predatory journals. Notably, most of them are open access journals. One can argue that Asia and Africa in particular have contributed 75 percent of the authors, but articles from Swedish faculties have also been published in such journals.

As many of the giant open access journals have low rejection rates, it is tempting to choose the path of least resistance.

The consequences of the open access trend are particularly devastating for niche journals for two reasons. Firstly, many giant journals have a higher impact factor than journals publishing non-mainstream research. As some of these open access journals accept all kind of articles, it seems more tempting for many scientists to submit their contributions to them rather than to the most highly regarded journals in their area of research. Secondly, if the impact factor of a journal is not high enough, many researchers are not willing to revise their articles after peer-review and decide to submit them to another journal. As many of the giant open access journals have low rejection rates, it is tempting to choose the path of least resistance.

One of the most interesting questions, however, is whether open access really promotes open access. It is worth taking a closer look at this issue. Many of the most prestigious traditional journals have introduced a cascade journal system. While their flagship journals with a high impact factor are still published traditionally, their newly launched journals are open access. The idea behind this concept is that all articles that have been submitted to a high impact journal can be cascaded after rejection to another journal from the same publisher. The process is facilitated, as authors only have to press a button to forward their manuscript. No reformatting is necessary, no new cover letter has to be written and no rearrangement of the figures is needed. It is tempting to speculate that some of the profit made by the open access cascade journals is used to support the traditionally published journals run by the same company.

Most interestingly, however, is the development of the impact factor. Although the impact factor is not a good tool for judging the quality of an article, it does give an idea of how often on average articles are cited in a journal. Considering that open access articles are freely available to everyone, one would expect that their impact factor has increased over time. However, the opposite is true for most open access journals. The situation is different for traditionally published high impact factor journals where an enormous increase is evident. It therefore seems that despite the free availability of open access articles, researchers tend to place more trust in research that is published in highly regarded journals. This conclusion brings us back to Harari’s statement and emphasises the importance of high quality publishing, regardless of whether it is a traditional or an open access journal.

It therefore seems that despite the free availability of open access articles, researchers tend to place more trust in research that is published in highly regarded journals.

Does this mean that open access has failed? The answer is “no”. However, open access is not the one and only solution and thus critical reconsideration is urgently needed. In order to maintain scientific diversity, guarantee an in-depth peer-review process and publish sound science, traditional publishing has to be maintained. Maybe it is time to go one step further. If stakeholders really want to make research results available to everybody, the focus should not be on original articles, but on popular scientific contributions. If such articles are published according to the open access concept, they would reach a much bigger audience and help to increase the general level of awareness in all areas of scientific research.

Heiko Herwald
Vice-Dean Faculty of Medicine, Lund University
Professor of Medical Microbial Pathogenesis

1 comment

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  • Åke Johansson

    Yes, I would agree that most "normal people" (non-scientists) would probably have little use of reading scientific articles within some narrow discipline. Similarly, most researchers would seldom have any benefit from scientific articles outside their own discipline. From that point of view I see little use for "open access". It seems better to encourage researchers to write separate popular science papers intended for a broader audience, or to popularize their science in other ways for the general public (including the tax payers that pay for it).

    2018.11.29

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