Research institutions, publishers and funding bodies should work together against predatory journals. So believes Associate Professor David Moher, of the University of Ottawa and the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.

Join forces against predatory journals

Svenska 2018-05-23

They are called predatory journals and supporting them is an unacceptable action according to the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity. How do Swedish higher education institutions and research funding bodies see the phenomenon, and what are they doing about it?

The term ‘predatory journals’ refers to journals that offer the publication of research articles for payment, without meeting the usual requirements of scientific publishers. In order to attract writers, they often use aggressive sales methods (read more here).

There is concern that publication in predatory journals will undermine the credibility of research, and supporting predatory journals is now unacceptable according to the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity.

Low awareness

Higher education institutions and research funding bodies can play an important role in counteracting the publication of research in predatory journals. But up until now, the awareness of the problem has not been particularly great, says Stefan Eriksson, associate professor of research ethics at Uppsala University.

– We are still exploring how resources can be used to keep a close check on it. Action is starting to be taken at higher education institutions, for example libraries do some things. But we are still a little dazed and unable to grasp the extent and seriousness of this.

Stefan Eriksson is aware that there is research from Uppsala University in predatory journals, and his role as adviser to the vice-chancellor on good research practice includes trying to counteract this.

As part of this work, the university has begun to teach doctoral candidates and employees about predatory journals. It is also being discussed whether the directions regarding merit value should have added to them that publishing in predatory journals is neither acceptable or meritorious, and plans are being made for a subscription service that lists suspicious journals, says Stefan Eriksson.

– Knowledge is spreading, but it is still a fairly new phenomenon and it is not obvious what responsibility we should take to counteract it.

Working against predatory journals

David Moher, associate professor at the University of Ottawa and director of the centre for journalology (publication science) at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, takes the same line.

– Research institutions, publishers and funding bodies should work together against predatory journals – issue a clear warning, and develop guidelines for publishing where the phenomenon is highlighted.

Publications should always be checked against lists of journals that have been authorised according to certain standards, for example through the Directory of Open Access Journals initiative. He also believes that researchers should sign a statement that their CV does not contain publications in predatory journals when they apply for funding or a post.

– Every department should also carry out a review of its researchers to ensure that their CVs do not contain such publications.

Analysed publications

A step in that direction has been taken at Lund University. Here they have analysed the extent to which university researchers publish themselves in predatory journals, or questionable open access journals, as they are also known.

The analysis included publications that were made in the years 2001–2017, in a total of 52 journals in many different research fields, from seven recognised dubious publishers. However, this is only a small percentage of the total number of suspected predatory journals, which was estimated to be around 8 000 in 2014.

In 2001, there was only one (1) publication by a researcher from Lund in the questionable journals examined. Thereafter, the number steadily increased to a plateau of around six publications per year. The years 2013 and 2014 saw a peak of 15 publications per year, before going back to around six per year.

Analysed publications

A total of 88 publications were found, says Stacey Ristinmaa Sörensen, vice rector with responsibility for research at Lund University.

– Even very established researchers are on the list, which if I am honest, surprises me. In our opinion this is not good.

The university will look into the results and try to find out why they have published in these journals, she says.

– At the same time, this is an extremely small percentage of the research published at the university, so I do not see it as a particularly serious problem. But our researchers must become more aware of the phenomenon.

Applying for money towards publishing fees

The university library provides information on how to recognise and avoid questionable publishers and journals. The faculty of medicine also addresses the phenomenon in its mandatory doctoral course.

Researchers can also apply for money towards a portion of the fees for publishing in open access journals through a fund at the university. The journal publisher must then meet the quality requirements of the organisation Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, OASPA.

Stacey Ristinmaa Sörensen knows that some researchers who have applied for a post at the university have had questionable publications in their CV. However, there is no policy regarding the consequences of such a discovery.

– We probably need to put more work into being able to specify what we tolerate, and how we will manage and communicate this, she says.

She welcomes the suggestion that researchers should be able to certify that their CV is free from publications in predatory journals, but notes that it requires clear definitions of the term, or the use of journal lists that are difficult to keep up-to-date.

Not a big problem

Anders Gustafsson, dean of research at Karolinska Institutet, describes the phenomenon of predatory journals as a concern. But he is not particularly concerned about his own institution.

– Occasionally there is such a publication, but we do not perceive it as a big problem here, he says.

Incidences have not been investigated, but Anders Gustafsson considers that the university’s system for allocating resources to departments counteracts publication in predatory journals. Funds are allocated based on publications in journals that are indexed in the Web of Science database, which is seldom the case with predatory journals, and to a certain extent on the impact factor, which predatory journals rarely have.

– The heads of departments do not want employees to publish in these journals, because then they do not get any money. And when it comes to filling posts, there is such fierce competition that there is no room for questionable publications, he says.

Doctoral candidates can be stopped

No action will be taken if an employee has published in a predatory journal, but there will be no allocation of resources and it is not meritorious. But there is one exception. Doctoral candidates who are going to defend their theses are required by the regulations to be published in peer reviewed journals.

If a doctoral candidate has published in a journal with a questionable system for peer review, which predatory journals often have, the thesis defence committee may say no, says Anders Gustafsson.

Information about predatory journals is given during the introductory course for doctoral candidates and the supervisor training.

Inhibits quality assurance

The Swedish Research Council Formas is well aware of the phenomenon of predatory journals.

– It inhibits the quality assurance of research and complicates the aspiration of open access to scientific papers, says Markku Rummukainen, secretary general of Formas.

Predatory journals make use of the current increased requirement for research results to be made openly available, he says.

– They market themselves by offering cheaper and faster open access publishing than the traditional journals, but at the same time their quality control is flawed.

No specific wording

When evaluating applications for research grants at Formas, an assessment of the scientific quality of publications is included. There is no specific wording concerning predatory journals in the assessment guidelines, but the applications are evaluated by researchers active in the appropriate field of research, who are able to assess the quality of publications, says Markku Rummukainen.

In order to counteract the publication of research in predatory journals, Formas, like several other research funding bodies, allows the costs of open access publishing to be included in the application budget.

– In this way the researcher is not forced to go to the questionable journals due to insufficient funds, says Markku Rummukainen.

Exploited by unscrupulous researchers

At the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, Sweden’s largest private research funding body the phenomenon of predatory journals is taken seriously.

– It is a problem that is exploited by unscrupulous researchers and must be countered. We have no statistics, but are seeing a slight increase in this, says Göran Sandberg, the foundation’s executive member.

The foundation does not take action to prevent research they fund being published in predatory journals, but instead tries to stop this happening through their own evaluation process, says Göran Sandberg. Websites that list suspected predatory journals can be helpful in this regard.

– If you have published in this type of journal, your application will be rejected and you will not be eligible to be considered for a grant for a few years. We do not want researchers who have chosen that path to be supported by us, says Göran Sandberg.

Text: Sara Nilsson

1 comment

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  • Per-Ola Norrby

    The stand against predatory journals would be all good if it was a simple case of black-or-white, but unfortunately there is a wide gray area. Even well established journals can have sloppy peer review and will now accept money for publishing. In fact, this is mandated by our research council, as part of open access. To complicate matters further, publishers can be stamped as predatory, but still have a few well established journals with good peer review, and the damning can then spill over to those. Some journals have horrendous practices and should be stopped with any means, but we have to avoid the collateral damage from guilt by association.