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A Predator in Our Midst

Open Access Publishing, Predatory Journals, and Scientific Integrity
May 23, 2019 | Comments

Science is an iterative process in which each finding teaches us something that generates further experiments and more findings. It is not until a finding is replicated and accepted by a consensus of scientists in a particular field that it should be regarded as representing something that is as close to objective truth as we can come. Thus, science depends on communication among scientists so they can pursue the continuous process of trying to repeat and expand upon each other’s experiments.

Increasingly, scientific communications expand beyond the walls of laboratories and research clinics to a general public appropriately eager to know what science can tell us that will improve our health and safety. In addition to traditional print media, we have websites and social media platforms that continuously update us about what is going on in science around the world.

In fields like medicine and public health, it is especially critical that these communications are held to the highest possible standards. An experiment that yields something “untrue,” either because of random chance, poor experimental technique, or (fortunately rarely) outright fraud, will not be replicable and its findings ultimately discarded by science’s inherent self-correcting properties. But until something involving our health and safety that is incorrect is so proven, substantial harm can be done. A published study claiming a new drug to be effective for some illness may subsequently be shown by other studies not to work and to have more severe adverse side effects than first reported. But in the meantime, people may be given the drug and harmed.

Peer Review and Subscription Journals

A system that attempts to weed out flawed experiments, findings that probably won’t hold up, and exaggerated claims has been developed and its fundamental basis is what we call the peer-reviewed journal. In the health fields, scientists submit manuscripts to medical journals detailing the methods they used to conduct an experiment and their findings and interpretations. The manuscripts are then typically sent by journal editors to experts in the same field as the experimenters, who write reviews for the journals’ editors and recommend whether the manuscript should be accepted or rejected. Journal editors then read these reviews and make the final decision whether to publish the manuscript or not.

The first medical journal in the English-speaking world is believed to have been the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, first published in England in 1665. The first medical journal in the United States, the Medical Repository, was published between 1797 and 1824. Today, the world’s most prestigious medical journal is the New England Journal of Medicine, first published in 1812.

In the last two centuries, the number of peer-reviewed journals in the world has proliferated, so that as of 2014 there were about 28,100 of them, publishing more than 2.5 million new scientific papers every year.

Traditionally, medical journals are subscription journals, available to individuals and libraries that pay for them. Some peer-reviewed journals represent specific medical specialties, like the Journal of the American College of Cardiology and the American Journal of Psychiatry. Others focus on individual diseases, like Diabetes or Schizophrenia Research. Besides subscription fees, subscription journals receive funding from pharmaceutical company advertising and dues paid by members of medical societies that own some of them. A number of subscription journals are owned by large publishing houses, like Elsevier and Springer, whose profit margins can be impressive.

Most subscription medical journals exist behind pay-walls, so that only subscribers or people with access to libraries that buy subscriptions can see articles in them. To get access to an individual peer-reviewed paper, a person from the general public must usually pay a hefty fee per article. This has led to concerns that the public is being denied access to scientific discoveries, many of which taxpayers’ dollars have paid for via grants made by public funders like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF). Another concern with subscription journals is there is typically a delay of between months to even years between the time a paper is submitted and ultimately gets published. Important scientific findings can thus fail to see the light of day for prolonged periods of time.

The Introduction of Open Access Publishing

As a potential solution to what is seen as this lack of transparency, lengthy publication process, and high access costs, a new form of publication has developed over the last 20 years called “open access publishing.” Open access journals are published directly on the internet and open to everyone to view free of charge. According to the Directory of Open Access Journals, there were 11,169 peer-reviewed open access journals as of 2018. Even more striking is that according to the Electronic Journals Library, there were nearly 60,000 free e-journals as of 2018, most of which are thus ostensibly not even peer reviewed.

Scientists, or their medical schools, pay fees to open access journals to have their papers published on the journals’ websites. These fees often reach into thousands of dollars. Articles typically appear much faster online than they do in print and include all kinds of clickable material that can be very useful to other scientists and the public.

But this proliferation of open access journals is not without problems. As Charlotte J. Haug recently pointed out in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine titled “No Free Lunch—What Price Plan S for Scientific Publishing?”, “Electronic editorial systems have many advantages, but they have also created more work checking the originality and validity of submissions: it has become easier to manipulate images and to plagiarize. Even authors’ and reviewers’ identities may have to be double-checked.” There are concerns that the rapid turnaround of papers published on open access journals comes at the price of too hasty peer review. Furthermore, charging scientists to publish papers opens conflict of interest worries. Haug notes that “there are some good reasons why journals should not be dependent on direct payment from authors and funders of research. These parties may have strong interests (financial or intellectual) in the publication of certain results, and the results may affect people’s health or health care.” The suspicion is that by paying a fee, a scientist can get anything published somewhere.

Enter the Predators

Complicating matters even further is the entry into scientific publication of predatory journals that exploit the open access model. Although there is no agreed upon definition of predatory journals, they all have in common a deceptive or non-existent peer review system in which for a fee an author can get almost anything published. Predatory journals bombard scientists with emails begging for articles, often promising publication in mere days. One investigation found that the editorial boards of predatory journals can include people who don’t actually exist.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently won a $50 million verdict against scientific article publisher OMICS International, charging the company with not actually conducting promised peer review on almost half of published articles. According to Adam Marcus, writing in STAT News, of 50,000 claimed expert editors, OMICS could provide a list of only 14,598 unique names and evidence that only 380 had actually agreed to be editors for the publisher. But, writes Marcus “Predatory publishers such as OMICS are symptoms of those problems, not the problem themselves. There would be no prey—knowing or otherwise—if there weren’t a market.  And what is that market?

Publish or Perish

Getting articles published in scientific journals is essential for career advancement in academic medicine and other health-related fields. Scientists at medical schools and teaching hospitals strive to get as many papers published as possible. Traditionally, publishing a paper in the most highly-regarded journals, like the New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet, Nature Medicine, and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), counts the most when up for promotion or a new job.  But these journals are highly selective and only a tiny percentage of submitted manuscripts make it through their rigorous peer-review processes and get published. Even papers about studies that use excellent methodologies and yield important findings may not get accepted by the top-tier journals.

Because it is currently felt to be better to get a paper published somewhere and add it to one’s curriculum vitae (CV) than to hold out for one of the more prestigious journals, scientists can fallback on less and less selective journals until they get one willing to publish their papers. With around 30,000 peer-reviewed journals in the world, it is unsurprising that even papers of lower quality can get published. But sometimes, a paper is just not good enough to make it into any peer-reviewed journal.

At this point, often desperate to get another publication for a CV that sooner or later will be presented to a promotion or hiring committee for consideration, a scientist might be deceived into submitting an article to a predatory journal or do so knowingly. Either way, a paper that high quality journals would reject gets published online, where it is free and easily available to anyone who wants to take a look.

Medical schools are increasingly aware that some faculty pad their CVs by publishing papers in open access journals with less rigorous peer review and some are making it clear that such publications will not be counted as highly as those in more rigorously peer reviewed journals, which tend to be subscription journals. But the danger to the public of the publication of low quality studies in open access formats is clear: lay persons doing internet searches to get information may not be able to distinguish good from bad science and can give too much weight to findings that would never pass a proper peer review process. And healthcare providers can no longer keep up with the mass of information getting published in subscription journals, let alone the flood of papers coming out on-line. When patients come to their doctors with information gleaned from their own searches, it is increasingly difficult for doctors to know whether what they have found comes from a reliable source.

If bad science is allowed to masquerade as legitimate in some open access journals, the public’s health is clearly in jeopardy. Furthermore, as people become increasingly aware that there are predators out there, gobbling up what no one else will take and representing it as real science, our trust in science in general will be eroded. It is a positive sign that the FTC successfully took action against one organization, but we need a vigorous and multi-component approach to ensuring that what gets published in medical journals is as accurate and important as possible. Medical schools and teaching hospitals must make it clear that they will not consider publications in suspect journals when evaluating people for jobs, promotions, and tenure. Authorities must continue to investigate journals that make too-good-to-be-true claims about ultra-rapid publication and huge editorial boards comprised of the world’s most eminent scientists. Search engines should develop mechanisms for de-emphasizing publications from predatory journals. Journalists need to be especially careful from which journals they choose to report articles. Perhaps most important, organizations like Critica need to develop better and better ways of helping the public discriminate good from junk science.


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