Flooding Academics’ In-boxes
Over the past few years, the email accounts of academics and of scientists, in particular, have been inundated with solicitations to submit papers to new online journals and, sometimes, even to serve on those journals’ editorial boards. It is a rare week in which I do not receive at least a half dozen such queries from journals whose titles suggest that they focus on one or another topic ranging from agriculture to zoology and nearly everything in between. The obvious problem, of course, is that I do not work on topics in either agriculture or zoology, nor on the large majority of those subjects in between.
That is the obvious problem. These journals’ cheery solicitations cover over many less obvious problems.
Follow the Money
These journals have titles that closely resemble those of major academic journals. As Gina Kolata notes, one online journal is titled Journal of Finance and Economics, which can be easily confused with Springer’s long-standing, print journal, Journal of Economics and Finance. It can be flattering and enticing the first time such a solicitation arrives from one of (what Kolata calls) these “predatory” journals. That is especially true when the journal appears to address topics within a person’s area of specialization.
In the early days of this practice a few years ago, it may have seemed unusual for a journal to approach a potential editorial board member so impersonally, but a recipient might reason readily enough that in our new electronically connected world many traditional conventions have fallen by the wayside. It would not take much investigation, however, to learn that most of the journals in question were the academic equivalents of vanity presses. Authors pay, sometimes hundreds of dollars, to such journals for the publication of their papers, which receive perfunctory, if any, refereeing, and, of course, are published online at very little expense to the people running the journal. Kolata estimates that the number of such journals, which have arisen over the last few years, now exceeds 10,000.
A variation on this theme is the rise of new academic conferences where presenters, again, pay large fees to be listed on a program that, in fact, accepts virtually any submitted proposal for a talk. Apparently, it matters little whether speakers, in fact, show up to the meetings, just so long as they pay the fees. Again, Kolata reports that a meeting of the World Academy of Science, Engineering, and Technology was held in a single room in a New York hotel with very few people in attendance.
Publish or Perish
At most institutions, not just the top research universities, scientists, but academics in every field, are under tremendous pressure to publish. Job offers, promotions, tenure decisions, and pay raises routinely turn largely on candidates’ publication records. No doubt, many of the early contributors to these predatory journals may well have been taken in by their appearance of academic and scientific legitimacy. By now, though, most customers and, certainly, repeat customers understand the arrangements and are, in effect, in on the scheme.
The problem is that administrators of some institutions have either been slow to learn about such activities or been so anxious for their schools to obtain the appearance of academic prominence that they have overlooked or ignored evidence of such problematic practices in decisions about the hiring, promotion, and tenuring of faculty.
No large-scale human activity does a better job of policing itself than the scientific community does. This is the key to science’s epistemic prominence, which contributes fundamentally to its cultural prestige. Predatory journals with scientific-sounding titles that proceed in the fashion described above serve to undermine the integrity of science by short-circuiting the methods and processes that characterize responsible scientific publications. Finally, that is their greatest cost.
Kolata, Gina. (October 31, 2017). "In Academia, a Predatory Twist in Publishing," New York Times.