Academic libraries have always provided services to researchers, scientists and scholars. In the past, this primarily involved collecting and organising academic publications – but in our digital age these services have had to evolve to keep pace with developments. Libraries have launched their own publishing platforms and begun offering publishing services to researchers, particularly within the context of the open access movement.
Open access is about making high-quality research available to everyone. It involves publishing research findings online after they have passed through an approved review process and allowing readers to access these materials for free. Any publishing fees incurred – whether these are charged by a commercial publisher or a publishing platform run by a public institution – are paid by the researchers or their institutions. As often happens, however, the good intentions and ideas behind this process have also been exploited by a number of “black sheep”. Alongside legitimate open access participants, recent years have also seen the emergence of predatory journals and predatory conferences that contact researchers all over the world, touting their services for a fee that may be hard to spot at first glance. If a researcher takes the bait and submits an article or conference abstract, it will often be published immediately or accepted for presentation without even passing through a peer review process. In other words, the predatory journal or conference is simply interested in the financial gain and has no interest in good scholarly practice.
Predatory publishing and predatory conferences have recently featured heavily in many areas of the German media. The radio and television broadcasters Norddeutscher Rundfunk and Westdeutscher Rundfunk and the broadsheet newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung have all devoted months of research to investigating this controversial topic. Yet the majority of researchers and scientists are not affected by this phenomenon, at least not directly. Figures from the Science Media Center Germany suggest that only about 1.3 percent of scientific staff at German universities are involved. (https://www.sciencemediacenter.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Fact_Sheets_PDF/Predatory-Publishers_SMC_Fact-Sheet.pdf, 2018:2, in German). Although this is a relatively small percentage, the predatory side of the business is showing worrying signs of growth – and anyone who considers the wider consequences can see that it could end up causing enormous damage to academia and society as a whole. Predatory journals typically publish two types of articles. Firstly, articles written by academics who were previously unaware of the existence of predatory journals and simply wanted to publish their results in good faith and, secondly, authors who deliberately make use of these journals to publish articles that would not be accepted by other journals due to a lack of scientific rigour. The problem is that these two types of article appear side-by-side, and it is often difficult or impossible for a layperson to spot the difference in quality. Pseudo-scientific articles can cause very real damage, especially in the field of medicine, where patients may search for information online, come across articles that includes some incorrect information, and fail to check its veracity with a medical professional. Honest researchers who accidentally publish their work in predatory journals are deprived of the reputation they need to advance within the academic system. Once they notice their error, they are essentially left with no choice but to remove the article from their list of publications in order to avoid any suspicion of dishonesty, even though the article itself may be perfectly respectable. The same thing applies to conferences. Attending scientific conferences to exchange views with other experts is an essential part of any researcher’s work, and it is a good platform for networking, especially for younger members of the academic and research communities. Yet predatory conferences typically stack together short presentations one after the other. In many cases, they provide no time for discussion and mix together a bewildering assortment of topics without any identifiable overall theme, destroying any opportunity for a real exchange of views.
At first glance, it can be very difficult to know whether you are dealing with a predatory journal or conference, or a genuine one. Many predatory publishers take great care to design their website to look like a legitimate enterprise. In some cases, the title may be almost the same as a respectable operation, with just one or two letters changed. The website may list reviewers or Editorial Board members – often renowned experts in their field of work – who have nothing whatsoever to do with the publisher or conference. In other words, their names have simply been used without their knowledge. Ultimately, this represents dishonest and criminal activity on the part of the predatory journal or conference organiser, since they are using false promises to make money and, in many cases, disseminating false information.
Although people have known about this problem for a long time, it is only now that it has come to the attention of a wider public as a result of greater media interest. And questions are now rightly being asked as to what can be done to tackle this problem.
One way of helping researchers is to provide express warnings against predatory journals and predatory conferences in the open access policy of each individual institution. For academic libraries, the problem of predatory publishing and predatory conferences is an important new aspect of their work. They have the ability and indeed the duty to enhance their services to the academic world by actively enlightening researchers as to how predatory publishing and predatory conferences work.
ZB MED – Information Centre for Life Sciences strives to live up to this challenge, offering services such as an FAQ page about this topic on its website (https://www.publisso.de/open-access-beraten/faqs/predatory-publishing/). The frequently asked questions also feature links to information published by other institutions, including criteria for distinguishing between predatory and authentic journals and conferences. One of the most important links is to Think.Check.Submit (https://thinkchecksubmit.org/), a site produced jointly by the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP), International Standard Serial Number (ISSN), Ligue des Bibliothèques Européennes de Recherche – Association of European Research Libraries (LIBER), Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), International Association of STM Publishers (STM), UKSG, and a number of individual publishing houses. One of the criteria is to look up the journal in the DOAJ, which keeps an updated list of authentic open access journals. However, some publishers have not yet signed up their journals for this service or are still working their way through the approval process, so this list cannot be viewed as exhaustive and should not be used as the sole basis for excluding a journal from consideration. The key is to draw on multiple criteria for checking the authenticity of a journal, since one criteria alone may lead to the wrong conclusion. Libraries can also offer workshops and presentations (including webinars) that go into more detail about the problem and discuss the various criteria.
Another important task that libraries should be focusing on is keeping their own catalogue up-to-date – particularly by adding open access publications to their existing records. It is obviously important for libraries to apply the same criteria as those mentioned above to ensure they do not legitimise dishonest journals by including them in their catalogue.
It can often be extremely difficult to identify a predatory journal, but academic libraries offer the kind of information literacy and advisory services that make them the first port of call when it comes to identifying predatory publishing and predatory conferences. They play an important role in supporting an authentic and rigorous academic process.
Dr. Ursula Arning
Open-Access – digitale Langzeitarchivierung – Forschungsdaten