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Predatory Publishing Isn’t The Problem, It’s a Symptom of Information Inequality

29th July 2015
By Phill Jones
What can I do when both parties insist on kicking?, Judge magazine, 1889
What can I do when both parties insist on kicking?, Judge magazine, 1889

One major topic of conversation among publishers and librarians these days is the rise of predatory publishers. In the past, I’ve been concerned that the discussion has been divisive and used as somewhat of a political football between the Open Access (OA) and traditional publishing communities. Just lately though, I’ve been relieved to see the debate begin to evolve into a more rational discussion about how scholarly communication and the issues surrounding maintaining its integrity are evolving. It seems to me that predatory publishing is not a singular problem but part of a larger issue of information inequality in the digital age.

Scholarly Communications Librarian Jeffrey Beall’s list is probably the most widely cited example of an attempt to name and shame predatory publishers. While Beall should be credited with at least bringing the issue to a wider audience, personally, I feel that It’s a little bit of a shame that it’s still so widely referred to and viewed by some as authoritative, having even been featured in the New York Times. Recently, Rick Anderson, Associate Dean for Collections and Scholarly Communication in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah, gave a very well balanced critique in the Scholarly Kitchen, not just of Beall’s list but of predatory publishing as a concept, which is well worth a read.

As Monica Berger and Jill Cirasella point out in their recent, well researched article on LSE’s Impact Blog, there seems to be an underlying bias in Beall’s selection of publishers with an over-selection of publishers based in emerging markets. Jill Emery of Portland State University and librarian Karen Coyle have described this apparent bias. Some people have made some fairly pointed and personal accusations against Beall, which I won’t link to. In my opinion Beall’s error is more technical than moral, in that he confuses common characteristics of certain predatory publishers with proof of predation. To put it bluntly, if spelling and grammar errors are how you detect bad publishers, you’re going to identify more non-native speakers.

Moving on, I recently had the honor of participating in a keynote discussion panel at IEEE Panel of Conference Organizers (POCO) in Glasgow. The conference was a three day event bringing together IEEE conference organizers from around the world to discuss issues like the future of peer review of conference proceedings and membership trends in practitioner-based societies. While I was there I heard a fantastic talk by Donald Samulack of Editage which frankly addressed one aspect of predatory publishing that I think many are a little nervous to approach, but one that is vital to talk about. To sum up the issue, I want to start with the question that came to my mind when I first heard about predatory publishing:

If predatory publishing is such a big problem, how come I don’t know a single person who’s fallen for it?

I’m not the only one. I’ve asked a lot of academics and almost all of them are baffled as to why publishers think that one particular brand of email spam is any more of a problem than any other. As Monica Garcia-Alloza, a mid-career academic from Cadiz, Spain stated in a talk that she gave at the Association of Subscription Agents conference back in February.

“I get these emails every day but I don’t know a single academic who would fall for these obviously fake journals. I only publish in journals that I know about. Honestly, nobody would fall for this, it’s not a problem for me.”

So who does fall for it? Somebody must do. The answer to this apparent incongruity can be found by having a quick look at a predatory journal. Here’s an example, the website of Science Publishing Group. Just pick any journal there and look at the authors. You’ll notice that there aren’t any Western names on the lists. If you look at the affiliations you see places like Gaza, Iraq, Ethiopia, Indonesia, India and predictably, China. All troubled or emerging markets where information is not as freely available as it is in more established ones. When you look at it like this, predatory publishing starts to look less like an underlying problem and more a symptom of global information inequality.

During his talk, Samulack focused on one of these markets in particular; China. According to his personal experience having worked in China, predatory publishers thrive there because of certain cultural differences. Specifically, the lack of mentorship and supervision coupled with a need to save face by hiding failures results in a situation where young researchers simply dare not ask questions and can’t ask for help. To make matters worse, government internet restrictions prevent access to much of the information that those in the West typically rely on. As a case in point, I know that very few people in China, if any, will read this post because Perspectives (along with Beall’s list, Scholarly Kitchen, Open and Shut, etc, etc) is hosted on WordPress, which is one of the sites blocked by the so-called “great firewall of China”.

If we’re going to move forward and have a reasonable discussion about predation, I think we need to do two things.

  1. Librarians in the West, stop linking to Beall’s list as a way of dealing with predatory publishers. It’s divisive and the information on there is actually fairly redundant. Your patrons already know how to pick journals to publish in, or their supervisors do.
  2. Everybody in the industry needs to start thinking about predatory publishing as part of the larger global problem of information inequality and acknowledge who is actually being victimized.

By focusing our discussion on the predators themselves, we’re missing the bigger picture. If we’re going to fix this, we need to look at the conditions that have allowed these companies to thrive in particular markets and then look to try to solve or mitigate those larger issues.

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