The Changing Publication Practices in Academia: Inherent Uses and Issues in Open Access and Online Publishing and the Rise of Fraudulent Publications

Open access and online publishing present significant changes to the Australian higher education sector in a climate demanding increasing research outputs from academic staff. Today’s researchers struggle to discern credible journals from a new wave of ‘low credibility,’ counterfeit, and predatory journals. A New York Times article on the issue resulted in hundreds of anonymous posts, having a whistleblower effect. An analysis of reader posts, examined in this paper, demonstrated that fear and cynicism were dominant, and that unscrupulous publishing practices were often rewarded. A lack of quality control measures to assist researchers to choose reputable journals and avoid fraudulent ones is becoming evident as universities’ funding and workforce development become increasingly dependent on research outputs. Online publishing is also redefining traditional notions of academic prestige. Adapting to the twenty-first century online publishing landscape requires the higher education sector to meet these challenges with a combination of academic rigour and innovative tools that support researchers, so as to maintain quality and integrity within changing academic publishing practice.
Open access and online publishing have dramatically changed the way that research is disseminated and distributed throughout the higher education sector. Open access provides unrestricted access via the web to publication outputs. Within a decade, online publishing has moved the realm of publication from solely print copies to producing materials which remain almost exclusively in electronic forms, which are either downloadable or printable by an end-user (Steele 2008). Open access and online printing are innately good and have placed access to research within the realm of other researchers and readers, in a fast and accessible manner and with significantly lower costs than were previously encountered in subscriptions to print-copy journals (Inman 2013).Open access and online publishing are also inevitable outcomes of a digital age in which digital scholarship and digital research have become the norm (Salem and Boumil 2013). The use of materials within databases is now an accepted practice and considered the norm within undergraduate, post-graduate, and more broadly, higher education research and study (Goodall and Pattern 2011). This new digital context presents significant challenges to the Australian higher education sector’s maxim of “publish or perish” for two reasons. First, Australia is currently experiencing an increasing demand for research outputs by academic staff (Jackson 2013). This is driven by universities’ search for continued funding. Many universities clearly quantify research output and directly state this as a specific target point when developing their workforce strategies (Nagy 2011). This emphasis on greater research outputs does create, between primarily teaching and primarily research staff, significant issues. An imbalance in the nexus between teaching and research may inadvertently lead to a decline in teaching standards, with students gaining less exposure to research-active academics.Secondly, the mechanisms that Australian universities currently use to assist in evaluating their research lack an effective tool to control quality in this new open access and digital scholarship environment (Geuna and Martin 2003). This environment now includes “low credibility,” counterfeit, and predatory journals. Journals have emerged to attract both new and experienced researchers under pressure to “publish or perish” by workforce strategies structured to guarantee university funding based on the quantity—rather than quality—of their research output (Munro and Savel 2013).In expanding on these two challenges, this paper contributes to the mapping of this new environment. It does so by examining online comments by academics about open access, and by analyzing a small sample of journals to help identify the range and impact of “low credibility,” counterfeit, and predatory journals on Australian researchers. Online publishing is redefining traditional notions of academic prestige. This exploratory paper suggests that current university models require new quality control mechanisms that will factor in the rapid growth of “low credibility,” counterfeit, and predatory journals. Academics will be required to meet research output targets to sustain their career trajectory (O’Brien and Hapgood 2012). Unfortunately, a conundrum exists for researchers, in particular those beginning to get their research published; it can be hard to find a publication vehicle, and it can take a significant lead-time from submitting an article through to publication. Many journals carry a significant backlog of articles queued for review and potential publication (Steele 2008).The combination of open access online publishing with the demand for increased publication rates from academics has created the opportunity for predatory and counterfeit publishing to exist within the sector (Willinsky 2010). The economics of how academic journals charge fees for publishing research has changed as they must now make up for a shortfall in subscriptions as more papers become available through open access. This, in turn, has created both a financial incentive and a ready-made market of desperate researchers under pressure to “publish or perish.” Private individuals and groups have created bogus journals which appear to replicate credible peer-reviewed journals and made these available through open access (Beall 2010). Such journals did exist in the days of exclusively print-publishing; however, the nature of the online environment and the speed with which things happen there has led to a proliferation of low-quality outlets. The “low credibility,” counterfeit, and predatory journals are also an excellent potential source of publication for unscrupulous authors. It is possible that under pressure to publish, an academic or higher education student may opt to publish in a journal knowing that it is predatory or counterfeit, because it is unlikely to be detected. It is noted that evidence for such a hypothesis would be virtually impossible to find, save for anonymous online posts or a whistleblower. A New York Times (NYT) article, “Scientific articles accepted” was published online on April 7, 2013, and discussed changes within academic publishing. The article was innately interesting, but reader comments that followed the article, in quick succession after online publication, were very revealing. The posted reader comments have been analyzed. Notably, anonymity provided an opportunity for the disclosure of professional views with regard to counterfeit and predatory journals (Posey et al. 2010). The readers’ feedback has been categorized into ten classifications but overwhelmingly demonstrated both fear and cynicism. In an era of digital scholarship, readers’ comments on online materials provide a valuable source of information for the higher education sector (Mishne and Glance 2006). This NYT article provided the opportunity to explore the implications of counterfeit, predatory, and “low credibility” journal publications within academia and the reasons for their rise. Reader comments were most frequently classified as “cynicism.” The frequency of category usage for posts is set out in Figure 1. Before expanding on these findings, the nature and context of the new open access and digital scholarship environment should be discussed. The current nexus between teaching and research in Australian universities also requires a re-evaluation; the interplay between open access, digital publishing, and increasing pressures to publish is creating conditions that require stronger quality control.