The OA Interviews: Jeffrey Beall, University of Colorado Denver

In 2004 the scholarly publisher Elsevier made a written submission to the UK House of Commons Science & Technology Committee. Elsevier asserted that the traditional model used to publish research papers — where readers, and institutions like libraries, pay the costs of producing scholarly journals through subscriptions — “ensures high quality, independent peer review and prevents commercial interests from influencing decisions to publish.”
Jeffrey Beall
Elsevier added that moving to the Open Access (OA) publishing model — where authors, or their sponsoring institutions, paid to publish research papers by means of an article-processing charge (APC) — would remove “this critical control measure” from scholarly publishing.
The problem with adopting the gold OA model, explained Elsevier, is that publishers’ revenues would then be driven entirely by the number of articles published. As such, OA publishers would be “under continual pressure to increase output, potentially at the expense of quality.”
This is no longer a viewpoint that Elsevier promulgates. Speaking to me earlier this year, for instance, Elsevier’s Director of Universal Access Alicia Wise said, “Today open access journals do generally contain high-quality peer reviewed content, but in 2004 this was unfortunately not always the case.”
She added, “Good work in this area by the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA) has helped to establish quality standards for open access publications. For several years now Elsevier has taken a positive test-and-learn approach to open access and believes that open access publishing can be both of a high quality and sustainable.”
Prescient
While many OA publishers today are undeniably as committed to the production of high-quality papers as subscription publishers ever were, Elsevier’s 2004 warning was nevertheless prescient.
No one knows this better than Jeffrey Beall, a metadata librarian at the University of Colorado Denver. Beall maintains a list of what he calls “predatory publishers”. That is, publishers who, as Beall puts it, “unprofessionally exploit the gold openaccess model for their own profit.” Amongst other things, this can mean that papers are subjected to little or no peer review before they are published.
Currently, Beall’s blog list of “predatory publishers” lists over 100 separate companies, and 38 independent journals. And the list is growing by 3 to 4 new publishers each week.
Beall’s opening salvo against predatory publishers came in 2009, when he published a review of the OA publisher Bentham Open for The Charleston Advisor. Since then, he has written further articles on the topic (e.g. here), and has been featured twice in The Chronicle of Higher Education (here and here).
His work on predatory publishers has caused Beall to become seriously concerned about the risks attached to gold OA. And he is surprised at how little attention these risks get from the research community. As he puts it, “I am dismayed that most discussions of gold openaccess fail to include the quality problems I have documented. Too many OA commenters look only at the theory and ignore the practice. We must ‘maintain the integrity of the academic record’, and I am doubtful that gold openaccess is the best long-term way to accomplish that.”
When presented with evidence of predatory publishing, OA advocates often respond by saying that most OA journals do not actually charge a processing fee. 

But as commercial subscription publishers increasingly enter the OA market it would be naïve to think that the number of journals that charge APCs will not grow exponentially in the coming years.

Whether this will lead to an overall increase in quality remains to be seen. It must be hoped that as more and more traditional journals embrace OA, so quality levels will rise, and predatory publishers will begin to be squeezed out. 

However, if Beall’s growing list is anything to go by, the omens are not currently very good. Moreover, if it turns out that there is indeed an inherent flaw in the gold OA model — as Elsevier once claimed — then the research community would appear to have a long-term problem.

 

The interview begins …

RP: You are a metadata librarian: what does your job involve?
JB: As a faculty librarian, my work is divided up into three components: librarianship, research, and service. My librarianship work involves creating and maintaining library metadata in my library’s discovery systems, including the online catalogue, the discovery layer, and the institutional repository, and related duties.
My research component is thirty per cent of my job, and I am devoting it to my research in scholarly communication. The service component chiefly involves committee work.
RP: How and when did you become interested in predatory open access publishing?
JB: I became interested in predatory publishers in 2008 when I began to receive spam email solicitations from new, online, third-world publishers.
RP: What is the purpose of the list of predatory OA publishers you keep, and how many publishers does it currently include?
JB: The lists are part of my blog. I write the blog to help myself develop my ideas and to share what I am learning about scholarly openaccess publishing. The lists are a means of sharing information about publishers I have judged as questionable or predatory.
There are actually two lists, one of independent journals that do not publish under the aegis of a publisher, and one of publishers. There are 38 independent journals and 111 publishers currently on the list.
RP: When you say independent journals do you mean journals published by researchers themselves?
JB: No, I mean journals that exist independently on the Internet that are not part of a publisher’s fleet of journals. An example is the Global Journal of Medicine and Public Health.

Criteria

RP: Do you have any sense of how fast the phenomenon of predatory publishing is growing?
JB: Yes, the attention my blog has received has inspired academics and others to forward me spam emails they have received and to pass on information they have about new, questionable publishers. In the last couple months, I have been adding 3-4 per week. A new predatory publisher appears almost weekly in India, the location of most of my recent listings.
RP: Is predatory publishing in your view a phenomenon that originates primarily in the developing world?
JB: Yes, and in this I include publishers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. that are run by people from developing countries. They typically set up shop in developed countries and then market their services (vanity scholarly publishing) to the unwary worldwide, especially to those in their home countries.
RP: How do you define a predatory publisher?
JB: Predatory publishers are those that unprofessionally exploit the gold openaccess model for their own profit.
RP: Presumably this implies publishers that charge a fee to publish scholarly papers (Not all gold OA journals do charge a fee)?
JB: By definition, gold openaccess publishers levy an article processing charge (APC).
RP: How do you select publishers to include in your list? What criteria do you use?
JB: As I mentioned, most of the additions to the list result from tips from scientists and other scholars. I have composed and use a criteria document, currently in draft form, that I am preparing for publication on my blog.
Most importantly, I use established criteria, specifically those published by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), and the International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical Publishers (STM). There is one statement in COPE’s code of conduct that nicely encapsulates all the criteria into one: “Maintain the integrity of the academic record”.

OASPA

RP: Can you say what specific things you look for when assessing a potentially predatory publisher: for instance, do you look for evidence of spamming, poor or no peer review, the absence of information on ownership and/or location of the publisher, lack of an editor-in-chief, or editorial board, or what? What are the tell-tale signs of a predatory publisher?
JB: Yes, broadly I look for deception and lack of transparency. These two characteristics can manifest themselves in many ways, including those you list.  One thing (among many) that I look for is publishers that refer to themselves as a “center”,  “institute”, “network”, etc. For example, the Institute of Advanced Scientific Researchis not really an institute; it’s a predatory publisher. This is deception. If you look at their contact address on Google Maps, it’s an apartment.
RP: Is there such a thing as a subscription-based predatory publisher?
JB: No, not according to my definition of predatory publisher.
RP: You mentioned OASPA. OASPA has been accused of doing too little to stem the tide of questionable OA publishers. Would you agree? Could it be doing more? If so, what? On the other hand, might OASPA be the wrong organisation to attempt to control these activities? What is and should be OASPA’s role (if any) vis-à-vis predatory publishing?
JB: Only one or two of the publishers on my list are OASPA members. Therefore, there’s little the organization can do to control the predatory publishers. In fact, most of the publishers on my list lack affiliation with any professional association, and they fail to follow many established publishing standards. It’s not really my role to tell OASPA what it should be doing.
RP: One of OASPA’s founding members, Hindawi, was at one time on your watchlist, but subsequently you removed it. However, your current list of predatory publishers still includes the International Scholarly Research Network (ISRN). ISRN is one of Hindawi’s brands. What do we learn from this?
JB: If you’re a publisher, don’t call yourself a network when you’re not a network.
RP: When and why do you remove a publisher from your list?
JB: I have removed publishers from my list for two reasons. First, if the publisher’s website disappears, I remove it from the list. This has happened only once or twice, and I removed them from the list without saving the names. Second, I remove a publisher from the list when I receive convincing comments from colleagues disagreeing with my having added it to the list.

Legal threats

RP: Have you ever removed a publisher from your list as a result of receiving a legal threat? Have you ever received any legal threats in connection with your list?
JB: My answer to the first question is no. Regarding the second question, yes, I have received two legal threats.
RP: I am struck that at least one of the publishers that you have removed from your list — Dove Press — was formerly a member of OASPA. Dove has been the subject of some controversy, and is no longer a member of OASPA. Why did you remove Dove from your list of questionable publishers?
JB: I removed it based on comments that JQJohnson left on my old blog. He is Director, Scholarly Communications and Instructional Support, at the University of Oregon and someone whose opinion I respect. I took his comments as a form of “peer review” and decided to accept his suggestion to remove Dove Press from the list.
RP: People have said to me that you tend to “shoot from the hip” when listing publishers as predatory, sometimes making your decision on too little information. Would you agree? Have you ever regretted putting a publisher on your list?
JB: In most cases, the decision to place a given publisher on my list is an easy one because the publisher is so clearly corrupt and predatory. Thus, a decisive and resolute action is appropriate, and no, I don’t agree, for I believe I make the decisions with sufficient information.
I now regret having the watchlist on my earlier blog. The feedback I received indicated that the watchlist painted a negative picture of the publishers on that list given the context in which the list appeared (juxtaposed with a list of predatory publishers). I acted on the feedback and now no longer have a public watchlist, though I do maintain one privately.

Conflict of interest?

RP: Others have suggested that you might have a conflict of interest, pointing out, for instance, that you are on the editorial board of a subscription journal. Should such claims be taken seriously? Why? Why not?
JB: Two people have said that. One is Scott Albers, an attorney from Great Falls, Montana and author of  the article, “The Golden Mean, The Arab Spring And a 10-Step Analysis of American Economic History“, a paper published in the Middle East Studies Online Journal. He asked me for advice as he was submitting the same article to a second publisher. I told him the publisher was essentially a vanity press, and he became offended and then contrived the conflict of interest story. The second is Ken Masters, the editor of Internet Scientific Publications’ The Internet Journal of Medical Education. Masters is an assistant professor at Oman’s Sultan Qaboos University, and he took it personally when I put Internet Scientific Publications, a publisher run out of a spare bedroom in Sugar Land, Texas, on my list.
The truth is there is no conflict of interest. I have no financial stake in Taylor & Francis, the publisher of the journal on whose editorial board I serve. In point of fact, my service on the editorial board has enabled me to learn a lot about the scholarly publishing process and scholarly publishing in general. Masters has been trying to bait people on email lists, including LIBLICENSE, with the conflict of interest story, but he has been ignored.
RP: The implication in the above claim, I assume, is that you are anti-OA. How would you describe your position vis-à-vis OA: advocate, sceptic, opponent?
JB: I am not “anti” anything. I am in favourof the best model for scholarly communication, whatever it turns out to be. If that is gold OA, then so be it.
I review science books for Library Journal. Occasionally, I’ll give a book a negative review. That doesn’t mean I’m anti-science. My list is essentially a collective review of gold openaccess publishers. It’s a re-invention of what librarians call “readers advisory”.
RP: Whatever your position vis-à-vis OA, do you think the author-pays publishing model is inherently flawed so far as scholarly publishing is concerned?
JB: It’s too early to tell, so I don’t have a final opinion on this yet. On the one hand, the evidence I see every day argues that the model is indeed flawed. On the other hand, we need to ask, Which is the best model for the future of scholarly communication? It’s too early to eliminate a potentially successful and sustainable model.  

Abused the system

RP: I assume most researchers publish in the journals of predatory publishers without realising that they are dealing with a predatory publisher — and clearly a list like yours can play a useful role in helping them avoid doing so. On the other hand, I have had researchers say to me that they have knowingly paid to appear in a predatory publisher’s journal, explaining that they did so because they were having difficulties being published in a more reputable journal, or simply needed to get a paper published quickly for tenure or promotion purposes. I do not know how common the practice is, but does it not suggest that the research community is conspiring in the growth of predatory publishers, and, therefore, that the phenomenon is likely only to grow?
JB: I don’t think there’s a conspiracy, but I do think that some individuals have unprofessionally abused the system for their own benefit. But that’s why we have tenure and promotion committees. It is the committees’ job to vet the research of their tenure candidates. Tenure and promotion committees must now bring greater scrutiny to candidates’ published works than they did in the past, given the presence and abuse of scholarly vanity presses and the disappearance of the validation function that traditional publishers have so effectively provided.
RP: In the UK recently the Finch Report recommended that all publicly funded research should be made freely available on an OA basis, and by means of gold OA. This, it said, would require UK universities to pay an additional £50-60 million a year in order to disseminate the research they produce. If other countries follow suit, and if the author-pays model does indeed turn out to be inherently flawed, we can presumably expect the research community to find itself in trouble at some point can we not?
JB: Yes, and I am dismayed that most discussions of gold openaccess fail to include the quality problems I have documented. Too many OA commenters look only at the theory and ignore the practice. We must “maintain the integrity of the academic record”, and I am doubtful that gold openaccess is the best long-term way to accomplish that.
RP: What future plans do you have for your work on predatory publishers? Will you be adding new features to your blog, for instance?
JB: One weakness of my list is that it is binary: a publisher is either on the list or it isn’t. I would like to classify the publishers more granularly in terms of their quality, an upgrade that would differentiate among the borderline ones and the really bad ones. I am also in the middle of a research project about library catalogues and inclusion of predatory journals and hope to carry out additional research on openaccess publishing.