Pseudoscience gets too much credit

In 2010, Jeffrey Beall, a librarian and researcher at the American University of Colorado, published his first list of predatory journals and publishers. Seven years later, the list comprised hundreds of titles. In an online interview, Jeffrey Beall, who called out the topic of “predatory publishing”, looks back at the time when he earned the praise of many academics for drawing attention to the problem of predatory journals but also had to face the threat of legal action from various predatory publishers.

Read the interview in Czech translation here.

Some fourteen years ago: While looking for scientific journals in which he could publish his articles, Jeffrey Beall, a librarian and researcher at the American University of Colorado in Denver, came across several strange publications. These journals had similar features – an opaque structure, titles strikingly like those of prestigious scientific journals, some with no editors-in-chief and some without editorial boards. And they promised to publish more or less anything – at the right price.

“This was the same time – around 2008 – when open access journals started,” Beall remembers. “I was on tenure track and as at many other universities my success was evaluated by how many articles I published. I always liked writing and looking for new opportunities to write, so I started paying close attention to emails.” He noticed that something new had appeared, but at first, he didn't know exactly what it was. “I became worried because some of the journals that I observed covered the same topics as already existing journals, but they were very unprofessional, yet they were asking for money. It just seemed strange to me. So I started to print out their web pages and saved them in a folder.”

These notes, beginning with a few items on the suspicious journals, eventually became Beall's famous free list of predatory journals and publishers, which in 2017 comprised hundreds of titles.

Even though Beall now says that the rest is history, it is an interesting history. Publication of the list in 2010 released an avalanche of interest from the academic community around the world. To Beall, this brought more than just credit for his calling out of the topic of predatory magazines and publishers, and his researching and maintaining of the list for free for seven years. He has also had to face a wave of criticism, negative emails and legal threats – often from the predatory publishing houses themselves and the scientists who have published in them. Finally, Jeffrey Beall decided to stop maintaining the list and deactivated his blog in 2017. Since the list was deleted, it has been the inspiration for others.

Today, Jeffrey Beall is retired, and he has not been keeping up with predatory publishing as he used to. But he is not complaining. Quite the contrary. “I’ve spent the last few days travelling and driving around Colorado and taking pictures,” he says with a smile. “It was so beautiful. Especially now with Covid, there is nobody there, the mountains are empty. I can only recommend it to everyone.”

When you introduced the topic of predatory publishing in the early years of the millennium, did you expect such a great response around the world?
Absolutely not. I created an online list in 2010, on an old blog I had. It was very informal, with 18 publishers or so, and nobody noticed it. But by the end of the year 2010, some nursing researchers started to discuss the list. They noticed it because many of the predatory publishers included medical journals. And there was a big problem with researchers in medicine being tricked by predatory publishers: The medical journals had titles very close to the titles of respected journals. After these researchers shared the information, my old blog started to get more attention – the number of page views rose dramatically. It kind of went viral.

Your list expanded over the years, from 18 to more than 900 items. Did you do it on your own?
Yes, but many scholars shared information with me. They forwarded the email invitations they received from predatory publishers and journals. I evaluated these and decided whether to add them to the list. Actually, I had two lists – one of publishers and one of standalone journals. And if a publisher was on the list, it meant that all that publisher’s journals were considered predatory journals.

Was putting an item on the list an easy decision?
Determining predatory publishers was easy. Most people agree on what is a predatory journal after they look at one. There is broad agreement on which journals are predatory journals. Eventually, I created a criteria document, showing that the main things these journals had in common were lack of transparency and the use of deception. For example, if they said their name was American Journal and they were based in Bangladesh, then that was a problem. Or if they said that their headquarters were in New York, but they were based in Pakistan, that was dishonest. Even the language, English in the vast majority of journals, showed certain suspicious problematical features. And if you are a young researcher, or if English is not your first language, it can be very difficult to judge if the journal is good or not.

You mention lack of transparency in connection with predatory publishing. But don't you think that the line between what is and what isn’t predatory is still a blurred one?
The borderline journals are the most difficult ones to evaluate, and they were the biggest problems I had; there is no best decision. If the journal or publisher was borderline, most of the time I didn’t include it on the list. But there weren't as many of those controversial cases as you might think. This accounted for about three percent of potential predatory journals. The rest could be easily divided into two groups – predatory and honest.

Have you ever had to reconsider the presence of a publisher on your list?
For example, MDPI was on my list. I removed it from the list because they sent a letter to my university (University of Colorado Denver, editorial note). Then I had a committee, and they thought I should remove them, so I removed them.

So, the committee decided the criteria were not strong enough to have the publisher on the list… I was just wondering if the publisher Frontiers, which you added to the list (and which in 2013 became a part of the scientific publishing company Springer which publishes one of the most prestigious academic journals, Nature, for instance), was a similar case?
It was very complicated and political. The publisher, Frontiers, complained to my university. It’s a big publisher with lots of money for the hiring of lawyers and lots of resources it can use to attack its enemies. The university investigated me for research misconduct. But the committee found that none had occurred.

Would you put them on the list again? In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the publisher MDPI is currently discussed. For instance, in a press statement released this April, the Slovak Economic Society officially recommends against publishing in some of this publisher's journals. But many Czech and Slovak scholars probably have published articles in this publisher's journals, and scientists and their universities have spent money on publishing in them. What is your view on this matter?
Frontiers was and is difficult to evaluate because it is also borderline, in my opinion. MDPI, now publishes thousands and thousands of articles a year, so it is still easier to get published there. Moreover, a few years ago, the Max Planck Society said MDPI was all right, they approved it, and after that – if I should exaggerate – everybody in Europe started to send articles to MDPI. Occasionally, we heard in the news a story about articles published in MDPI journals, because they were controversial, basically publishing almost everything they received. MDPI sends a lot of spam emails to people inviting them to be guest editors for special issues; they have lots of special issues and guest editors. The problem is that the peer review is not super-strong and lots of articles get published that should not be published in scholarly journals. And the publisher gets rich. Money is always the problem – especially when the money goes directly from the authors to the publishers.

When we talk about money, we include public money from grants spent in favour of predatory publishers. Do you think there should be an authority to maintain a list like the one you created – an Open Access association, for instance? Or some kind of government regulation?
No, that's a bad idea. We value freedom of the press and governments must guarantee freedom of the press. We don’t want our government to decide what should be published or not published.

In India, they have a government organisation called the University Grants Commission, which makes decisions. But it hasn’t been successful because they have always included predatory publishers.

It’s very tricky to control publishers. Some journals in Scopus occasionally “turn bad”, like a person who becomes a criminal. The attraction of money can ruin some journals. They begin to accept as many articles as possible because they can make a big profit, especially because they are indexed in Scopus. Scopus has thousands of journals in its database. Even if only five out of 20,000 are predatory, everybody learns about those five journals very fast, and if you want to have an easy publication, just send it to these five journals. And then it is kind of magic: you have a publication in a Scopus journal. I think an authority responsible for the maintaining of a list is a bad idea. I believe the solution has to come from scientists themselves.

Apart from money, what do you see as the biggest problem with predatory journals? Disinformation?
The biggest problem is the publication of pseudoscience. That is very dangerous, I think. When I give talks, I often speak about a concept I call demarcation. That’s the line which divides true science from pseudoscience. What is supposed to enforce that division is peer review. But that is completely broken down now because of predatory journals. You can publish anything you want in them. I’ll give you an example: I like to read about cosmology, which studies the origin, evolution and the structure of the universe. Two of the biggest questions in cosmology concern the nature of dark energy and dark matter. The questions are not answered – scientists do not have exact answers for what dark matter and energy are – but in predatory journals there are dozens of articles that have discovered the “right” answer to these questions.

The problem is, we have so many scholarly publications that publish junk science. This is very dangerous because they pollute the databases. And young researchers might not understand that some of the stuff published in these journals is completely false. We need to make publishing science pure again. The only solution I knew of was creation of a list. Maybe there is a better way to do it, but I began with the list.

Articles in medical journals were at the beginning of your journey with your list. Let’s talk about them. Last year with the Covid-19 pandemic the public started to take an interest in scientific results and therefore medical research much more than ever before, and at the same time the number of publications rose dramatically. Could a risk to public trust in science be another consequence of predatory publishing?
Yes. Medical predatory publishers are one of the biggest problems. It is connected with the pseudoscience we discussed earlier. A lot of money is invested in medical research, and it also receives large grants from governments because it is extremely important, which is why there are so many predatory medical journals.

A big problem in this area is the OMICS Publishing Group. (In 2013, the OMICS Group warned Jeffrey Beall that they would sue him for one billion dollars in damages. In 2016, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit at the Federal District Court against the OMICS Group – editorial note). It is a predatory publisher in India, and it has a very bad reputation. It creates dozens, maybe hundreds of small predatory publishers of maybe ten or twenty journals, sending out spam emails so that these new publishers don’t have the stigma of a bad reputation. OMICS hides the fact that it is creating dozens of small publishers like the one I described in one of my lectures, SunKrist Publishing (see the screenshot by Jeffrey Beall below this text – editorial note). It does this to avoid the bad reputation that OMICS itself has. OMICS is a wealthy publisher, they have a lot of money, many employees. And a lot of small publishers copy their ideas and business practices.

All the journals on your list operated using the Open Access model. Most of the criticism levelled at you suggests that you are too critical of the Open Access idea in general. Do you think that Open Access should be reconsidered, or that the benefits of OA are overrated?
Well, I think that the Open Access model as it stands is a big problem. Lots of people, including librarians, support Open Access, but people are afraid to talk about the negative aspects of Open Access. But I was not afraid to talk about it. It was like a totalitarian political movement, like Marxism, where you can only say the good things, not the bad things. We have to admit that it is true that Open Access has some big problems – we see these problems in what is being published – junk science, for instance – and the tricking of researchers by journal titles almost the same as those of good journals, spam emailing and so on. Many researchers have been hurt by predatory publishers that are Open Access publishers. It's not a perfect system, and we need to fix these problems.

So you don’t have a problem with Open Access in general?
I have always made a distinction between two types of Open Access: the Gold model and the Platinum model. In Gold Open Access, the author pays the publisher. In Platinum Open Access, you don’t have to pay the publisher directly, there are no charges. The publication is free to readers and authors, and the authors’ institutions. Publishing costs are met by the publisher itself, usually a university, charity or association.

I think Platinum Open Access is good because in this model anybody in the world can freely access the article and you don’t have to pay to publish directly. And I think that we should try to make that the predominant system of the Open Access. At the same time, we need to eliminate Gold Open Access, because its mechanism is what’s causing all the problems. Platinum Open Access solves this problem, but it isn't perfect either. We need a system that does not involve payments from authors, or from universities on their behalf, to publishers. This is the source of the corruption.

But isn't the tendency the opposite? With money allocated to projects for publishing in the Open Access system…
Yes, especially in the UK, which was one of the first big governments to promote Gold Open Access, and then Europe followed. It made the problem bigger when governments supported Open Access. We need to find a way to eliminate payments from authors, so that journals accept only high-quality articles. But I don’t know the solution.

How about coming closer to the traditional system, when the library paid a subscription to the scientific magazine?
You know, under the subscription system, if the journal started to publish bad papers, the library would cancel the subscription. That system had a validation feature built into it, which is eliminated from Open Access: there is no subscription to cancel.

Returning to your personal experience, what was the most challenging aspect of publishing a journal blacklist?
The most challenging thing was the negative reaction of some researchers and the publishers themselves.

Researchers? You mean those who had already published in predatory journals?
Yes, some researchers were happy with predatory publishers because they needed to publish as much as possible. And there is another group, those with an interest in fringe science or marginal science. Anti-vaccine people, anti-nuclear-power people, or anti-global-warming people, for instance. The predatory publishers were always happy to publish their “research”, even if it wasn’t scientific. With predatory publishers, these groups could get published and get more attention. Which explains why they became the biggest defenders of predatory publishing.

Also, the publishers themselves hated me because I made their income decrease, because honest researchers stopped sending their papers to them. They often attacked me by email and went to the university website. They copied emails filled with grammatical mistakes to the chancellor and the assistant chancellor, the department heads, and the head librarian, telling them I was a criminal. Eventually, people at the university just laughed, and because it happened so often, they stopped caring.

Were these legal threats, emails, and derogatory comments the reason why you stopped maintaining the list?
Finally, the situation changed. There was pressure from my university. The university started a research misconduct investigation after one publisher complained, as I mentioned earlier. When the committee reached a conclusion of ‘No research misconduct found’, it started to be too much. Those at my own university who had been supportive of me were turning against me, and I had problems at the library where I worked. So that was a difficult situation.

Would you do it again? I mean publish the list. Now you know what it would bring you. And haven’t you considered publishing a whitelist of good journals, such as Cabell's now provides?
I wouldn't do it again, because it is too much work, especially for one person. I started doing a blacklist and I just stuck with that.

What would you recommend to young researchers?
They should read a lot of articles in the best journals, talk to senior colleagues and older professors, and look at where they publish. They should publish in journals of non-profit scholarly societies – in your country, the Czech Academy of Sciences, for instance. They should always try to publish in the top journals.

And to those who already publish in predatory magazines, and who have more responsibility than they think?
Many people who have published in predatory journals are victims of those predatory journals. The publisher has successfully tricked them. I created my lists to help people avoid being victimized by predatory publishers and journals. In most cases, an early mistake will not hurt a long and successful scientific career. But repeated publications from the same researcher in predatory journals indicates a serious problem.