Published scientific papers commonly appear credible, evidence-based, and truthful to the... [+] non-scientific community. However, with the loose evaluation requirements for “peer reviewed journals” and the ever-evolving use of the Internet to publish them, the credibility and support behind these journals may not always be as reliable as one might expect. (Image Credit: GMO Answers)
Cami Ryan, Ph.D., is the Social Sciences Lead with Regulatory Policy and Scientific Affairs with Monsanto Company.John Vicini, Ph.D., is the Senior Research Fellow and the Lead of the Food Safety, Health and Nutrition Team with Regulatory and Scientific Affairs with Monsanto Company.
Did you hear that eating cowpeas could play a vital role in managing diabetes? It was in a “peer-reviewed journal” so it must be true.
That phrase “peer reviewed journal” has traditionally carried quite a bit of weight in scientific circles. Those in science assume it means that the cowpea manuscript, submitted to the journal was evaluated by an editor and probably at least two independent experts that work in that field of science. By the time that article published it was presumed to be a well-run study and that the conclusions were appropriate for the data. To non-scientists that are unfamiliar with the peer review process, there is an assumption that information is reliable and credible. For the media, sensational conclusions result in sensational headlines. But, please don’t stop taking your prescribed insulin and rely on those cowpeas just yet. The world of “peer review” has changed and some of those changes aren’t great.
While scientific journals did not use formalized peer review processes until the mid 1900s, the label has become an important stamp of approval in the world of academic research. Editors and confidential reviewers, sometimes endorsed by a scientific society, were empowered to provide the authors with technical feedback. Editorial board members were listed in the journal as a way of indicating that theirs was a level of expertise in the subject matter that fit the scope of the journal. For example, why would a journal with subject matter expertise in soil science put a stamp of approval on an animal health study?
With the older model, the cost of publishing an accepted paper was covered by either the subscription fees or by authors through page charges, or a combination of the two. Space was at a premium since it was restricted by the size of the journal volume. Because journals printed a finite number of papers a year, they rejected less-impactful papers in favor of better or more relevant work. In a reputable, traditional academic science journal, where page numbers are limited and the demand for publishing is great, the rejection rate of peer reviewed articles will also be high, sometimes more than 90%. These were the halcyon days of the ‘hard copy’. Journals supplemented their income by selling the authors’ reprints, which the authors snail-mailed to their “followers” that had requested them. It was similar to today’s electronic “like”, just an incredibly slower version of it.
The age of the Internet brought with it the promise of “open access” and, with it, an anticipated ease and expediency in sharing and accessing new knowledge. It also brought with it the capacity to share science quickly and with less restriction. Unlike the traditional ‘hard copy’ publishing model, today’s virtual journal has no page limitations. One example of a new model, open access publishing, is PLOS One. PLOS One published almost 30,000 papers in 2015. By comparison, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (first published in 1915 and following a more traditional model) published only about 2500 articles in 2015. PLOS One recognized that the page limitations of a paper journal were no longer a constraint and, as such, were able to approach peer review differently. A technical review is conducted, but instead of an editor determining what was new or impactful, they instead “publish all papers that are judged to be technically sound” and leave it to readers to decide what is important.
As with other segments of society the Internet also brought with it less desirable things. While it opened up the world of knowledge, it also created opportunities for new and less trustworthy publishing models to enter the ‘knowledge’ market. Now anyone could create a virtual journal. Since the format is electronic, there is no restriction on the number of pages that can be printed. And because there is no need for endorsement by a reputable scientific society, these journals now hold less strict criteria for editors and expert reviewers.
These new ‘knowledge vendors’ have resulted in an explosion in the number of journals (Van Noorden, 2014) without increases in the number of qualified peer reviewers. They operate with “…a strong economic incentive to include as much as possible, regardless of quality, because they market their products based on the number of titles indexed and percentage of full-text available” (Smith, 2013). This model is driven first and foremost by “the procurement of evaluation and publication fees” (Bartholomew, 2014) and, consequently, can be incentivized to deceive (Butler, 2013).
In fact, some would argue that predatory journals are primarily fee-collecting operations that only incidentally publish articles (Berger and Cirasella, 2015). If pages are not an issue, and you can get $3,000 for an accepted paper, does this create an incentive to accept everything? Why conduct a peer review at all?
Without detailed knowledge of each journal it can be difficult to draw a clear line when it comes to evaluating peer-reviewed publications these days. What differentiates open access models like PLOS One from so-called “predatory journals” is the quality of peer review? Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at Auraria Library at the University of Colorado, is attempting to put some science into this evaluation (Beall, 2012). He publishes lists of individual predatory standalone journals and larger multi-journal predatory publishers(Beall, 2016). According to Beall, these journals don’t appear to follow a rigorous peer review system. Instead they use a low-cost approach to solicit papers with the promise of fast reviews. It might surprise you to know that the business model for these journals is to spam scientists with emails luring them to publish in “special issues” or “newly created journals” that assure quick turn around. In 2016, there were almost 900 “potential, possible, or probable predatory” (Beall, 2016) standalone journals identified, an increase of 375 over 2015. These journals use prestigious-sounding titles that include seductive words like “world”, “global” and “international”, and aggressively target (and deceive) scholars into submitting articles. Beall now includes multiple reporting parameters in his annual assessments: predatory publishers, predatory standalone journals, misleading metrics, and hijacked journals.
At Monsanto, we try and avoid predatory journals and welcome a rigorous review. But with thousands of Ph.D. scientists and a plethora of predatory journals spamming scientists, some have slipped by in the past. So, how can someone recognize a predatory journal? A checklist to evaluate journals is at Butler et al. (2013), but here are three simple things we try to look for:
- Check the submission to publication dates. Could a 50-page paper get an adequate peer review in 10 days? Many editors will tell you it often takes two weeks to get the necessary number of reviewers in place and two weeks or more to get their comments back; Papers are rarely accepted outright and often go through a revision or two to respond to reviewer questions and comments. All of this takes time and can result in several months from submission to publication.
- Does the journal have editorial boards and reviewers, and are the reviewers qualified and recognized for the particular area of research?
- Finally, and probably the easiest way, is to check the title of the journal against Beall’s List(Beall, 2016) – Is it there?
There is no doubt that the world of academia has changed. Investment in public research has diminished, resulting in more pressure on scholars to “publish or perish.” And while the idea of “open access” is attractive, how it is understood, practiced and shared in the online world is variable. It is now a world of “…easy money, very little work, and low barriers to start-up…” (Beall, as quoted in (Kolata, 2013)). Bohannon (2013) refers to this trend as the “emerging Wild West” of peer review.
The predatory journal has become a vehicle for quickly publishing experiments with minimal to no review. At a time when we should be aiming higher in terms of our expectations of science, these new “predatory” models lower the bar. This casts doubt on the accuracy of science. Predatory journals allow for the entry of lesser quality science on an already damaged knowledge market.
So, don’t rely just yet on cowpeas to manage your diabetes. The world of peer review has changed substantially and you might want to rethink that expert study and review.
Bartholomew, R. E. 2014. Science for sale: the rise of predatory journals. J Royal Soc Med 107: 384-385.
Beall, J. 2012. Predatory publishers are corrupting open access. Nature 489: 179.
Beall, J. 2016. https://scholarlyoa.com/publishers/ Accessed 5/24/2016.
Berger, M., and J. Cirasella. 2015. Beyond Beall’s List: Better understanding predatory publishers. College & Research Libraries News 76: 132-135.
Bohannon, J. 2013. Who's afraid of peer review? Science 342: 60-65.
Butler, D. 2013. The dark side of publishing. Nature 495: 433.
Kolata, G. 2013. Scientific articles accepted (personal checks, too) New York Times.
Smith, K. 2013. The big picture about peer review http://blogs.library.duke.edu/scholcomm/2013/10/10/the-big-picture-about-peer-review/.
Van Noorden, R. 2014. Open-access website gets tough. Nature News 512: 17.
Why should we avoid predatory journals? ›
Predatory journals/publishers, also described as "questionable", can be defined as journals that lack discernible scholarship, academic rigor or credibility, and use aggressive practices to recruit authors and editors.Is it bad to publish in predatory journals? ›
As a scholar, your legacy will be your publications and you want your papers to be published in high quality journals. If you publish in predatory journals you are unlikely to get recognition by your peers and you may even damage your reputation.What are the main reasons behind sudden surge in the number of predatory journals? ›
Reasons People Publish in Predatory Journals
Couldn't get published in a legitimate journal - often because the data is incomplete or false (e.g., fake science, science focused on a specific point of view) or because the article didn't meet the requirements of other journals (e.g., a new science)
- Use of attractive names that mimic high ranking legitimate. ...
- They have a very broad scope and invite submissions from. ...
- They use fake metrics like Global Impact Factor (GIF), ...
- Predatory journals often falsely claim to be indexed in the. ...
- There may be a huge number of poor quality articles on a.
If your paper is published online by a predatory journal, you may write to the office of the predatory journal and ask them to withdraw the paper from their website. Although you are not guaranteed to get a response from a predatory journal, their paper might be taken down from the website.What are the societal implications of predatory journals? ›
Predatory journals (PJ) exploit the open-access model promising high acceptance rate and fast track publishing without proper peer review. At minimum, PJ are eroding the credibility of the scientific literature in the health sciences as they actually boost the propagation of errors.Why must a researcher avoid publishing his her research with predatory journals? ›
But as well as damaging the reputations of both researchers and institutions, having work published in these journals, potentially without peer review, calls into question the legitimacy of the work.Is Plos One predatory? ›
In some Chinese tertiary teaching hospitals, PLOS ONE is considered as a predatory journal.Is Mdpi predatory 2022? ›
|Publication types||Open access scientific journals|
|No. of employees||5700 (in 2022)|
Predatory journals—also called fraudulent, deceptive, or pseudo-journals—are publications that claim to be legitimate scholarly journals, but misrepresent their publishing practices.
Are predatory journals illegal? ›
🦋 Are predatory journals illegal? Although predatory publishing is exploitative and unethical, if the publisher is engaging in illegal behavior needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis.Why do authors publish in predatory journals? ›
Kurt reported that the reason these individuals published in predatory journals were captured in four themes: social identify threat, unawareness, high pressure and lack of research proficiency.How do you know if a journal is predatory? ›
- Always check the website thoroughly. ...
- Check if the journal is a member of DOAJ, COPE, OASPA or STM. ...
- Check the journal's contact information. ...
- Research the editorial board. ...
- Take a look at their peer review process and publication timelines. ...
- Read through past issues of the journal.