The future of predatory publishing (and roofing)

I’m searching for a lost email in my spam file, and I’m struck that almost every spam is from a predatory journal (see picture). Although I’ve been marking such emails as junk for years, I’m still receiving a new one almost every day. How many predatory journals are there, I wonder?

Google tells me a pay-to-view list of predatory journals had 4000 entries in 2017 and in June 2020 had 13000. Wikipedia says that predatory journals published 53 000 articles in 2010 and 420 000 articles in 2014 in around 8000 active journals. I find the website Stop Predatory Journals that lists thousands (see picture). I suspect that the number of these journals is no longer countable. They come and go at remarkable speed.

How much money are the predatory journals making? It was probably a lot in the early days when few people were sensitised to their existence. I remember that about a fifth of the articles from icddr,b were published in predatory journals in about 2015, and when I talked a year or two later about these journals to a group of internationally-known scientists many of them had not heard of them. But surely there are few scientists now who are not aware of them.

The predatory publishers will continue to make money because a few scientists will still not know about them and because some scientists will be tricked even though they do know about them. We discovered at icddr,b that some scientists did know about them but still published in them as it worked both parties: the publishers got their money, and the scientists got citations that they could put on their CVs knowing that most people examining the CVs would not know that the citations were to predatory journals–and the cost was lower than for “respectable journals.”

But how respectable are “respectable journals”? Many of them, it seems to me, are also engaged in predatory publishing. Whereas it used to be expensive to launch a paper journal and took years to achieve profitability, now the software allows the creation of an electronic journal overnight at almost no cost. All you need are a few publications with the authors paying and you are in profit. The financial incentive is to milk your “respectable” brand and churn out journals—and that is exactly what “respectable” publishers are doing.

Where and how will it end—or progress? I don’t know, but some sort of collapse seems likely. An obvious response by the producers of research would be to abandon journals and post their own research on their own websites, something that was predicted at the dawn of the internet. This research could be at full length with the data—and would be searchable. Such self-posting would also save huge costs.

Two things stop this happening: the needs for some sort of external validation and for some way of comparing the performance of academics from different institutions. But these should not be hard to overcome: universities already have their degrees validated by external regulators and examiners; and other ways apart from publications of ranking academics are available and are no worse than how much and where scientists publish. Indeed, there still will be publications.

As for predatory publishers, the laws of economics may do for them. As I learnt at Stanford, if X creates a new business that makes a profit then other companies will enter the market, reducing the profits of X. All the companies will have reduced profits, and eventually the profits may be so low that it makes sense for companies to quit the market. Companies compete on quality (service) and cost, and as predatory journals offer no (or minimal) quality they must compete on cost. As the cost of a new predatory journal must be tiny there is an incentive to produce more and more, trying to capture the market by simply having more journals than other publishers. That’s probably what’s driving the rapid escalation in numbers—not only new entrants but more journals from existing companies. Profits will, however, continue to fall—unless predatory publishers can reinvent the business in some way.

All of this takes me back to a conversation I had yesterday with the man whose company is insulating our roof. Because of global warming there is huge demand for roofers, and governments are subsidising people to insulate their roofs. Demand outstrips supply (as it does perhaps with science publishing), so cowboys have poured into the market. As with science publishing there is minimal regulation, and our reliable roofer tells us that he can’t keep up with demand and that many people are falling prey to dodgy roofers who charge them large sums for bad jobs. It’s easier for somebody attracted by the profits available to do a bad job than to train to do a good job—and sadly most homeowners won’t know the job is bad. The respectable roofer finds that he can’t recruit staff to grow his business because people don’t want to take the trouble to train properly. He says as well that “young people would rather sit a computer than climb into a roof in all weathers.”

This market failure means that the requirement to cut to as close to zero as possible the fifth of carbon emissions that come from homes will not be achieved, threatening the planet. Does the proliferation of predatory publishing by both predatory and “respectable” publishers threaten science? Possibly.


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