The predators in science publishing

12 December 2017

Interview with

Dr Manoj Lalu - University of Ottawa

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For the last 400 years or so, the convention has been that scientific research is published in official journals. These follow a strict code of conduct, they're recognised internationally, and they present trustworthy information that other scientists and the general public can rely on. But, in recent years, a new breed of publication has appeared that lacks these guiding principles and morals and exists only to make money. The problem is that the costs are not just financial: these publications are vehicles for "fake science", they're named confusingly like well-regarded official journals, and they're proliferating rapidly. Chris Smith spoke to Manoj Lalu, from the University of Ottawa, who has been studying the phenomenon that is these so-called "predatory journals"...

Manoj - A predatory journal is basically a journal that doesn’t follow the usual processes of a regular journal. A regular journal when you send in a scientific piece, they will review it and then if they deem that it’s something that’s worthwhile they’ll send it out for peer review to several scientists usually who are experts in the field. Those experts will give feedback, the paper is improved, the study is improved and then, if the paper is accepted to the journal, it’s published.

In a predatory journal, basically what happens is a paper gets sent in and, more often than not, there is absolutely not review process, they just publish it immediately for a fee.

Chris - And that’s the motivation, is it, to make money?

Manoj - Absolutely. These are big money making ventures. There’s so many of these journal right now that we know it’s obviously a profitable venture as well.

Chris - When you say: there’s so many of them, how many are we looking at?

Manoj - The current estimate right now is that there’s about 400,000 articles in predatory journals.

Chris - Where are they all based these journal? Are there certain countries that are pushing this or are they all over the place?

Manoj - It’s interesting many of these journals will say that they’re mailing addresses are in the US, the UK, or in Canada in some cases. However, many of them are actually based out of India or other developing nations, or newly industrialised nations. That being said, what’s very interesting is that many of the articles being published from them are actually coming from upper middle income or higher income countries.

Chris - Is that because people in upper and higher income countries want to just publish something, or are they being deceived by this machine and they think they’re receiving proper scientific treatment but they’re not?

Manoj - I can’t directly answer that. I can only speculate what the motivations are for people who are submitting, I think there are some people being deceived, so that really goes under why these journals are predatory. They’re looking for prey and their prey are unfortunate scientists who are unaware of where they’re actually sending their particular work.

I think there’s another group of folks who maybe are trying to pad their CVs. The way people are advanced through academic circles is through the quantity of papers that you publish. If you have many papers published, that looks very good on a CV as you're applying for promotion.

Chris - Those people aside, why are the people that think they are sending their science to somewhere legitimate, why are they being and how are they being deceived?

Manoj - Many of these predatory journals actually have names that are very similar to legitimate journals. For instance, the flagship journal of the American Heart association is Circulation. There is a number of predatory journals with very similar titles, so if researchers aren’t very familiar with the field they might actually be thinking they are submitting to Circulation when they are not.

Chris - But, apart from taking a few dollars here and there off of people who are duped, why is this a problem; in what way could this do harm?

Manoj - There’s some work that is definitely been legitimately done, we think, that’s been published in these journals. But I also think there’s another category of people who are publishing really what’s “fake science.” I can tell you a personal example of that: my mother-in-law who’s unfortunately passed away - she passed away from breast cancer. When she was ultimately at the terminal stage of her disease she was really desperately looking for other alternative treatments, she went to an alternative medicine practitioner. They said you should take this infusion of this particular vitamin and they provided a paper and the paper, when she gave this to me, was actually from a predatory journal. So this alternative medicine practitioner had basically written up a review and published it in this predatory journal, and was now using this to basically dupe patients saying there’s evidence that it works when clearly this was something that really had no evidence to begin with. So it demonstrates the harm that these journals can actually do to patients and public directly.

Chris - Given that there does, therefore, seem to be a serious threat, and given the numbers of papers that you’re talking about - very large numbers, clearly something surely should happen?

Manoj - Oh, absolutely. I think there’s a few different fronts that we can look at this. Number one as taxpayers we can apply pressure to agencies that are funding some of this work to make sure that have policies in place to prevent researchers from publishing in these outlets. And as well, when you’re giving a donation to your health charity, you can also say: hey, what are your policies as you start to distribute this to researchers in terms of where the work is going to be published.

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