Because I have a university e-mail address I frequently get spam from journals I never heard of soliciting submissions, and even offering editorial positions. I have generally ignored them, and it’s probably a good thing.

Over the last decade we have seen the rise of open-access science journals. The idea is a good one – journals charge a moderate fee to publish an article to cover costs, and then make all articles freely available online. It is a great way to leverage the power of the internet and make published science freely available. This contrasts to the subscription model where published research often sits behind a very expensive paywall.

The problem with the open-access model is that it created the means to easily generate income through predatory behavior. All you need is a website and minimal infrastructure and you can look like a real journal. Since authors are paying you to publish each article, just publish anything that gets submitted.

You can pretend to do editing and peer-review without really doing it. You can also e-mail young academics inviting them to be editors and peer-reviewers and hope that enough of them will be fooled into doing this free work for you – at least enough that you can create the superficial appearance of being a real journal. To maximize profits you can also solicit articles without being up front about the fees, and then once a paper is submitted hit the author with big fees and hold their paper (which may represent years of work) essentially hostage until they pay.

The FTC Steps In

This pattern of behavior has been increasingly common, and preys disproportionately on young and third-world academics, the one’s who most cannot afford it.

Greg Ashe is an attorney for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). He also is an astrophysicist and so is familiar with scientific publications. He is determined to go after so-called predatory journals, and is now suing one company, OMICS, which publishes more than 700 open-access journals.

As Ashe says, the FTC is not concerned with the business model or with the peer-review process. That is not their job. They are concerned with outright fraud. Their accusation against OMICS is that they are not upfront about their fees and they are not transparent about their peer-review process.

Charging hidden fees is a bait-and-switch behavior that can be considered fraud. Scientists are not aware of the fees ($900 for one article in the case reported above) until after OMICS has their paper.

Further, presenting yourself as peer-reviewed when you are not, in order to essentially trick people into buying your service, is also fraud. These are arguably within the purview of the FTC.

The FTC case against OMICS is now a test case and is likely to have a profound effect on the open-access industry. Again, Ashe is clear to point out he is not trying to make companies like OMICS stop publishing, just change their predatory behavior.

The Scientific Community Response

The FTC action comes in the wake of increasing attention from the scientific community toward predatory journals. I discussed in  2014 several efforts to expose their predatory practices.

In 2013 John Bohannon published the results of a sting operation against open-access journals. He submitted a bogus article to 304 open-access journals, and over half of them published the article without any apparent editorial or peer-review.

Jeffrey Beall maintains a list of possible predatory journals. Any author can look at his black list before submitting their article.

A 2015 study of predatory journals found:

Over the studied period, predatory journals have rapidly increased their publication volumes from 53,000 in 2010 to an estimated 420,000 articles in 2014, published by around 8,000 active journals. Early on, publishers with more than 100 journals dominated the market, but since 2012 publishers in the 10–99 journal size category have captured the largest market share. The regional distribution of both the publisher’s country and authorship is highly skewed, in particular Asia and Africa contributed three quarters of authors. Authors paid an average article processing charge of 178 USD per article for articles typically published within 2 to 3 months of submission.

There is growing concern not just about the effect this has on poor third-world researchers who are targeted by such journals, but on the communication of science itself.

It is already difficult to develop an objective and reliable view of what the totality of scientific evidence says about a specific question. There is often a lot of conflicting evidence, evidence of varying quality, and multiple sources of research bias. A scientist has to sift through all of this to tease out the real signal from this noise.

The proliferation of dubious open-access journals adds tremendously to the noise – 420,000 articles in 2014. Many of these might get filtered out because they are not indexed among legitimate peer-reviewed journals, and that’s a good thing. But they are still on the internet (they are open-access) and will pollute any search for information on the topics they cover.

They are also damaging to the reputation of legitimate open-access journals.

The Future

It seems clear there is an enduring place for open-access journals in science and academia. Business models may continue to evolve, but having free access to scientific information is definitely a net positive.

We are, however, in an awkward transition phase. As if often the case with new opportunities, predators swoop in and take advantage of the new territory and relative lack of oversight and regulations.

It seems that the FTC has a legitimate role to play in countering outright fraud in the industry, and they are being mindful of the limits of their purview.

Meanwhile, the academic and scientific community needs to take the problem of predatory journals very seriously and continue to explore ways of reigning them in and protecting young and vulnerable academics. They also need to stem the flood of low-grade information that can potentially drown out more legitimate academic activity.