Combating the rise in predatory publishing

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Christopher M Bono

“Dear Distinguished Professor, we invite you to submit…” Christopher M Bono warns of the rise in predatory publishing, drawing on his own experiences of falling for a well-worded scam email. As editor-in-chief of the North American Spine Society’s flagship publication The Spine Journal, Bono speaks of his regret at how this action helped prop up the network of “fake” journals, and advocates for the #peersforpeers campaign, a movement emphasising the critical role that peer review plays in medical publishing.

On a daily basis, most of us receive emails that often begin with the something like the title of this piece. The email author first compliments you for being so accomplished in your field. Then, you are invited to submit an article to their “highly prestigious” journal, the title of which you have never heard. Most times, the deadline is fast approaching, a few weeks or even days away. Should you not respond to the invitation, a slightly intimidating followup note is sent, beginning with something like the following: “We have not heard from you…” The journals purport to be highly indexed by metrics other than the
traditional impact factor. Often times, the journal title is so esoteric, dealing with fields that have nothing to do with spine care, that you push the delete button nearly automatically upon receipt of the email. However, others are more thoughtfully crafted, sounding like well-known spine journals. Sometimes, they are very seductive and alluring. This is the modus operandi of predatory publishing.

You may think that no one falls for these solicitations. But, like other types of spam emails—and phone scams—they continue to exist because they sometimes work. Indeed, quite a few years ago before I was aware of such predators, frustrated with a paper that I had difficulty getting published, I fell for the hook. I submitted my article, had it accepted promptly with no revisions recommended, and was asked for the very hefty (about US$2000) fee to finalise publication. I was a victim of predatory publishing, and in this small article, I am confessing to the spine world at large.

As the editor-in-chief of a “real” journal (The Spine Journal), I regret terribly having fed the network of “fake” journals. However, it highlights the vigilance we all should have. Perhaps this is the movement that needs to be started—#peersforpeers—with true peer
review being the critical distinguishing feature between respected journals and those that subscribe to pay-to-publishing. Remember, the true goal of medical publishing is to enhance the knowledge base in order to expand scientific understanding of patient care.

Unfortunately, publishing, even in legitimate journals, can be used for ancillary reasons. Academic promotions are often linked one’s number of publications. This link cannot be
underestimated, characterised by the phrase “publish or perish.” More nefariously, publications can be used to promote a centre, a surgeon, or a technique. Even for studies published in a predatory journal that will never be cited, an individual can use reprints of a paper to legitimise a technique or product. “Look here—it is in print.” This is about as reliable as saying, “I read it on the internet. It must be true.”

As a final point, I want to highly a “victim by association” of predatory publishing—the concept of open access. To my knowledge, predatory journals exclusively use online platforms that facilitate open access (if you can find the website). This can tarnish the open access options at legitimate journals. For instance, Ghogawala et al’s landmark article published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2016 is an open access article. In this one example, I do not think anyone would argue that Ghogawala’s article is any less of a gem because it is open access. Yet, open access and predatory journals are sometimes terms used interchangeably. They are assuredly not.

As a final warning, beware of predatory journals. Like telephone scams, even smart, sophisticated people can fall victim on occasion. While it is tempting to proclaim, “somebody needs to do something about this,” or “these journals should be called out,” this is an ever expanding field. It is an international phenomenon that does not lie under the jurisdiction of any one governing body. In the end, the responsibility ultimately comes down to the submitting authors. If there are no users, then this “product” will disappear, perhaps in coming years. For now, awareness is the best defence. Illustratively, while writing this piece on a Wednesday morning, I received an invitation to submit an article to
a computer science and engineering journal. The submissions are to be sent to two personal email accounts. The deadline for submission is in five days. Oh, and by the way, there is a meeting at which I can present my work in Hong Kong next month. I owe this invitation based on my “great expertise in this field.” I am neither a computer scientist or an engineer. I think I’ll pass.

Christopher M Bono is a professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA, and is the executive vice chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery there. Bono is also director of the Orthopaedic Spine Surgery Fellowship Programme, and editor-in-chief of The Spine Journal.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you Dr. Bono for an excellent article. As a professor and researcher for many years, I too often get these solicitations, and often in fields in which I do not work! The proliferation of the open access online journals have to a large degree corrupted the scientific publication system. The concept of paying to get an article published online, that is supposedly peer-reviewed (but in fact the peer review system of many of these publications either barely exists or is non-existent), is the part that corrupts the system. Journals used to make money selling subscriptions to libraries. The new economic model is that, as long as you pay, you get published. This is destroying the quality of scientific publications. The proliferation of these journals, and there are thousands of them, shows that the economic model works — as young scientists get published and get on editorial boards. However, many of these journals are here today and gone tomorrow, as it becomes recognized that what they are publishing is of terrible quality.

    This concept has gone a step further in the form of predatory scientific meetings. I was recently an “invited speaker” at a meeting, whose organizers apparently had no idea of my areas of expertise (which I found surprising to say the least). When I did a little checking on the organization that was sponsoring the meeting I found the following:

    — They were not affiliated with any legitimate scientific organizations that I would have expected them to be affiliated with, considering their focus and location.
    — There was no organizing committee of scientists that would have indicated the focus of the meeting and the quality of the science.
    — When I looked up the organization sponsoring the meeting, it was apparent that they were also a predatory open access publisher with hundreds of journals, most of which have only been in existence for a year or two.
    — There was an news article about this organization indicating that they had apparently organized a completely non-existent meeting — and had been caught doing it.
    — From what I have read, these organizations set up these meetings, advertise them by listing prominent scientists who will be speakers (but in fact will not), charge large registration fees (even for invited speakers) — and when you get to the meeting, it is at the least disappointing, and at the often just plain fraudulent.

    My point here is that this economic “pay-to-publish” model has apparently been so successful that there has ben a proliferation of these organizations, and the concept has been extended to predatory meetings as well as publications.

    I now educate my students about the dangers of believing everything they read (not that this concept is new), as the quality of scientific publications has declined significantly in recent years, and students are indeed inclined to think that because it is “published” it must be scientifically valid.

    I have developed a significant library of articles that are terrible on many levels and can in fact be used as teaching tools that demonstrate every possible mistake regarding study design, experimental models, unjustified conclusions, and the like. I guess even negative examples have their uses.

    I have approached one of my favorite scientific organizations about posting a warning about this phenomenon in their organization news letter. I have also approached one of my Deans about putting together a warning seminar for our faculty reading this highly disturbing and rapidly building trend.

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