The FTC Is Cracking Down on Predatory Science Journals
When Paul Vaucher received an invitation to submit an article in a special issue of the Journal of Forensic Research, he gladly accepted. A University of Geneva neuroscience PhD student at the time, he was eager for the publishing credit and excited for the exposure. Vaucher studies how the aging brain affects people’s ability to drive, and ways to screen for performance behind the wheel in the elderly. He wasn’t super sure what his work had to do with forensics, but he assumed the special issue provided the tie-in.
He sent in the manuscript, and was surprised when a few days later he received an email, not from the editor of the journal, or a reviewer, but a title-less employee, sending him an author’s proof with instructions to fix any typographical errors and this message: “If you fail to send the corrections within 48 hours, we may assume that you agreed to publish without corrections.” It also said that he owed a $900 fee to the journal’s publisher, OMICS Group.
Within 24 hours Vaucher had sent in a long list of major mistakes that needed fixing. He received no reply, and the article showed up online a few days later without any corrections. Now Vaucher knew something was seriously wrong. Usually, peer-reviewed papers take months and many rounds of back-and-forth comments and corrections before publication. Vaucher had had no such contact with anyone at the Journal of Forensic Research. And his emails continued to go unanswered in the following weeks. This was not just a young, blundering journal struggling to work out its editorial kinks, Vaucher realized. This was malicious.
Vaucher’s story is not unique. In the last five years, open-access journals have cropped up all over the Internet, their websites looking like those of any typical scholarly publisher: editorial boards filled with bios of well-respected scientists, claims of rigorous peer review, indexing in the most influential databases. The looks of these publishers have deceived thousands of young and inexperienced researchers all over the world, costing them millions of dollars—and for many, their reputations.
So it is with good reason that the US Federal Trade Commission has taken an interest in these “predatory” publishers. Specifically, they’ve honed in on OMICS Group, a global conglomerate based in India and incorporated in Nevada that boasts more than 700 “leading-edge, peer reviewed” open access journals on its website. In a historic first for the FTC, the agency is suing the company, alleging that it misrepresented the legitimacy of its publications, deceived researchers, and obfuscated sizeable publication fees. The lawsuit, filed last month, will set a precedent for how the academic publishing industry is regulated, and how the body of scientific work that constitutes our collective understanding of the world is created and shared in the age of open access information.
Not 100 Percent False
Despite his suspicions, Paul Vaucher paid the $900 publishing fee. He also contacted the journal regarding some copy-editing and other errors he wanted addressed. After six months and many emails that went largely unanswered, the journal finally made the corrections, and Vaucher felt satisfied with the version that appeared online. But other red flags were popping up. He discovered that the special edition editor, Tom Holt, had quit his post before the issue came out over concerns about the review process. When Vaucher tried to find out who exactly had reviewed his article, he was contacted by an anonymous editorial assistant who wrote to him saying that his article had been “strongly recommended for the publication in the peer review process by one of the reviewer [sic] who is expert in this field. So, the manuscript got acceptance to publish with the initial submitted file.”
Now Vaucher knew something was up. One anonymous reviewer does not a peer-review make. He wrote to the journal’s editor in chief, Jaiprakash Shewale, asking him to investigate his case further. When nothing happened, he wrote again, and again, threatening to take legal action to have his paper withdrawn if evidence of a thorough peer-review could not be provided. Finally, he wrote a third time, this time to OMICS director and founder Srinubabu Gedela, informing him OMICS had 30 days to remove his paper before he would initiate legal action. Later that night he got an email from Shewale. He had submitted his resignation to the journal.
Eventually, OMICS did retract the paper from its website. But it took a few more months of work and legal threats to get it removed from other sites and fully rubbed out of indexes. All in all it took more than a year and a half of hounding, between mid-2012 and December 2013. “I got caught right at the start, before I was aware of the problem,” says Vaucher. “It’s tricky because if you look at the website, it’s sophisticated. They have more than one journal, editorial boards. It’s not 100 percent false, but it is meant to mislead people.”
Vaucher’s one of the lucky ones. He saw the signs early and used all the resources available to him to minimize damage to his reputation. He’s since successfully published in both open access and subscription journals and moved on to a teaching post at the University of Applied Sciences Western Switzerland. But many researchers haven’t fared so well.
Patterns of Predation
Jeff Beall coined the term “predatory publisher” back in 2010, and in the years since, he’s watched his inbox balloon with pleas from thousands of scientists around the globe asking for his help. Beall, a longtime academic librarian at the University of Colorado’s Auraria Library in Denver, keeps a blacklist of open access publishers with sketchy track records. It’s made him the go-to guy for researchers who realize they’ve been had. “Sometimes I get 200 emails a day,” he said. “I get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to answer all the emails to Asia before I go to work.”
OMICS victims are mostly young researchers, new to the scholarly publishing world. They’re also concentrated in developing countries in the global south where the pressure to publish is high and career training lacking. For these scientists, surprise publishing fees can be a huge burden. But even if they refuse to pay (according to Beall, if you don’t pay, OMICS doesn’t come after you with collection agencies or legal action), they’ve still lost years of work. “If OMICS has your manuscript, you can’t publish in a legitimate journal,” he says. “And now, if you want to withdraw your submission you have to pay to do that too. They basically hold it hostage.”
While solicitous phishing emails from predatory publishers may be only a mild annoyance for scientists in rich, western countries, for inexperienced, early-career researchers in the developing world, these invitations can appear to be the difference between security and the streets. And the implications are huge. Having their names attached to fraudulent publishing systems presents a significant barrier to building credibility in their fields. Which in turn perpetuates the serious diversity shortage in top-tier titles.
Jocalyn Clark, who is the Executive Editor of the medical journal The Lancet and has written about extensively about predatory journals, first really became aware of the problem while working in Dhaka, Bangladesh at the health research organization iccddr,b. She began to notice that more spam emails from publishers like OMICS went to her Bangladesh email than to her Canadian academic account. In a seven-day trial, she received 14 predatory journal spam emails to her iccddr,b account and six to her University of Toronto account. A colleague of hers at Harvard in that same time period got just two. “My impression is that yes, South Asians/developing country researchers are being targeted,” she wrote to WIRED in an email. “Or at least developing country researchers are more vulnerable to predatory behavior.”
Beall says that testimonials from ex-OMICS employees confirm this. “They buy packages of emails from India and Pakistan, harvested from websites, targeted by field,” he says. Then employees work against publication quotas, earning salary deductions if they don’t meet them. “They’re motivated to rip people off as much as possible. To lie, cheat, and steal to get it published.” These sorts of statements have earned Beall his fair share of legal threats over the years. But so far he hasn’t actually been sued. The same however, can no longer be said for OMICS.
End of the Gold Rush?
Before Greg Ashe became an attorney for the FTC, he was an astrophysicist, studying the space between stars in our galaxy. So the scientific publishing process is familiar territory for him, even if prosecuting an academic publisher is a first. “I went to school at UVA, so the Thomas Jefferson marketplace of ideas is very important to me personally,” he says. “That’s how we advance science. That’s how knowledge is passed on. And having it be free from deception is of utmost importance.”
A free and open marketplace of ideas is the backbone of the open access publishing model, which many researchers believe is vital to the speed and spread of science in today’s digital world. In the conventional subscription-based model, journals generate revenue by keeping content locked behind a subscription-only paywall. Open-access, on the other hand, often involves publishers charging an upfront “author fee” to cover costs—then making the papers available online for free. The open-access movement has produced many well-respected publishers, including PLoS and BioMed Central. But it also opened the doors for potential bad actors, like OMICS. (Neither OMICS Group nor Gedela responded to repeated requests for an interview.)
Academic discussions about what to do with such predatory publishers have often gotten caught up in the fight against the open access model itself. Defenders think that regulation isn’t the answer—that readers should be able to make their own educated decisions and scientists should take responsibility for choosing quality, legitimate journals. Some, like Beall, welcome the FTC’s action. Others hope to find a middle ground where the financials get uncoupled from the publishing process via a funding agency middleman. But wherever they stand, they’re all paying attention to Federal Trade Commission v. OMICS GROUP INC. The outcome will have huge ramifications for the industry.
The purpose of the lawsuit, Ashe says, is not to shut OMICS down. Instead, the FTC is hoping to have them change their practices to incorporate more transparency around publishing fees and the peer review process. The company has published a response to the FTC’s charges, in which Gedela denies virtually all claims, calling them “baseless,” and questions the agency’s jurisdiction in the matter. But if the case is successful and OMICS has sufficient funds, the FTC will offer redress to anyone victimized by the publisher. That could take anywhere from 10 to 18 months, but it would send a powerful message. “We want people to know that the academic industry is no different than any other,” says Ashe. “This case isn’t about content. This is about how OMICS was marketing its services. From an agency perspective, we don’t care if there are fees or aren’t fees. That’s for the market to decide. Same goes for peer review. Just don’t misrepresent that you do it if you don’t.”
One question the FTC hasn’t addressed, though, is what will happen to all the research that OMICS has published over the years. While it may not be properly indexed and therefore not a part of the official scientific literary record, simple Internet searches have no problem turning up fake journals. On the worldwide web, one man’s junk science is another man’s treasure. This is what still plagues Paul Vaucher, three years later. “We’re not giving the public instruments to tell the difference between good science and bad,” Vaucher said. “And we’re starting to see knowledge constructed on bad science. I’m most worried about that.”
Vaucher isn’t waiting for regulators to start getting the word out. Using online forums, he’s now sharing his experience and helping other researchers navigate the open-access system. Raising awareness is one way keep bad science out of the collective consciousness. The other is for scientists like Vaucher to just keep doing their jobs well.
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