Dodgy journals go for gold

“Gold Open Access” – where authors pay to have their papers published, and made freely available on line – is one response to the well documented predatory practices of commercial journal publishers (for discussion of the latter problem, mostly as regards economics journals, see Ted Bergstrom’s website.)

On-line publishing, though, has low entry costs – especially if you don’t do any real peer review, editing, or archiving – and the combination of on-line publishing and gold open access has produced new “publishers”, often with unfeasibly large suites of new journals that look very much alike, and torrents of spam-ish “calls for papers” in academic email inboxes. Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, publishes a list of “Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers; his blog, Scholarly Open Access, discusses cases. Read a few of the cases and the line between academic publishing and “send me your bank details and help me smuggle my family fortune out of Nigeria” will seem very thin indeed. I’m not sure that you’d want to publish a blog like Beall’s in a jurisdiction with UK-type libel laws (that’s a complaint about the libel laws, not about Beall).

Informative though Beall’s blog can be, I do think he’s got a chip on his shoulder. He talks about predation, but he doesn’t really seem to like open access in general. Reviewing Alma Swan’s report on open access for UNESCO, he slates her for using the term “double dipping” to describe what he calls “toll-access journals that give authors the opportunity to make their work available to all; an open-access, alternative publishing model”. I think he means journals which mix gold open access and pay-walled articles – so, even if half the authors pay to have their papers made open access, libraries will have to subscribe to get the journal, meaning that, effectively, libraries pay again for the gold open access articles that authors / their employers / whoever paid for the research, have already paid for. “Double dipping” may be an argumentative way to describe this, but his label, “an open access alternative”, is so anodyne that it amounts to apologia for predatory commercial publishers.

Similarly, Beall sniffs that “UNESCO’s real mission is the north-south transfer of wealth, and open access to scholarly literature is one way to achieve this, thus the motivation to publish this work”. So? Sharing of knowledge, and thus the wealth that comes from it, is of course an issue here (one might hope it is part of Beall’s job as a librarian). Sharing between rich and poor countries is one of the objectives of many open-access advocates – in the digital age, a good research library could, and should, be available to anybody in the world with a web connection; but it is not, and in many poor countries not even the best universities can afford a decent library. Of course it is not clear how much the sharing of knowledge via open access would mean transfer of wealth, and how much it would mean expansion of wealth. It can’t be anything close to a pure transfer, though, because many uses of knowledge are, in economic terms, non-rival. In principle there might be a free rider problem, whereby open access would lead to a reduction in overall research, but this would only happen if an important motivation for research funding in Country A is that research results in Country B are locked up in pay-walled journal articles in Country B’s libraries. I’m not going to spend the rest of the afternoon picking holes in that outlandish scenario.

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3 thoughts on “Dodgy journals go for gold

  1. Mr Guy: I realize the spelling of my surname is difficult, so I completely understand your having mispelled it. I suggest that you review the HINARI and Research4Life programms and the benefits the offer to developing countries.

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    • And, good advice.

      Research4Life is interesting – a very big free/discounted journal access program for university libraries in poor countries. HINARI is one element of it.

      While I’m sure that many are benefiting from this opportunity for free access, I note that Elsevier speaks of it as a transitional stage – see the language they use with regard to an apparently mis-handled transition of Bangladesh. World Bank ranks Bangladesh 151st in the world by PPP GDP per capita – $1,777 PPP ($735 nominal dollars) per capita in 2011. So they can pay for journals, then.

      From the publishers’ point of view, this may be presented as an act of philanthropy, but it is clearly also an effort to keep control of their content by making free access transitional, available only in the poorer countries, and available there only through a limited set of academic institutions. See here for a discussion of Research4Life’s limitations.

      The predatory open access journals you so helpfully catalog are crooks but they have no power: I think that your blog, on its own, can do a great deal to keep them under control, because the journals will never amount to much, and armed with your list of journals and your diagnostic tools, most of us can defend ourselves against them. The entrenched commercial journals are equally predatory but have a great deal of power: academics need them for their careers. They use that power to loot the public purse, and in order to loot the public purse they restrict access in a way that hurts almost everybody else. Bergstrom’s stuff – his paper “Free Labor for Costly Journals” sums the case up well for the discipline of economics. He compares price changes over time for commercial journals and non-profit (i.e., controlled and published by scholarly societies) journals – the non-profit journals, which do at least as good a job in the quality control department, have had far, far lower price increases over time. Commercial publishers are milking this system, and get away with it because it is in the individual interests of academics to get published and not worry about who pays. Given their record in other markets, is there any reason not to view the publishers’ philanthropy in poor countries as akin to a heroin dealer giving away samples? The end goal (clear even in Elsevier’s public statement on Bangladesh) is to sell, on a world scale, copies of the product they’ve been given for free. It’s an incredibly lucrative model.

      What am I missing here? And, if you think better of this philanthropic initiative than I do, then presumably it amounts to wealth transfer – why the snark about UNESCO’s wealth transfer agenda?

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