Getting at the root of predatory publishing

Aside from being genuinely pernicious and problematic on its own terms, the predatory publishing problem creates extra frustrations to open access advocates by providing an easy mechanism for directing suspicion and ire at open access publishing generally. And while it’s frustrating when this sleight of hand is employed by known open access critics, it can also come from within the movement, particularly in the context of ongoing debates about the APC business model with which predatory publishers are so closely associated.

Most recently, Kevin Smith furthered this conflation when outlining his skepticism of APC-funded open access. In that piece, Smith  identifies the predatory publishing problem as at the heart of what’s wrong with APCs, writing that “‘predatory’ journals . . . can only exist because of the APC business model” and further that  APCs are “the root problem” behind predatory practices.

I don’t think this is right and, further, by reinforcing the association between open access publishing and predatory publishing, I think the line of reasoning poisons the well for the whole movement.  Moreover, misdirecting blame for predatory publishing only serves to distract us from formulating productive responses to the problem.

So what is behind predatory publishing? The low costs of publication meeting author incentives.

Too often the APC model is isolated as a root cause of predatory publishing, rather than as predators’ present best mode of operation.  But if APCs aren’t the causal driver, what is? I think a better explanation for the phenomenon is as the marriage of declining publishing costs and warped author incentives.

In a fully digital, online publishing environment, the costs involved in publishing decrease dramatically. This observation isn’t a surprise to anyone committed to open access; the idea that the costs involved in distributing scholarly articles are so close to zero that the price to read them can and should be made zero is a founding principle of the movement.

In general, low publishing costs are something we celebrate. Not only do they make open access possible, but they also facilitate entry into the publishing market.  Low costs of doing business are precisely how we are able to field new, public-minded competitors to the legacy players and explore new publishing models.

But the same conditions that provide all this promise also appeal to folks with fewer scruples.  Scholarly authors are often under intense pressure to publish, with some valuing publication sufficiently to be both willing to pay to do it and willing to overlook (whether inadvertently or intentionally) the failings of a given outlet. Predators have the means (low cost publication), motive (pecuniary gain), and opportunity (a large pool of scholars eager to publish) to do what they do. Importantly, they would have all these things whether or not APCs were employed by respectable publishers.

The point is that predatory publishing is best seen as a close cousin of “the fake news” problem. It isn’t a narrow phenomenon rooted in the niceties of how scholarly publishing is funded; it’s a manifestation of a much broader set of issues concerning the provenance and validation of information in a world where we’re all a name, a logo, and a website away from declaring ourselves publishers.

Predatory publishing is not just a scholarly publishing problem

In his article, Smith acknowledges that “[t]here are, of course, predatory practices throughout the publishing industry, and they take a lot of different forms.” This point is important and needs highlighting. If predatory publishing practices happen outside of areas where author-pays models are commonly accepted, it should suggest strongly that the acceptance of author-pays models are not the driver of the phenomenon.

And indeed, scholarly authors are not alone in being plagued by suspect or scammy publishing practices. While the pressures of “publish or perish” might be largely unique to the academy, as is the normalization in some sectors of pay-to-publish models (page fees in certain sciences, APCs in gold OA), many of the same patterns and tactics used by “predatory publishers” in the scholarly context are also used to earn pay-to-publish fees out of would-be trade authors. And this in an area where “[y]ou should never pay to be published” is common wisdom.

In my time serving as the executive director of Authors Alliance, I saw this problem firsthand while trying to assist members who had been, essentially, conned by less-than-legitimate publishing operations. The phrase “predatory publishing” hasn’t been adopted in these communities, but the concept and underlying causes are the same.

Resisting easy solutions

We would all like to distill the definition of “predatory publisher” down to one, easily identified, perfectly predictive, and unmistakable attribute. Imagine how functional journal blacklists would be if we could safely declare the charging of author fees always and everywhere illegitimate?

The first problem, of course, is that we know this isn’t true in practice. It wasn’t true when traditional subscription publications adopted page fees, it wasn’t true when PLOS and BMC adopted APC-funded OA, and it’s not true of the high-quality gold OA outlets operating today. An attack on APC-funded publications generally is necessarily over-inclusive. Are we happy to have an error cost in our methodology that we know takes takes down the good along with the bad?

Some commentators are explicitly comfortable with that cost. Take, for instance, Raghavendra Gadagkar, who in a note at the Royal Society Journal of the History of Science wrote that— 

[T]he ‘pay-to-publish’ model should be dismantled altogether. We should gradually create social and moral stigma, and eventually legal strictures, against paid publications; having paid for publishing scholarly papers should automatically devalue their prestige and eventually disqualify them from consideration.

Even if Gadagkar’s proposed stigmatization (and criminalization?) of APCs were successfully implemented, the approach would have the unfortunate effect of targeting good actors, while doing little to hurt the bad actors motivating the policy. Consider: do true predatory outlets have concern for the prestige of their publications? No. Do the authors who publish in them think they are buying such prestige? Well, sometimes—when they are confused about who it is they are actually publishing with—but, generally, no.  Are predatory actors concerned about the law? Well, the worst predatory publishers are already on the wrong side of the law in many jurisdictions, and it hasn’t seemed to do much to ameliorate the problem.

Instead, all of these levers primarily bear on the folks who already have a commitment to operating within the system. It’s like going after fare avoiders by locking the turnstile. The jumpers still get over fine, but the folks who would happily pay the fare are locked out.

Understanding of the problem in this light doesn’t  mean we have to be fatalistic and it doesn’t make us technological determinists.  But it does suggest that the root causes of the problem are deep and complex enough to require active, ongoing, and dynamic countermeasures. Accept no less and nothing simpler.

The takeaway

While it’s easy to invoke the specter of predatory publishing to discredit a model of open access one doesn’t like, everyone in the open access movement should walk away from this line of argumentation. Why? Because we should all know by now that predatory publishing  is not going away anytime soon,  and continued confusion about its connection to OA hurts everyone. It should be our shared goal to work to counteract predatory practices and to distinguish these from the work done by trustworthy open access outlets. But there’s simply no good to be done by continuing the conflation of any kind of “open” and “predatory.”

As for APCs, let’s continue having the important and serious discussions about their place in open access scholarship and their effects on the dynamics, incentives, and accessibility of scholarly publishing. But let’s move beyond the  under-developed charge that APCs are behind predatory publishing.


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