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The unilateral determination of a definition of predatory publishing, by Jeffrey Beall, has sent the research publishing world into a tizz. Even though Beall has withdrawn his list, unfortunately in the current technological age this list is not cleared from the web archive nor is there a prevention of the rehashing of the list by someone else. Nor, has there been subsequently an adequate reconceptualization of predatory publishing to ensure that it is not discriminatory to open access or the global south.
Writing as a Fellow of the LPC from the global south, I feel a sense of obligation to follow the call that African academics and intellectuals (not that I am either), on the continent and in the diaspora, play a role in countering the prejudice and misinformation about Africa. Be that as it may, I think there are significant lessons for both the global south and north by interrogating the concept of predatory publishing. The recently published article by Olivarez and others (2018) highlight the need for interventions to remedy the insensitive generalization of predatory publishing.
I think it is important to contextualise my views and I need to acknowledge that these views may be perceived as bias as I am from the global south and that I am an open access advocate that is pushing hard for the service ‘library as a publisher’ to become a mainstream service delivered by academic libraries. Let’s go back to the origins of the purpose of sharing research. There has always been a noble underpinning to the sharing of research and that was to promote research for the betterment of society. That noble purpose has since been hijacked by commercial publishers who seek maximum profit for the distribution of research findings. It is understandable, albeit not acceptable, that large publishing houses target ‘buyers’ that have the financial means to purchase the research output. One of the aggravating elements of this financial model is that there is an almost complete focus on the publication of research from the global north. Hence, the knowledge production world revolves around the global north.
The fact that large publishing houses are not publishing content coming out of the global south has severe ramifications. Firstly, it is accepted that access to information is essential in the generation of new knowledge. Hence, limited or no access translates to limited knowledge production which in itself translates to retaining the status quo, which includes, amongst others continued poverty and high infant mortality rates. Secondly, mainstream publishing is from the global north and thus relegates Africa to the outer limits of the knowledge production life cycle. Exacerbating this situation is the fact that authors from the global south strive to publish in these global north journals which are, more often than not, unaffordable to the global south. Essentially, content relevant to the African context are not accessible to Africans. It is easy to see why open access is seen as a saviour for Africans as they now have access to content that they would not ordinarily get. Hooray for the social justice ethos of open access. However, within the open access framework, the levying of article processing charges (APCs) seriously limits the capacity of Africa to share its research with the rest of the world.
Negative impacts of the “predatory publishing” designation
I now need to engage with the issue of predatory publishing and how this insensitive generalization has caused so much harm and continues to hold sway for researchers and their publications. As much as this blog post is from a global south perspective, the global north is not exempt from the negative ramifications of Beall’s criteria for predatory publishing. Despite the fact that the list has been removed, its vestiges live on. The predatory list virus continues to have the potential to, as pointed out by Olivarez and others (2018), “affect promotion and tenure decisions, especially those decisions concerning faculty members in emerging fields of scholarship where needs for publishing outlets are met with OA journals”. In the South African context, the predatory list has become the ‘most authoritative list’ in assessing qualification for national research fund grants. This means that if the researcher has publications in journals that are on the list, the researcher is immediately disqualified. Librarians are spending inordinate amount of time preparing LibGuides and creating webpages to keep researchers away from publishing in journals that are on the list. This predatory list lives on and adds salt to the above mentioned APC wound.
The removal of the list from the public eye adds to the intrigue to find the list and apply its principles. Further, the removal has added another level of burden on librarians in terms of invalidating a ghost – the list as an urban legend lives on. And, I would humbly submit that it is not a ghost just for the global south.
I believe that there is ample evidence to demonstrate that the Beall criteria for declaring a journal title predatory is fundamentally flawed. And, that this flawed definition has and continues to cause more than discomfort to some excellent researchers and their research output. As indicated, tenures are jeopardised, so too are grant funding opportunities. Another issue that needs some attention is the impact of the list and the concept. Firstly, it casts major aspersions on the quality of both the journal and articles published in it. As pointed by Nwagwu and Ojemeni (2015), the fact that an editorial board is composed primarily of researchers from the global south does not make the journal predatory. There is significant expertise in the global south to make up a reputable editorial board. Who says that the gold standard has to be perfect English? This intolerance is a reflection of inward thinking and a superiority complex – perfect English is an invalid criteria to determine the quality of the research published in the journal. Another criteria that is used to cast aspersions on the quality of the journal is the peer review process. Again, the fact that a journal title does not have a rigorous peer review process does not necessarily make it predatory. There are a number of journals, for example, student journals published by leading research institutions that do not have rigorous blind peer review processes. The question that needs interrogation is: does it contribute to some level of scholarship? Does it contribute to improving the quality of life of the fauna and flora and/or human life?
The second major issue regarding impact is the destabilisation of what I think are proactive processes to make global south content accessible to all. There is a growing number of open access journals that are produced by not-for-profit scholarly societies, university presses, and academic libraries. This trend has been picked up in the global south, with some academic libraries taking on the challenge of making scholarly content accessible to the wider world. In South Africa, eight academic libraries (of 23 established public institutions) are providing a ‘library as publisher’ service – each at different stages of maturity. In total, almost 50 journals and eight monographs are published by these academic libraries. It has taken academic libraries almost ten years to nurture and grow this new service and the definition of predatory has taken us back many years. Not only do librarians now have to convince the editorial board of the advantages of publishing open access via the library, they have to contend with defending and/or deflecting the ‘predatory list criteria’.
I believe that the greatest negative impact of the list and its lingering vestiges is the psychological damage – this is a major hammer blow to researchers from the global south who are eager to become net contributors to the world’s knowledge production. What the list has done is erase critical content emanating from the global south; it has cast doubt on the authenticity of excellent research produced in the global south. I am of the view that the introduction of the list and its continued ‘existence’ is the rape of an impoverished continent – all research dignity has been purged; all research honour has been eliminated.
How to move forward
What must be done to move beyond lamentation? The first step is what Rick Anderson (2015) calls the retiring of the term ‘predatory publishing’. As a person coming from the global south and being an open access advocate, I believe that the concept should be erased with the contempt that it deserves. It is accepted that there are many unethical publishing practises – like any capitalist endeavour, there is always the possibility of engaging in unethical behaviour to chase large profit margins and the publishing industry is no different. This acknowledgement of unethical practises is by no way condoning such behaviour, in fact it must be condemned to the nth degree. Be that as it may, we need to focus on what Pleffer and Shrubb (2017) state are excellent practises that facilitate a shared commitment to continuous learning and knowledge sharing. Positive attributes of scholarly publishing must be advocated; the social justice imperatives must be advanced to grow society rather than have the sword of Damocles hanging over good research.
Post the retiring or eradication of the concept is the addressing the lingering vestiges of the concept. Predatory publishing, for all intents and purposes, is about fraudulent publishing, or ‘fake publishing’, or, simply put, generating income by deceiving authors. This is the issue on the table, namely fake or unethical publishing, hence we need to decouple modest quality publications from predatory or unethical practises. In the era of the print journal, those journals that were of excellent standards were the ones that were ‘chased’ by the researchers. In this print era, librarians trained users on how to evaluate and retrieve good information as part of their information literacy programmes. As much as I do not support the issue of impact factor, this has served as a proxy for the ‘quality’ of the journal and not the article itself. The factor that I firmly support is one that will measure socio-economic impact. For those in the global south, as much as citation is valued by authors, the positive influence of the research output on society should be of the greatest value; how does the research output impact on the development of the rank and file, how does it support preventable diseases, how does it improve the quality of life of the citizenry of the world.
The third step is to have authoritative organizations that support open access publishing acknowledge that the concept, coined by an individual with no consultation, has caused significant damage to the open publishing movement and research emanating from the global south. Organizations such as the Library Publishing Coalition need, through a consultative process, to provide guidelines for acceptable publishing processes. The starting point in the road to recovery is the crafting of a white paper that will demystify the concept of ‘predatory publishing’ and decouple low quality journals from deceptive publishing processes. The authors must carefully balance criteria that do not, as indicated by Bell (2017), systematically marginalise the ‘have nots’. In the light of the growing number of not-for-profit scholarly societies, university presses and academic libraries that are publishing scholarly content via open access, it is absolutely imperative that standards that promote inclusivity be developed. The minimum criteria for evaluation must be contribution to society and research and not perfect English, the rigour of the peer review process and other global north norms. Applying the Directory of Open Access Journals standards does not address the issue of the contributions that small journals can make to society irrespective of the size of the community.
The damage caused by the application of extremely generalized criteria for predatory publishing is significant to say the least. As much as the damage is universal, it is the global south that has taken the greatest knock. This damage continues despite the removal of the list from the public eye. Hence, it becomes critical for an organization with sufficient enough gravitas to develop inclusive open access practises: a roadmap needs to be developed to remove the vestiges of the list and to develop criteria that are more inclusive. It is proposed that the LPC be that organization that applies its collective minds and develops a white paper that can help wipe out the vestiges of the Beall’s list and develop that inclusive set of criteria for acceptable research publication.
Anderson, R. (2015). Should we retire the term predatory publishing? Scholarly kitchen: what’s hot and cooking in scholarly publishing. Available at https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2015/05/11/should-we-retire-the-term-predatory-publishing/
Bell, K. (2017). Predatory open access journals as parody: exposing the limitations of ‘legitimate’ academic publishing. TripleC: communication, capitalism and critique, Vol 15 (2). Available at http://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/870/1031
Nwagwu, W. and Ojemeni, O. (2015). Penetration of Nigerian predatory biomedical open access journals 2007–2012: a bibliometric study. Learned publishing, Vol 28 (1): 23–34. DOI: 10.1087/20150105
Olivarez, J., Bales, S., Sare, L. and van Duinkerken, W. 2018. Beall’s criteria to assess the predatory nature of both OA and non-OA Library and Information Science journals. College and research libraries, Vol 79 (1). Available at http://crl.acrl.org/index.php/crl/rt/printerFriendly/16614/18461
Pleffer, A. and Shrubb, S. (2017). Not the Beall and end-all. Australasian Open Access Strategy Group. Available at https://aoasg.org.au/2017/03/27/not-the-beall-and-end-all/