Many Academics Are Eager to Publish in Worthless Journals

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“When hundreds of thousands of publications appear in predatory journals, it stretches credulity to believe all the authors and universities they work for are victims,” Derek Pyne, an economics professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, wrote in a op-ed published in the Ottawa Citizen, a Canadian newspaper.

The number of such journals has exploded to more than 10,000 in recent years, with nearly as many predatory as legitimate ones. “Predatory publishing is becoming an organized industry,” wrote one group of critics in a paper in Nature.

Many of these journals have names that closely resemble those of established publications, making them easily mistakable. There is the Journal of Economics and Finance, published by Springer, but now also the Journal of Finance and Economics. There is the Journal of Engineering Technology, put out by the American Society for Engineering Education, but now another called the GSTF Journal of Engineering Technology.

Predatory journals have few expenses, since they do not seriously review papers that are submitted and they publish only online. They blast emails to academics, inviting them to publish. And the journals often advertise on their websites that they are indexed by Google Scholar. Often that is correct — but Google Scholar does not vet the journals it indexes.

The journals are giving rise to a wider ecosystem of pseudo science. For the academic who wants to add credentials to a resume, for instance, publishers also hold meetings where, for a hefty fee, you can be listed as a presenter — whether you actually attend the meeting or not.

One of those meetings, held in New York in June by a group called the World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology, seemed more like a Potemkin village. On the publisher’s website, the convention promised to be large and lavish.

But when I visited, the only venue was a small windowless room on the sixth floor of a hotel undergoing renovation. A handful of people sat in the room, diligently listening to a talk. Most who were listed on the program were not in attendance.

Participating in such dubious enterprises carries few risks. Dr. Pyne, who did a study of his colleagues publications, reports that faculty members at his school who got promoted last year had at least four papers in questionable journals. All but one academic in 10 who won a School of Business and Economics award had published papers in these journals. One had 10 such articles.

Academics get rewarded with promotions when they stuff their resumes with articles like these, Dr. Pym concluded. There are few or no adverse consequences — in fact, the rewards for publishing in predatory journals were greater than for publishing in legitimate ones.

Dr. Pyne does not know if what role those studies played in the promotions. But, he said, “I can say that such publications do not seem to hurt promotion prospects.”

Tensions over this kind of scholarship have spilled over Queensborough Community College, part of CUNY, the City University of New York.

Although it is hardly known for its research, college administrators urge the faculty to publish. Recently group of concerned professors complained that nearly a dozen colleagues have repeatedly published in at least one of the dubious journals — and have been promoted and rewarded for it.

Noting that a number of these papers apparently depended on federal and city funds, the professors brought the matter to the attention of the vice chancellor for research and even wrote to the New York State inspector general’s office.

The school referred inquiries to its head librarian, Jeanne Galvin.

“Just as with many colleges, faculty submit their work for publication in a variety of journals based on individual judgment,” she said in an email. “Queensborough offers several advisory resources, such as workshops and individual consultation with expert librarians. The research that I have seen published by our faculty is of the highest quality.”

Some say the academic system bears much of the blame for the rise of predatory journals, demanding publications even from teachers at places without real resources for research and where they may have little time apart from teaching.

At Queensborough, faculty members typically teach nine courses per year. At four-year colleges, faculty may teach four to six courses a year.

Yet “every university requires some level of publication,” said Lawrence DiPaolo, vice president of academic affairs at Neumann University in Aston, Pa.

Recently a group of researchers who invented a fake academic: Anna O. Szust. The name in Polish means fraudster. Dr. Szust applied to legitimate and predatory journals asking to be an editor. She supplied a résumé in which her publications and degrees were total fabrications, as were the names of the publishers of the books she said she had contributed to.

The legitimate journals rejected her application immediately. But 48 out of 360 questionable journals made her an editor. Four made her editor in chief. One journal sent her an email saying, “It’s our pleasure to add your name as our editor in chief for the journal with no responsibilities.”

The lead author of the Dr. Fraud sting operation, Katarzyna Pisanski, a psychologist at the University of Sussex in England, said the question of what motivates people to publish in such journals “is a touchy subject.”

“If you were tricked by spam email you might not want to admit it, and if you did it wittingly to increase your publication counts you might also not want to admit it,” she said in an email.

The consequences of participating can be more than just a résumé freckled with poor-quality papers and meeting abstracts. Publications become part of the body of scientific literature.

There are indications that some academic institutions are beginning to wise up to the dangers.

Dewayne Fox, an associate professor of fisheries at Delaware State University, sits on a committee at his school that reviews job applicants. One recent applicant, he recalled, listed 50 publications in such journals and is on the editorial boards of some of them.

A few years ago, he said, no one would have noticed. But now he and others on search committees at his university have begun scrutinizing the publications closely to see if the journals are legitimate.

“If something gets published in one of these journals and it’s complete garbage, it can develop a life of its own,” Dr. Fox said.

“Think about human medicine and how much is on the line. When people publish something that is not replicable, it can have health impacts.”

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