Should We Retire the Term “Predatory Publishing”?

Recently I was reading the latest installment in Richard Poynder’s frequently-excellent series of interviews with figures in the open access (OA) community, this one a joint interview with the founder and the Chief Production Officer of MDPI, an OA publisher whose publishing practices have been variously attacked, defended, and formally examined in recent years by members of the scholarly and scientific community.

Inevitably, the various discussions of MDPI’s practices have also involved discussion of the concept of “predatory publishing,” a term that came into common usage with the establishment of Beall’s List, a famous (or notorious, depending on your perspective) clearinghouse of information on “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers”—a category into which Beall has placed MDPI, for reasons outlined here. (MDPI’s response can be found here.)

It’s important to note that Beall uses the term “predatory” in a fairly specific way. For the purposes of his list, a “predatory” publisher is one that falls short on some or all elements of a multi-page list of criteriaof good publishing practices, many of which have to do with the publisher’s honesty (does it falsely claim editorial board members or impact factors?), business practices (does it engage in spam solicitations or steal content from reputable journals?), and transparency (does it hide author charges until after manuscript acceptance or hide its content from search engines?). Publishers that fail on these criteria are suspected of being “predatory,” then, in that they seem to be attracting revenue by deceiving their authors, their readers, and/or those trying to evaluate the scholarly achievements of their authors.

Beall’s List has been controversial since its establishment for a variety of reasons, some of them obvious (no publisher, whether legitimate or not, appreciates being publicly branded a “predator”), and some of them less so. One of the more subtle reasons for the controversy around Beall’s List lies in the fact that it focuses entirely on OA publishing. Predictably, this has aroused the ire of many in the OA community, who have accused Beall of targeting these publishers out of an animus towards OA itself—a charge to which Beall provided a fair amount of ammunition when he wrote an impassioned attack on the OA movement in the journal tripleC.

Of course, the question of whether Beall is an enemy of OA is ultimately peripheral to the question of whether his list sheds light on a real and serious problem with author-pays scholarly publishing—which, while not synonymous with OA, is highly relevant to OA, given that the majority of OA articles published each year are funded by author-side charges. That question has been debated in many forums, including the Scholarly Kitchen, and probably doesn’t need to be rehashed here. Instead I would like to discuss a different question: what do we mean when we say “predatory,” and is that term even still useful?

This question has become relevant because of that common refrain heard among Beall’s critics: that he only examines one kind of predation—the kind that naturally crops up in the context of author-pays OA. What about toll-access publishers that jump on the OA bandwagon “just… for the fees,” or who publish fake journals themselves? What about publishers who simply do an unconscionably poor job of fulfilling their obligations to authors, or who unethically leverage their monopoly power to maximize revenue at the expense of libraries—a practice some characterize as “predatory pricing”? And what about the authors who intentionally use the services of fraudulent publishers in order to deceive their colleagues or employers, or who engage in dishonest manipulation of the peer-review process? Aren’t they “predators” as well?

It may be true that these behaviors deserve exposure and shaming just as much the behaviors of those publishers branded “predatory” by Beall’s List do. The problem is, all of these behaviors are different enough from each other that I’m not sure lumping them all together under the epithet “predatory” is useful. (On whom is a lazy peer reviewer “preying”?)

So I suggest that we simply do away with the term “predatory” in the context of scholarly publishing. It’s a nice, attention-grabbing word, but I’m not sure it’s helpfully descriptive, given the wide spectrum of behaviors to which it can reasonably be applied; ultimately I think it generates more heat than light. More helpful, I think, might be simply to talk in terms of bad faith. Publishers who falsely promise peer review or lie about having an Impact Factor are operating in bad faith; so are authors who intentionally pay for (and benefit from) review and certification services they know to be fraudulent; so are peer reviewers who only pretend to do rigorous review.

I would suggest that scholarly bad faith can be expressed in multiple ways, including:

  1. Attempting to deceive authors into paying for nonexistent or shoddy editorial services
  2. Selling authors fake or meaningless credentials in order to help them deceive their peers
  3. Deceiving one’s peers by purchasing fake or meaningless publishing credentials
  4. Publishing journals or books (whether on an OA or a toll-access basis) that are presented to the marketplace as rigorous and scholarly, but consist in fact of whatever nonsense or garbage authors may wish to submit
  5. Leveraging monopoly power excessively to exact maximum revenues from academic customers
  6. Taking advantage of one’s role as, say, the certifier of academic programs to require that those programs have access to one’s commercial products
  7. Stacking a “big deal” package with weak or sub-par journals in order to inflate those journals’ usage data and/or justify otherwise indefensible price increases

Another question that sometimes arises in the context of “predatory publishing” is about real-world impact rather than intent. The line of argument often goes like this: “Sure, there are dishonest publishers out there who sell fraudulent credentials to authors, but no one with half a brain would be fooled into thinking that these publishers’ products are really serious scholarly publications. Just take a look at them, for crying out loud; they’re obvious fakes.” This may generally be true, though recent research suggests it’s not that simple. In any case, this argument misses an important point: fraudulent credentials are not usually encountered in the context of the publications that conferred them. When we’re faced with them it’s usually in the context of a CV, where the fraudulent credentials will look just like (and may actually be embedded among) legitimate ones. Fake or shoddy journals, in fact, often have titles formulated with just that kind of camouflage in mind, a tendency that Beall documents amply in his list. In other words, a citation to a fake or shoddy journal looks exactly like a citation to a real one, and this is one important aspect of the real-world danger of predatory or bad-faith scholarly publishing: the danger isn’t so much that smart and well-intentioned authors will accidentally publish with a fraudulent journal, but that busy search committees will (inevitably) fail to vet carefully every citation provided in a job candidate’s CV, and thereby accidentally hire a fraudulent scholar. Doing so can have nasty consequences for the institution’s reputation when the fraud is exposed later.

Of course, one problem with the concept of bad faith is that it addresses intentions more than actions, and the intentions of others can be pretty tough to divine. This means that in practice, bad faith ends up being, to some degree, in the eye of the beholder: there are some who see the imposition of access fees on scholarly content as an inherently bad-faith exercise, and others who see the institutional imposition of CC-BY licensing on authors as an inherently bad-faith exercise. But without knowing the thoughts and intents of those who do these things, it’s not really possible to know whether they’re operating in good or bad faith. Being wrong doesn’t mean that one is insincere or malicious, and authors can indeed be fooled by journals that go to significant lengths to hide their fraudulent intentions.

Another problem with the term “bad faith” is that it’s just not as grabby as “predatory.” But I don’t see a universally acceptable definition of that grabbier term anywhere on the horizon, and until we all agree on what it means it’s going to be difficult to have useful and constructive conversations about the problem of predation. So maybe we should let the term die.



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