Despite daily updates to spam filters and contact blocking, I wake up every day to a variety of invitations to submit to journals.
- No good journal does that. They have lots of submissions.
The spam emails highlight the wild west of predatory journals, often with names that try to imitate real journals. Today’s was the “New American Journal of Medicine”, a not-so-subtle variation of the New England Journal of Medicine or the American Journal of Medicine. It looks like that journal has published a total of 8 papers in 2019. I looked at one of them and “crap” is my generous assessment. It’s a paper that recommends a treatment for pregnant women and it’s one page long, does not disclose the funding source, fails to fulfill pretty much every standard reporting requirement for a clinical trial and reports essentially no specific data or analysis. But, it’s “published data” and therefore now on someone’s CV.
The state of the scientific literature is pretty messed up. “Show me the study” has been a common refrain, but it’s not as useful these days because anything can get published.
- Too many journals.
- Predatory journals.
Good journals screen out the weak articles. High impact journals publish a minority (5-25%) of the articles submitted to them (and bear in mind most often people only send their best papers to those journals). Some journals that are still good quality take lower impact papers that are still good science. Some journals take whatever they can get, just trying to screen out the bad science.
Others will take whatever they can get, as long as the authors can pay. Sadly, there are literally thousands of those, and they’re the worst kind.
Some people don’t realize most researchers don’t get paid to write scientific papers, and in some cases it’s quite the opposite. Some journals still publish at no cost, but increasingly, there are publication fees that may range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. That, itself, isn’t necessarily the problem. Some journals charge fees so that the papers can be open access (available to anyone, without a need for a subscription). However, some journal charge a couple thousand dollars, make a nice profit and don’t particularly care about the science.
As someone who’s an associate editor, editorial board member and frequent reviewer for many journals, I see the good and bad.
- I see papers that should be published accepted.
- I see good quality papers rejected by good journals, knowing they’ll still end up in another good journal.
- I see bad papers rejected.
However, I also see…
- Horrible quality papers rejected that I know will (unfortunately) still end up published somewhere else.
- Published papers that clearly didn’t undergo any/much peer review, or at least peer review of any quality and/or editors that paid any attention.
It’s frustrating to be reviewing a paper that’s complete crap, knowing it will find a home in a journal eventually and still become part of the “published literature.” Yes, it will most likely be in a bottom-feeder journal that many of us in the scientific community know is dodgy, but not everyone will realize the difference. Sometimes that’s just frustrating, because poor quality science shouldn’t be published and just “muddies the water” of what’s out there. However, when it deals with clinical matters (e.g. diagnosis, treatment of disease) it can actually be harmful, because poor quality or invalid data shouldn’t form the basis of decisions. Yet, it happens.
There have been a couple “stings,” where fake (and clearly garbage) papers have been submitted to journals. The highest profile was one that was published in Science (Bohannon, 2013). The author submitted a paper to several journals. It was later said of the study that “Any reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot should have spotted the paper’s short-comings immediately. Its experiments are so hopelessly flawed that the results are meaningless.” More than 50% of the open access journals to which it was submitted accepted it.
There are many reasons these dodgy journals are used.
- “Publish or perish” as they say in academia isn’t quite true, but it’s pretty close. Junior faculty need to show productivity to keep their positions or move into the increasingly elusive tenured positions. Published scientific papers is a key metric, because it’s easy to count.
- Some people get taken advantage of, not realizing the journal is predatory (or that fees are so high, until after the paper is accepted).
- Commercial profit. Companies want to say their products are supported by published data. If the data aren’t actually any good, the amount of money that it takes to get something published is inconsequential for most companies (and cheaper than going back to the drawing board).
Open access isn’t inherently bad. There are excellent open access journals that charge a couple of thousand dollars per paper for publication but have high standards. Open access is actually ideal as it means the science is available to everyone. It just has to be acceptable science, and that’s where things start to fall apart.
Anyway… enough ranting. I always like to say “don’t talk about a problem without talking about a solution” but I don’t have an easy solution. More awareness is key, which is why sites that track predatory journals, such as Beall’s List, are important. It’s a good update on a sad state of affairs.