Educating Your Campus about Predatory Publishers

The recent publication of Monica Berger and Jill Cirasella’s piece in College and Research Libraries News “Beyond Beall’s List: Better understanding predatory publishers” is a reminder that the issue of “predatory publishers” continues to require focus for those working in scholarly communication. Berger and Cirasella have done a exemplary job of laying out some of the issues with Beall’s list, and called on librarians to be able “to describe the beast, its implications, and its limitations—neither understating nor overstating its size and danger.”

At my institution academic deans have identified “predatory” journals as an area of concern, and I am sure similar conversations are happening at other institutions. Here’s how I’ve “described the beast” at my institution, and models for services we all can provide, whether subject librarian or scholarly communication librarian.

What is a Predatory Publisher? And Why Does the Dean Care?

The concept of predatory publishers became much more widely known in 2013 with a publication of an open access sting by John Bohannon in Science, which I covered in this post. As a recap, Bohannon created a fake but initially believable poor quality scientific article, and submitted it to open access journals. He found that the majority of journals accepted the poor quality paper, 45% of which were included in the Directory of Open Access Journals. At the time of publication in October 2013 the response to this article was explosive in the scholarly communications world. It seems that more than a year later the reaction continues to spread. Late in the fall semester of 2014, library administration asked me to prepare a guide about predatory publishers, due to concern among the deans that unscrupulous publishers might be taking advantage of faculty. This was a topic I’d been educating faculty about on an ad hoc basis for years, but I never realized we needed to address it more systematically. That all has changed, with senior library administration now doing regular presentations about predatory publishers to faculty.

If we are to be advocates of open access, we need to focus on the positive impact that open access has rather than dwell for too long on the bad sides of it. We also need faculty to be clear on their own goals for making their work open access so that they may make more informed choices. Librarians have limited faculty bandwidth on the topic, and so focusing on education about self-archiving articles (otherwise known as green open access) or choosing no-fee (also known as gold) open access journals is a better way to achieve advocacy goals than suggesting faculty choose only a certain set of gold open access journals. Unless we are offering money for paying article fees, we also don’t have much say about where faculty choose to publish. Education about how to choose a journal and a license responsibly is what we should focus on, even if it diverges from certain ideals (see Meredith Farkas on choosing creative commons licenses.)

Understanding the Needs and Preparing the Material

As I mentioned, my library administration asked for a guide that that they could use in presentations and share with faculty. In preparing this guide, I worked with our library’s Scholarly Communications committee (of which I am co-chair) to determine the format and content.

We decided that adding this material to our existing Open Access research guide would be the best move, since it was already up and we shared the URL widely already. We have a robust series of Open Access Week events (which I wrote about last fall) and this seemed to ideal place to continue engaging people. That said, we determined that the guide needed an overhaul to make it more clear that open access was an on-going area of concern, not a once a year event. Since faculty are not always immediately thinking of making work open access but of the mechanics of publishing, I preferred to start with the title “Publishing Your Own Work”.

To describe its features a bit more, I wanted to start from the mindset of self-archiving work to make it open access with a description of our repository and Peter Suber’s useful guide to making one’s own work open access. I then continued with an explanation of article publication fees, since I often get questions along those lines. They are not unique to open access journals, and don’t imply any fee to accept for publication, which was a fear that I heard more than once during Open Access Week last year. I only then discussed the concept of predatory journals, with the hope that a basic understanding of the process would allay fears. I then present a list of steps to research a journal. I thought these steps were more common sense than anything, but after conversations with faculty and administration, I realized that my intuition about what type of journal I am dealing with is obvious because I have daily practice and experience. For people new to the topic I tried to break down research into easy steps that help them to figure out where a journal is on the continuum from outright scams to legitimate but new or unusual journals. It was also important to me to emphasize self-archiving as a strategy no matter the journal publication model.

Lastly, while most academic libraries have a model of liaison librarians engaging in scholarly communications activities, the person who spends every day working on these issues is likely to be more versed in emerging trends. So it is important to work with liaisons to help them research journals and to identify quality open access journals in their disciplines. We plan to add this information to the guide in a future version.

Taking it on the Road

We felt that in-person instruction on these matters with faculty was a crucial next step, particularly for people who publish in traditional journals but want to make their work available. Traditional journals’ copyright transfer agreements can be predatory, even if we don’t think about it in those terms. Taking inspiration from the ACRL Scholarly Communications Roadshow I attended a few years ago, I decided to take the curriculum from that program and offer it to faculty and graduate students. We read through three publication agreements as a group, and then discussed how open the publishers were to reuse of material, or whether they mentioned it at all. We then included a section on addenda to contracts for negotiation about additional rights.

The first workshop received modest attendance, but included some thoughtful conversations, and we have promised to run it again. Some people may never have read their agreements closely, and never realized they were doing something illegal or not specifically allowed by, for instance, sharing an article they wrote with their students. That concrete realization is more likely to spur action than more abstract arguments about the benefits of open access.

Escaping the Predator Metaphor

If I could go back, I would get rid of the concept of “predator” attached to open access journals. Let’s call it instead unscrupulous entrants into an emerging business model. That’s not as catchy, but it explains why this has happened. I would argue, personally, that the hybrid gold journals by large publishers are just as predatory, as they capitalize on funding requirements to make articles open access with high fees. They too are trying new business models, and those may not be tenable either. As I said above, choosing a journal with eyes wide open and understanding all the ramifications of different publication models is the only way forward. To suggest that faculty are innocently waiting to be pounced on by predators is to deny their agency and their ability to make choices about their own work. There may be days where that metaphor seems apt, but I think overall this is a damaging mentality to librarians interested in promoting new models of scholarly communication. I hope we can provide better resources and programming to escape this, as well as to help administration to understand how to choose to fund open access initiatives.

In the comments I’d like to hear more suggestions about how to escape the “predator” metaphor, as well as your own techniques for educating faculty on your campus.