Seeking Alpha

The Ugly State Of The Literature These Days

by: Derek Lowe
Derek Lowe
Biotech, healthcare, tech

So how's it going out there in the land of the journals that will publish any flippin' thing you send them? Apparently pretty well. I'm not sure if we're still in the log phase of their growth or not, but there's no shortage of quasi-open-access titles out there, the ones that (like reputable OA journals) do charge you for publication and make the resulting paper freely available (if the web site stays up). But the key difference is that they skip that pesky stage where they actually review the papers. Or even look at the papers at all. It's much easier to make all such editorial decisions on the basis of "Have the funds deposited?"

My wife likes to quote an Iranian saying to the effect that "A thief robs a thief, and God smiles", but not everyone who publishes in the junk journals is looking to hoodwink some faculty review committee or government agency into thinking that they have a legitimate trail of academic papers. That's what I take away from this article, which shows that there are more people publishing in these papers than you'd think from institutions that should know better. For example, only 17% of a survey of such papers listed any sort of funding, but among those, the number one source was unfortunately the NIH. India was the number-one source of publications in the total sample, but the US was a solid runner-up.

Now, if you adjust for the number of papers produced by each country, the proportion of US scientific papers going to predatory journals is still low, but it's definitely higher than it should be. (As a percentage of total scientific output, the countries that look worst are India and Nigeria). And in case you're thinking that the US papers must be from Wassamatta U. and the Univ. of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, Harvard was among the top US institutions with such publications. The article itself doesn't hide its conclusions:

Whether authors are being duped or are overzealously seeking to lengthen their publication lists, this represents enormous waste. Just the subset of articles that we examined contained data from more than 2 million individuals and over 8,000 animals. By extrapolation, we estimate that at least 18,000 funded biomedical-research studies are tucked away in poorly indexed, scientifically questionable journals. Little of this work will advance science. It is too dodgily reported (and possibly badly conducted) and too hard to find.

The authors show that the papers that show up in this layer of scientific publishing tend to report less well controlled experiments with fewer details, making their value even less than you might have thought. They're calling for funding agencies, governments, and university administrators to start paying more attention and stop rewarding such publications as if they were legitimate. That's the only way that anything will happen; if the benefit of publishing such stuff starts to disappear, but we'll see if that happens, and on what time scale.

In the meantime, thousands upon thousands of these things flood out every month. I realize that seeing a paper in an expensive, hard-to-publish in journal like Nature complaining about cheap open-access publishers might be open to charges of self-interest. But these complaints are still valid even if you fold the page down so you don't see where they're coming from: this stuff really is a waste of time and resources.

But here I've been talking about the problem being localized in academia, while this article from Bloomberg tells me that I'm being too complacent. It's focused on the Omics Group, a rather large publisher these days that owns a number of other nameplates. In the past, they've let all kinds of unreviewed craziness through, and listed people on their editorial boards who had no idea that they'd been so honored. These aren't just problems from their early days; here's a story from June. And there's more:

In August 2016, in U.S. District Court in Nevada, the FTC raised the stakes, accusing Omics and Gedela of violating the FTC Act by engaging in "deceptive academic publishing practices." The agency calls Omics's peer-review processes a "sham," whereby manuscripts get approved within days of submission instead of the weeks or months it takes at more credible venues. It alleges that Omics claims distinguished experts as editorial board members and as speakers at its conferences without their consent; fails to disclose publishing fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars until after articles are accepted; cites phony impact factors (a measure of prestige indicating how often a journal's articles get cited elsewhere); and maintains that journals are indexed in PubMed when they aren't.

Otherwise, things are pretty above-board, I guess. The company's founded, Srinubabu Gedela, also seems like an interesting character himself:

In Hyderabad, where Omics's headquarters are spread over 250,000 square feet in two buildings, Gedela is convinced of a win. "The FTC is following the fake news," he says. He exudes nervous energy as he walks the halls, rarely making eye contact with employees and cutting off conversations abruptly. For years he's promoted a postdoctoral study he did at Stanford to boost his credibility. The school confirms he held a position for five months, an unusually short time, in 2009, a year after starting Omics. Gedela is cagey when asked about the details, saying he left early to return to India to build his company. But when he hooks his laptop up to a large TV screen in his office to show emails proving the dates of his Stanford sojourn, he accidentally projects an adviser's email threatening to terminate his contract after saying he took vastly more vacation than allowed. When questioned, he brushes the discrepancy off.

Excellent, a real pro. But the problem, as the article shows, is that a number of biopharma companies have published papers in Omics journals, participated in its sponsored conferences (there are over a thousand every year!), and thus lined the pockets of this guy. This isn't good. The implication is that the people doing the publishing are either clueless or trying to place papers somewhere where they know that they'll get published no matter what, and neither of those burnishes anyone's reputation. The closer such papers get to marketing, the worse this looks. Some of these papers have even appeared since the FTC lawsuit, and although it's not clear when they were submitted, the Omics folks are not one of your wait-months-to-hear publishers. No, this is another thing that the industry has to watch out for; we've got enough people mad at us already without kicking the ball into our own nets. Ditch Omics. Ditch all of these people.

Mind you, the rest of the scientific publishing world is not such a quiet place these days, either. I wanted to note this study, which suggests that the number of pirated papers on the Sci-Hub site is now so large as to pose a potentially irreversible threat to the big publishing houses and their business model. They'd better adapt quickly - I don't like the looks of the people who are coming up from the bottom looking to take their place.