Curbing the cargo cults

How do you know which journals and publishers to trust? An update of the Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing from a group of professional organisations – the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME), the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) and the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA) – this month should help.

Open Access publishers, including Hindawi, came together in 2008 to found OASPA to help set standards for the industry. Open Access allows scholarly articles to be read and reused for free online, with no delay or barriers beyond having a smartphone or computer that can access the internet. At Hindawi, we completed a flip to OA in 2007. OA publishers have long faced accusations we will “publish anything”, yet acceptance rates at Hindawi are about 25%, we recruit expert academics to run our peer review, screen for publication ethics issues, separate decisions about payment from editorial decisions, and have a waiver programme for authors from low-income countries.

By the time OASPA was founded the OA model was proven – and the first questionable publishers appeared. First called “black sheep”, in 2010 Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at Auraria Library at the University of Denver, Colorado, coined another term: “predatory publishers”. The name stuck and researchers and librarians came to rely on “Beall’s List”. Seven years on, Beall’s blog closed amid controversy and tarnished by signs he opposes OA in general. The predatory label assumes motivation – indeed, some publishers are outright scammers, liars, and cheats – but other problems come from hubris, naivety, and inexperience. It also makes a binary judgement of publishers, based on often-subjective criteria, and ignores problems in non-OA publishers. If the article “Is it ethical to heal a young white elephant from his physiological autism?” had appeared in an OA journal, the publisher would surely have been decried as a predator.

...“cargo cult journals” go through the motions, but for whatever reason lack the processes of a real peer-reviewed journal...

Richard Feynmann in 1974 coined the term “cargo cult science” as an analogy to post-WWII Pacific Island “cargo cults” who built imitations of airstrips and control towers in the hope this would bring back the goods brought by the US military during the war. Cargo cult science looks like real science but lacks the rigor that makes science work. Similarly, “cargo cult journals” go through the motions, but for whatever reason lack the processes of a real peer-reviewed journal and hence enable those conducting cargo cult science. Consequently lacking real recognition, some have their own parallel infrastructure of ethics bodies and indexing services. Open Access London created Publishing Integrity and Ethics (PIE) and many boast indexing in Index Copernicus or pretend to be indexed in Scopus or Clarivate’s Web of Science when they are not (despite this indexing being easy to check online).

The archetype is OMICS, who have built up a dizzying array of brands, journals and conferences – and an unenviable reputation. Late last year, a judge granted an injunction against OMICS after the US Federal Trade Commission sued them. Before then, the Open Global Digital South conference invited them to speak on the topic of “Questioning the Critique of Open Access Journals”. I spoke remotely on the same panel and OMICS sent along their lawyer, an unusual choice of representative I was worried would have a chilling effect considering their past threat, channeling Dr. Evil, to sue Beall for $1 billion. Their lawyer avoided discussing OMICS’ critics and instead tried, unsuccessfully in my view, to wrap himself in the flag of Open Access and proposed OMICS taking a role in regulating OA publishers – somewhat late to the party, as this is what OASPA did a decade ago.

We all need to question claims, check processes, and think critically.

With Beall’s List gone, we now need to “teach a man to fish” in assessing journals, whether subscription or Open Access. The ten principles of transparency from COPE, DOAJ, WAME, and OASPA inform the guidelines these bodies use to vet new members, but they can be used by anyone to assess a journal. A similar initiative aimed at authors is Think Check Submit and last year the charity INASP created their own Journal Publishing Practices and Standards. I use a similar approach when I am asked whether a journal is “good” on the Q&A site Quora and when advising mentees on AuthorAID. We all need to question claims, check processes, and think critically.

Matt Hodgkinson - Hindawi



Matt Hodgkinson oversees publication ethics at Hindawi. He was previously a Senior Editor at PLOS and BMC. He has been an AuthorAID mentor since 2010.

Opinions in this blog post are that of the author and not necessarily that of Hindawi. The text in this blog post is by Matt Hodgkinson. It is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.