Outside the Lab Profession, Training and education

Anatomy of a Predator

At a Glance

  • Predatory journals and conferences often take advantage of academics pressured by the common “publish or perish” mindset
  • These groups often overcharge those presenting or publishing without delivering the scientific rigor and stature they promise
  • To avoid falling victim to predatory groups, always check journals’ and conferences’ credentials (ideally with respected researchers you know personally) and examine predatory publishers to ensure your identity is not used without permission
  • This kind of predation is a symptom of a larger problem; we need to reconsider how academic science and medicine are incentivized

Academia’s “publish or perish” mindset is one that drives productivity and competition. And that can be a good thing – inspiring hard work, broad collaboration, and rigorous scientific quality control. But sometimes, it can lead to the opposite – a sense of urgency in publishing and presenting that may make some look less carefully at the journals and conferences accepting their work. This, in turn, opens the door to predatory organizations who take advantage of the perceived urgency.

What are predatory publishers?

A predatory publisher is a for-profit company that uses minimal to no traditional peer review (despite often advertising a rigorous review process) and accepts nearly all submissions (for which it may charge exorbitant fees). Beyond simply lacking scientific rigor, predatory publishers use deceptive practices meant to increase the credibility of their offerings. They will use the names, biographies, and photographs of prominent scholars without permission, falsely claiming that they are journal editors or conference speakers. If a scholar has knowingly submitted an article to even one journal or spoken at even one conference associated with these predatory publishing networks, their name and likeness may be – unbeknownst to them – disseminated throughout the network to advertise unrelated productions.

The creation of “predatory” journals and conferences in science and medicine is raising new questions about the scholarly publishing process. What is the value of scholarly publication in the Internet era? How are scholarly publications being used as secondary measures of influence and academic success? How effectively are we distributing the costs, labor, and profits associated with scholarly publishing?

Predatory publishers are also an unintended consequence of the rise of electronic journals and open-access publishing, two increasingly mainstream methods that are still dominated by legitimate players. Electronic publishing substantially lowers the barriers to entry into academic publishing due to its lower costs. Open-access publishing also shifts the burden of paying for journals from large libraries to individual scholars. Predatory publishers feel they can more easily manipulate these new consumers, who may have less experience with academic transactions than professional librarians.

A recent spam email I received from the OMICS publishing group.

Predatory publishing networks

Though there appears to be a seemingly endless supply of new open-access titles, each a slight variation on our sober academic vocabulary, most are actually part of a single Indian predatory publishing network owned by Srinubabu Gedela (1). This network generated US$11.6 million in revenue in 2016, according to Bloomberg. Although profitable, this represents only a tiny fraction of the more than $24 billion (2) scholarly publishing market.

Gedela and related individuals and companies have been charged with fraud by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and a federal court has placed a preliminary injunction against the companies (3). The FTC charges make plain the risks these publishers pose to researchers:

“The defendants deceptively claim that their journals provide authors with rigorous peer review and have editorial boards made up of prominent academics when in fact, many articles are published with little to no peer review and many individuals represented to be editors have not agreed to be affiliated with the journals.

The FTC’s complaint alleges that the defendants do not tell authors submitting papers for publication that, after their online journals accept an article, the defendants charge the authors significant publishing fees and often do not allow authors to withdraw their articles from submission, making their research ineligible for publication in other journals.

The FTC also alleges that, to promote their scientific conferences, the defendants deceptively use the names of prominent researchers as conference presenters, when in fact many of those researchers had not agreed to participate in the events.”

According to the summary judgment motion (4) filed by the FTC last May, Gedela’s network of companies includes the OMICS Group, iMed Publications, Conference Series LLC, Meetings International, Allied Academics, EuroSciCon, and Pulsus Group. Hundreds of journals and conferences are produced from this network of subsidiaries. Most are new publications; however, Gedela has also been purchasing older publishers to gain credibility. The Pulsus Group and Andrew John Publishing, for example, were originally respected Canadian publishers that are now part of this network, leaving Canadian scholars concerned (5) about academic “hijacking.”

The OMICS group publishes multiple pathology-related journals (6). Examining these journals, you will find publications by pathologists at many well-respected academic institutions. Each journal will list multiple editors, many of whom are prominent in our field. Some of these pathologists may not be aware at all that their names are being used for this purpose. Others may have consented to being listed as editors, but may not have been fully aware of the deceptive practices that these journals consider standard operating procedure.

A spam message I received on Twitter about another predatory conference run by the OMICS group.

Predatory pathology conferences

Pathology is no more immune to predatory publishing practices than any other area of medicine or science. I was motivated to write about this topic for our community after seeing tweets by influential individuals and organizations about the “17th International Conference on Pathology & Cancer Epidemiology,” a conference run by OMICS subsidiary EuroSciCon.

Among the sponsors listed for the conference was The Pathologist magazine – which, despite being a relatively new publication, has quickly gained respect within the pathology community and even formed a partnership with the American Society for Clinical Pathology. I contacted the editor of the magazine to learn more about their potential conference sponsorship and learned that, although the magazine had knowingly made an agreement with the conference, they were not aware of its predatory nature and have discontinued the relationship. This pattern is a good example of additive deception; a conference that advertises untrue affiliations with respected speakers and organizations may appear falsely legitimate to further speakers and potential sponsors – who will then enter into genuine agreements, risking their own reputations by accidentally liaising with predatory groups.

Examining the website and program brochure (7,8) for the conference, we can see some hallmarks of predatory conferences:

  • Sessions run the gamut of loosely related subdisciplines, with topics ranging from dermatopathology to plant pathology to psychopathology – an absurd combination.
  • Past speakers at other conferences make up a large portion of the promotional materials, a tactic meant to increase perceived legitimacy and optimize search engine placement.
  • Photos of related conferences show, at most, a few dozen participants, despite so many purported topics and speakers listed on the website and in the program.
  • Content is disorganized, poorly edited, and clearly drawn from stock text.

I reached out to one pathologist I know who was listed as a “renowned speaker” in the program brochure of this upcoming predatory pathology conference. He was not, in fact, participating in the conference and had no prior knowledge that his likeness was being used to advertise it. It’s clear from experiences like his that, despite FTC intervention, these predatory groups’ deceptive practices continue unchecked. In 2013, University of New South Wales biologist Richard Edwards memorably blogged about his negative experience at an OMICS-sponsored scientific conference (9), describing an event “bordering on farce.” After examining these marketing materials and seeing similar practices still taking place, I have no reason to believe his experience would be much different at a predatory pathology conference today.

Not the victims’ fault

The science presented in predatory journals and conferences is often legitimate and high-quality – and that is exactly the pernicious nature of these outfits. Predatory publishing’s deceptive practices can reduce scholars’ credibility, and that of their scientific work by association.

It is possible that a minority of people who publish in predatory journals and speak at their conferences are aware of their true nature – and they wish to use the lack of rigorous review to enhance their CVs. I do not intend to cast aspersions on even these behaviors. I have heard senior pathologists complain, over and over again, that in academic medicine there is increasing pressure to publish frequently, while protected time for scholarly work is shrinking. Traditional publishing also remains slow and cumbersome, and legitimate open-access journals often charge very high publication fees.

If we want to avoid the knowing use of predatory publishing, we must confront the misaligned incentives our system is creating.

Forensic implications

In an editorial in the journal Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology, forensic pathologist Roger Byard has raised an important point about the risk predatory publishing poses to forensic pathology in particular, due to its potential legal ramifications.

“In forensic circles there has always been a problem in dealing with aberrant theories that are at odds with the mainstream literature. In the past, this material was often introduced into court without the imprimatur of peer-reviewed, or any, publication. It is now possible with the advent of predatory journals, however, that even the most bizarre theories with inadequate or no scientific validation could be published. To the courts, these papers would appear to be no different to those published in legitimate journals, and without a clear knowledge of a particular journal’s reputation and process, may be difficult to exclude. My concern is that predatory journals may be used in future to legitimize fringe theories and to validate bogus experts (10).”

In this way, the use of predatory publishing in pathology affects not only the scientific community, but also people facing criminal charges, if the falsely awarded credibility of peer review means that unsubstantiated forensic pathology theories are used in legal proceedings.

Taking action

Unfortunately, the international nature and complex corporate structure of these predatory publishers, as well as an overall lax regulatory environment, virtually guarantees that these problems will not be extinguished quickly. Many pathologists are already familiar with the nature of such publishers, yet I still see respected individuals and organizations in our community inadvertently lending them credibility.

Pathologists should look for some of the telltale signs of deceptive practices described above, as well as consult their colleagues when considering where to submit a paper or abstract. If a pathologist is considering submitting to a journal or conference that raises red flags, but is seeing respected scholars listed in association with it, they should reach out to these scholars individually to determine whether or not their participation is legitimate.

In my view, predatory publishers are not the problem; rather, they are a symptom of a larger one. Those who control the scholarly publication and promotion process should reflect on how incentives are misaligned in science and medicine, leading to unintended consequences and sometimes outright fraud. When we use publication as a surrogate metric for scientific progress and quality, do we encourage scholars to game the system? Is the traditional, highly profitable scientific publishing industry stifling more innovative and affordable approaches? Is our over-reliance on peer review ironically driving down its quality? I have no easy answers to these questions, but I hope the most experienced physicians and scientists will continue to address these problems – and, eventually, embrace modern technology’s promise for scientific publishing.

Disclosures: I have been a member of the College of American Pathologists Residents Forum Executive Committee, which runs its own conferences for pathology residents. This article is written in my personal capacity, and is not affiliated with any organization or my employer. 

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References

  1. EE Deprez, C Chen, “Medical Journals Have a Fake News Problem” (2017). Available at: bloom.bg/2wPmYTz. Accessed September 12, 2018.
  2. S Buranyi, “Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?” (2017). Available at: bit.ly/2teqjJf. Accessed September 12, 2018.
  3. Federal Trade Commission, “FTC Halts the Deceptive Practices of Academic Journal Publishers” (2017). Available at: bit.ly/2M1H6Fo. Accessed September 12, 2018.
  4. United States District Court, “FTC’S motion for summary judgment and memorandum in support thereof” (2018). Available at: bit.ly/2xa6MKg. Accessed September 12, 2018.
  5. MC Oved, “Canadian medical journals hijacked for junk science” (2016). Available at bit.ly/2dnXAGB. Accessed September 12, 2018.
  6. OMICS International, “Pathology Journals” (2018). Available at: bit.ly/2Qo0rnh. Accessed September 12, 2018.
  7. EuroSciCon, “17th International Conference on Pathology & Cancer Epidemiology: website” (2018). Available at: bit.ly/2C1fZdt. Accessed September 12, 2018.
  8. EuroSciCon, “17th International Conference on Pathology & Cancer Epidemiology: brochure” (2018). Available at: bit.ly/2QnXOSe. Accessed September 12, 2018.
  9. R Edwards, “OMICS Group Conferences – Sham or Scam?” (2013). Available at: bit.ly/2OfTuD8. Accessed September 12, 2018.
  10. RW Byard, “The forensic implications of predatory publishing”, Forensic Sci Med Pathol, 12, 391–393 (2016). PMID: 27038941.

About the Author

Benjamin Mazer

Benjamin Mazer is Resident in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology in the Departments of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Yale-New Haven Hospital and the Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, USA.

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