Bullshit1 Is this journal for real?Is this paper reliable? A question that every academic will have asked themselves. We have all stumbled across a paper in a journal that on closer inspection isn’t really a journal at all.

This year 134 suspect new journals have appeared from the abyss, all published by the same clandestine company Scientific & Academic Publishing, USA. Scientists have been quick to raise the alarm and ruthless in their response (1)(2).

Scientific Academic Publishing USA Is this journal for real?The publisher seems keen to announce all of these new journals at once and accept papers yet most of the positions on the journals ranging from “editor in chief” or “editorial board member” to “reviewer” seem to be vacant. Not to worry, just send in “a brief resume (and) SAP will revert (sic) back within two working days”. I am trying to be very careful not to pass judgement on this new group, the internet will do that itself. The chatter in the blogosphere is not promising however and the discussion on their Facebook page is even less supportive.

Scientific Academic Publishing USA facebook 527 Is this journal for real?

Peer review serves a vital purpose, it is still the foundation of how scientists operate but the system is far from fool proof. Only last week I blogged about an oncology paper published in the “Breast Journal” that has “15 references, but they’re all about sex, not cancer”. The rapid and durable reaction of the science blogosphere helps immunise us against the pernicious effect of Bad Science that Ben Goldacre documents on a weekly basis.

We shouldn’t be too swift to disregard attempts to sidestep traditional methods of publishing however. Heather Morrison is one researcher stepping outside the box. She is publishing her thesis as she writes it and is inviting comment along the way. You don’t even have to wait for her to publish her work if you wish to use it, even her draft is published under “the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5” licence. Her work in progress Scholarly Communication in Crisis draws eye watering conclusions regarding the profits of the four largest publishers who own the majority of the academic publishing market:

All are in the for-profit sector, and the profits are enormous. As reported in the Economist (2011): “ Elsevier, the biggest publisher of journals with almost 2,000 titles, cruised through the recession. Last year it made £724m ($1.1 billion) on revenues of £2 billion—an operating-profit margin of 36%”. Springer’s Science + Business Media (2010) reported a return on sales (operating profit) of 33.9% or € 294 million on revenue of € 866 million, an increase of 4% over the profit of the previous year. In the first quarter of 2012, John Wiley & Sons (2011) reported profit of $106 million for their scientific, medical, technical and scholarly division on revenue of $253 million, a profit rate of 42%. This represents an increase in the profit rate of 13% over the previous year. The operating profit rate for the academic division of Informa.plc (2011, p. 4) for the first half of 2011 was 32.4%, or £47 million on revenue of £145 million, an increase of 3.3% over the profit of the previous year.

Scholarly Communication in Crisis by Heather Morrison (Open access)

These huge profit margins are not only increasing far above the rate of inflation but publishers are now actively forcing third world countries out of academia

To our dismay and anger, a few international STM publishers, using their monopolistic position, recently demand to raise the subscription prices for their full-text database at a yearly rate of more than 14% for the next 3 years and by 2020, to raise the prices for developing countries to the level of those of the developed countries.

National Science Library of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (2010) cited in Scholarly Communication in Crisis by Heather Morrison (Open access)

We expect our institutions to spend millions on journal subscriptions, this is deemed essential so the fruits of knowledge help fund the research of the future. The system fails when over a third of the cash-flow is creamed off the scientific process during the publishing stage. Moreover, all those outside leading western universities are left without access to journals (assuming they do not have $799 dollars plus to spare for a subscription or $25 for one-time access, for one day, at one computer (Sage, 2011). Ironically much research is therefore unavailable to the very people it is designed to help.  This problem is something all scientists should be aware of, perhaps not only the Medline ranking but also the profit margins of publishers should be a key consideration of what journal to publish with. (Edit 16/01/2012: On the topic of impact factors, it has been revealed that some publishers are now requiring researchers to cite recent research from their own journal in a bid to artificially boost their journal’s rankings, a very dodgy practice indeed.)

The cruel irony is that for research to be placed under lock and key in a for-profit journal, the researcher will have paid for education and time spent researching; then the researcher’s institution must spend hundreds on hotel fees and flights as well as many hundreds of pounds for a conference ticket, plus an insertion fee, often based on the number of pages in the publication (as is the procedure in the world’s largest engineering journal). Even open access publishers charge hefty fees, BioMedCentral’s fee of $1,640 is described as average, even PLoS charge $1,300 to $2,900 to publish. Surely a happy medium can be found, unfortunately for Scientific & Academic Publishing, USA the blunderbuss approach is unlikely to be the way to the hearts and minds of the academic community but we shall have to wait and see.

Upon discovering that research isn’t published in a reputable journal, perhaps the real question on our lips should not be is this journal for real? But rather, has this researcher proven that they have applied appropriate rigorous controls and is there a free and fair forum for the researcher’s conclusions to be questioned? 

Morrison, Heather. (2012). Scholarly Communication in Crisis. Freedom for scholarship in the internet age. Simon Fraser University School of Communication. Doctoral dissertation (in process)

Update 16/01/2012: Further reading from today’s Guardian: Academic publishers have become the enemies of science

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