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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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The Critics of OA and Acknowledging “Predation”

Several of the critics of OA, most notably in recent days Jeffrey Beall and John Bohannon – the former of whom believes, with an almost McCarthyite tone, that Open Access is an anti-corporatist movement – have pointed out the practices of so-called “predatory” gold open access publishers. They have a point. In a publication system driven by article processing charges, there are players present who are out for a quick buck, who will disavow quality control mechanisms in the service of profit and who will behave in ways that are incongruous with standards for ethical publication.

The problem, however, with many of these arguments is that they are only ever framed from one side. The anti-OA crowd point out the potential for “predatory” publishers, find the examples and then try to make them into metonyms for the entirety of gold open access. Conversely, those who are pro-OA (a group in which I include myself) often dismiss such problems out of hand. I think there are sometimes good reasons why we should dismiss them which have been covered elsewhere. We do, however, have to be open to the possibility of such practices and to work to put them to bed.

However, this morning brings news that Springer and the IEEE have had to retract over 120 articles that they published, in closed, subscription-based journals because they were automatically generated by the computer program SciGen. You can read about the whole fiasco over at Nature. Given the flack thrown at OA publishers in recent days for accepting fake articles, I thought this was worth a quick rebuttal.

I want also to note, up-front, mostly to make sure that Steven Harnad doesn't feel the urge to write too much wherever this appears, that green OA should not be confused with gold and that green avoids the potential bias implications in a gold APC model as it can be used on top of any existing setup, although green articles would still be subject to the whims of publishers' practices and quality control mechanisms.

Who Loses Out Under Different “Predator” Models?

In the two potential scenarios here – an open journal and a closed journal each publishing bogus papers – different groups seem to lose out. It is clear that, in both scenarios, readers are disadvantaged. They may invest time in a work and only realise that it is bogus after a substantial degree of effort. Economically, however, there are some differences.

In both setups, publishers make money from user content. They expect remuneration for the work that they put into the production of a paper. If, however, one of these services includes thorough peer review and a publisher accepts a large number of fake papers, it could be argued that they are not performing this function well enough (or their reviewers are dysfunctional, or peer review simply isn't good enough to tell the difference) and are, therefore, predatory. This label should surely hold whether they are paid from the supply side in a service model for their work (OA) or whether they make money through the sale of a commodity object. After all, both claim to fulfil a function (quality control) that they are simply not giving to their clients.

However, in a model where the supplier pays (OA on an APC basis), apart from readers who may have wasted their time, the only financial loser is the person who paid the one-time fee.

In a model where many libraries are paying for access to material, each of these institutions is financially hurt. Will they receive a refund for the space taken by these articles and the amount they paid? No. Will they have any recourse to remedy for buying a product full of falsehoods? No. Will they cancel their subscriptions? Unlikely: these journals hold the big-name prestige.

Admittedly, the amount paid by each library may be smaller than a single APC in some cases (although, note that 120 articles could be a whole journal's worth for a year, in which case: not). However, the point I want to make is that both sides must acknowledge the problems of financial motivation in publication and not restrict it to political agendas. We must also not assume that because gold OA can take funds more visibly from the supply side that it should be thought that there are no financial losers if fake material is published in a traditional, closed journal.

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