Earlier this week I had the delicate task of replying to a researcher who had applied for funding for open access publication fees and telling her that our COPE fund could not be used to support her article. The reason was that it was to be published in a journal that did not meet two of our basic criteria. In order to ensure that our limited funds are well-spent, we will only fund article processing fees for journals that are listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals and published by members of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association. These criteria may be imperfect surrogates for quality, but they have served us well in striving to be sure that we support high-quality, sustainable OA publishing efforts.
Because we have these criteria, there was an objective reason for our decision to deny this particular application, since the journal did not meet either of the requirements I just mentioned. But I felt obligated to say more, so I forwarded the researcher a link to a discussion of whether or not the publisher in question was a “predatory” OA operation. The concerns were real, although the article did not ultimately decide whether the problems it listed were the result of an awkward start up or intentional deception. I told the researcher that she might consider a different venue, and I worried about her reply because I had been rather pushy, I thought.
The reply I received was both a relief and a surprise. The researcher thanked me for my concern, said that she understood the decision about funding, and clearly indicated her intention to proceed with the publication as planned. Her response got me thinking about the whole notion of predatory open access publishing. How, I wondered, should libraries especially, when they administer OA funds, think about the predatory problem?
First, I think libraries are right to raise the issue. We have always had a role in helping students and even faculty evaluate the quality of various publications, and doing so is an obligation when we are making purchase or other funding decisions, since we are obligated to spend carefully the funds our institutions entrust to us. I really like the warning, couched in a modest and restrained tone, found in this blog post the University of Buffalo Libraries. We should not be condemning all open access publishing, or otherwise shouting about the predators all around us, but we do need to answer inquiries honestly and spend our monies wisely.
Which brings me to a second reflection. “Predatory” publishing is not exclusively an open access problem, and the problems included in that over-used phrase actually run the gamut from genuine attempts to defraud people to simple mismanagement. Before there were OA journals there were journals published in traditional fashion that were merely shills for certain industries or which otherwise had unacknowledged selection criteria that conflicted with scholarly quality. The victims of these types of journals were unwary libraries, who purchased subscriptions that ultimately ill-served their patrons and wasted scarce resources.
In an online age, criteria that are well-established in libraries for avoiding these predatory toll-access journals now must be shared more widely because researchers may unwittingly spend research funds on equally low-quality OA journals. But to call this an open access problem is to blind ourselves to its full scope and is, I fear, often motivated more by the desire to bring OA itself into disrepute, to “scare the children,” as I like to call it, than it is by a desire to protect the entire system of scholarly communications. We should not allow FUD (fear, uncertainty & doubt), which is often spread by institutions that are trying to preserve the problem to which they see themselves as the solution (to paraphrase Clay Shirky), to narrow our vision of a sustainable system of scholarly publishing. The problem we should be addressing is predatory publications, OA and subscription-based, and publishing ethics across the board.
One reason I think this point is so important is because of the danger inherent in a wide-spread panic over predatory OA journals. The first source that alerted me to the potential problems with the publisher I was investigating earlier this week was a version of Jeffrey Beall’s list of predatory Open Access publishers. In the particular case the concerns expressed there were, I think, fully justified. But the version of the list I stumbled across (and which I cannot now locate) was, in my opinion, over-inclusive. It included, for example, the publisher Hindawi. I note that none of the versions I can find this morning do include that publisher; I hope they have been removed from all such lists. My own opinion is that Hindawi is a perfectly legitimate publishing operation and it is one with which our researchers publish often and sometimes repeatedly.
As long as Hindawi meets our criteria for COPE funding, and it currently does, I will defer to the judgment of our authors when they choose to publish in those journals. And I will continued to be afraid that the hue and cry over predatory OA publishing will tar perfectly legitimate operations. The reason given for concern over Hindawi on the list I saw was that they publish “too many” journals. This is a highly subjective criteria, and it is really a legacy from older, print-based publishing. So I repeat, we should make our decisions about quality on the basis of neutral criteria that can be applied to any business model and not allow the legitimate concern over predatory practices to become a weapon used against only a single publishing option.
Finally, I think that there is a role here for deference to researchers, who are likely to know best what form of publishing suits their needs. It is perfectly possible that the advantages of open access publishing or any other particular publishing venue will, in the minds of individual researchers, simply outweigh some of the concerns we might express about a publisher, especially when those concerns are subjective or in dispute. The speed of research dissemination and the impact advantage that authors get from open access may make it a lot easier to overlook purely administrative problems, which probably plague any publishing enterprise in its first few years. The authors themselves, who know their disciplines best, of course, and also have the responsibility to manage their own careers, should ultimately decide where they want to publish, as the researcher I conversed with this week did. We need objective criteria and frank communication about real problems and concerns when we are expending the limit funds of our institutions. But that is very different from telling researchers that the cannot publish somewhere, which we should never do, in my opinion. It is also quite different from a panic or a witch-hunt or a FUD-fest, which will not serve anyone well.