STORY

Five questions for Jeffrey Beall

Auraria librarian shines light on shady academic publishers
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Battle of Milk River Site: a small park dedicated to the Battle of Milk Creek that occurred in 1879. It is located in Rio Blanco County on the Western Slope, on a lonely and unpaved county road about 15 miles from Meeker, Colorado.

Jeffrey Beall's photography uploaded to Wikipedia includes this image of the Battle of Milk River site, a park dedicated to the 1879 event in Rio Blanco County on the Western Slope.

BealsJeffrey Beall says the profession of academic librarianship “gives one the amazing privilege of working center stage in higher education. An eclectic profession, it continues to evolve at a very rapid pace, making it even more exciting.”

Beall, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver and scholarly initiatives librarian at the Auraria Library, made a big impression in the open-access publishing world in 2010 when he released a list of questionable publishers. That list contained 18 entries; now, it’s up to 500 entries.

Library science wasn’t always Beall’s choice as a profession. He grew up in California and graduated from California State University Northridge in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish. After spending two year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, he enrolled in Oklahoma State University and earned a master’s in English in 1987. He spent a year in Saudi Arabia teaching English to Saudi government employees and, while there, decided librarianship would suit him better than teaching English.

He graduated in 1990 with a master’s degree in library science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill then worked at Harvard University from 1990 to 2000. He said he missed his “native West” and found a position at Auraria Library in 2000.

Along with researching open-access publishing, he has published extensively in the areas of metadata, full-text searching, and information retrieval.

“Increasingly, academic librarians are providing services reflecting their expertise in scholarly publishing. Faculty with questions about the different components of scholarly communication, including open-access, scholarly metrics, digital repositories, publishing ethics, and copyright, should feel free to consult a librarian.”

1. When did you become interested in open-access publishing, and what do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of this type of publishing?

My interest in scholarly open-access (OA) publishing goes at least as far back as 2005, when I had my first OA article published in the Journal of Digital Information. In late 2008 and throughout 2009, I began to notice what I would later come to call predatory publishers. These are publishers that use the gold (author pays) open-access model and exploit the model for their own profit. They use deception and lack of transparency to accept as many papers as possible and earn author fees from as many researchers as possible, frequently publishing papers that are not worthy of being part of the scholarly record.

I was on tenure track then and was looking for new and interesting places to publish my work. Like most researchers, I began to receive strange spam email solicitations asking me to submit my work to new journals that imposed what we now call article processing charges (APCs) on authors whose papers are accepted for publication.

For many years, I had also been reviewing many science books for Library Journal and was also reviewing commercial electronic databases for the academic-library oriented journal The Charleston Advisor, so it was natural for me to combine my reviewing skills with my knowledge organization skills, and in late 2010, I published my first list of questionable publishers.

The most important strength of scholarly open-access publishing is that it makes published scholarly research free to everyone everywhere. Moreover, most open-access articles are published under a Creative Commons license, making it much easier for scholars to republish and repurpose content published under this license.

There are many weaknesses. The proliferation of predatory publishers is one and their publication of many unscientific and even pseudo-scientific articles and their intentional victimization of researchers. Traditionally, scholarly journals have used the subscription model, and libraries and individual scholars subscribing to journals were the customers. Gold open-access reverses this and makes the authors the customers, so the gold OA model is now geared to keeping the authors happy. In the subscription model, libraries — the customers — can cancel the subscriptions of underperforming or excessively expensive journals. In the gold open-access model, the consumers of scholarly research have no voice; gold open-access journals are funded by the authors, not the readers, and scholarship is suffering because of this. Any scholarly publishing model that imposes financial transactions between scholarly authors and publishers is prone to corruption, and this is exactly what we are observing.

My blog now has four separate lists. These include my original list of questionable publishers, a list of questionable standalone journals, a list of hijacked journals, and a list of misleading metrics.

Following on the success of legitimate megajournals such as SAGE Open and Scientific Reports, many questionable standalone journals began to appear. These operate like predatory publishers except there is only a single large journal that accepts just about anything, as long as the APC is paid. My standalone journals list numbers about 200, but I also have an unanalyzed backlog of these, for they continue to appear at the rate of about one a day.

Journal hijacking is something I first identified in 2013. This occurs when someone creates a counterfeit website for a legitimate journal and starts spamming for articles. Essentially all submitted articles are accepted, with the authors believing that they are publishing in a good journal. The hijackers tend to target respected print journals with impact factors that have little or no online presence. They then create a website that looks professional and authentic, yet it is a complete impostor. My hijacked journals list has a dozen or so entries.

Finally, my misleading metrics list appeared this year. In many fields and in many countries, scholars can only achieve academic success by publishing in journals that have impact factors. The impact factor is a journal-level scholarly metric. The predatory publishers, whose journals in almost every case lack legitimate impact factors, realized that they could attract more article submissions (and therefore more article processing fees) if their journals had impact factors. Thus a new industry was born, an industry that gratuitously assigns impact factors to the journals of any publisher willing to pay the fees for this service. Frequently, the publishers neglect to name the source of their journals' impact factors on their websites and in their advertising, misleading authors into thinking the journals have authentic impact factors when they don't.

I think the lists have had a tremendous positive and helpful impact. The mission of my lists is to help researchers avoid being scammed. I regularly receive emails from researchers all over the world thanking me for my work. Funding agencies and even governments use the lists when making guidelines or funding decisions.

2. The first list pushed you into the spotlight. What have been the personal ramifications, both positive and negative?

I have learned a great deal about scholarly communication in general and scholarly publishing in particular. Through this work I have gotten to meet a lot of really interesting people. When I was a cataloger, I almost never got invited to speak at conferences, but now I am regularly invited to speak around the country — and I even have spoken at two international venues.

I am extremely grateful for the privileges that Regental law extends to me as a faculty member. Article 5, part D of the Regent Laws is entitled "Principles of Academic Freedom," and it stands as a monument to liberal thought. The laws state that "academic freedom requires that members of the faculty must have complete freedom to study, to learn, to do research, and to communicate the results of these pursuits to others." This freedom is extremely valuable to me personally, and I consider myself fortunate to work in a university system that values academic freedom so much.

Several publishers have threatened to sue me, but none has actually initiated a lawsuit.

For some, the open-access movement is almost cult-like, and they are resistant to anyone pointing out the weaknesses of the models. I think that many open-access advocates are more concerned with shutting down publishers that use the subscription model than they are with promoting universal access to scholarly literature. Many are ardent collectivists that strongly oppose all for-profit corporations. I am not popular in these camps but am buoyed by the many emails I receive thanking me for my work, emails that come not only from the West but also from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.

3. What are some characteristics of predatory publishing?

With help from people all over the world, I have written and published a document called “Criteria for Determining Predatory Open-Access Publishers.” The publisher's location is not a criterion for determining whether the publisher should be included on a list. However, many questionable publishers misrepresent their true locations or conceal them, and this use of deception is certainly a criterion. For example, some predatory publishers claim to be based in New York City, but they are really based in south Asia. On their websites, they use the address of a mail-forwarding service in New York as their headquarters address.

Most of the predatory publishers — as far as I can tell — originate in South Asia, Nigeria, North America and Europe.

Overall, the criteria look at three things — use of deception on the part of the publisher, lack of transparency, and deviation from scholarly publishing industry standards and conventions. In most cases, the judgments are easy; for example, when a publisher promises to complete the peer review process in three days or when the articles in a publisher's journals are filled with plagiarism.

A June 5 article in the Times Higher Education supplement documented a case of a journal adding an academic's name to its editorial board without his knowledge or permission; he had to get the help of his university counsel to get his name removed. This practice is included in my published criteria.

The actual amount of the APC is not a criterion for determining whether a publisher is predatory. The abundance of predatory publishers means that they are all competing with each other, and this has actually driven down the article processing charges in this sector of the market.

4. You also have done metadata research. What was the impact of that research?

Before I began to study scholarly publishing, my research focused on the value of metadata and the weaknesses of full-text searching. The two biggest obstacles to high recall and precision in full-text, online searching are homonyms and synonyms.

Regarding synonyms, if you do a full-text search for information about false teeth, you miss all the documents that use the term dentures. In library catalogs, we took care of this through the use of cross references: Dentures SEE False teeth. But few use online catalogs anymore.

Homonyms contribute to imprecise search results. For example, if you search for boxers, the computer doesn’t know if you mean the dogs, the fighters, or several other things that use this name. Library catalogs create unique headings for each concept, so your search results aren't filled with irrelevant hits.

Speaking of this, I'd like to encourage all faculty to sign up for an ORCID number. This is a unique, 16-digit number that will help uniquely identify you, especially if you have a common name or if you ever change your name.

5. How did you become interested in photography? And in photographing properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Colorado?

Like many, I bought a digital camera when they became affordable about 10 years ago. My current hobby is to shoot pictures of things discussed in Wikipedia articles and upload the photos to Wikipedia to illustrate the articles.

On Wikipedia, there is a page listing all the sites on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) for each U.S. county, and a place to upload a picture of each one. I have been working on adding pictures for Colorado NRHP properties in Wikipedia. This has been an extremely rewarding hobby because I have been able to travel throughout much of the state and take pictures of old schools, houses, bridges, courthouses, churches, synagogues, railroad cars, banks, armories and the like.

When you upload a picture to Wikipedia, you actually upload it to their media site, which is called Wikimedia Commons. Then all the different Wikipedias in the various languages link to the photos there. A requirement for all uploaders is that you release your work with a free license, so all the pictures are open-access — anyone is welcome to freely reproduce and redistribute them.

I also have had a lot of fun shooting pictures of NFL players at Sports Authority Field, thanks to my friend Edward Balkin, who shares his season tickets with me. I have taken and uploaded pictures of over 1,000 NFL players, each one of whom has an article in Wikipedia. My picture of Peyton Manning is here.

Douglas Crossing Bridge

This is a Works Projects Administration Bridge located on a dirt road about 15 miles south of Granada in Prowers County. It was built by an eight-man team and completed in 1936. It is a stone arch bridge, and there are six arches. The bridge lies in an extremely remote and dusty location.

 

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