Pseudo-Academic Publishing, Astroturfing, and Google Scholar

According to the article “Scientific Articles Accepted (Personal Checks, Too)” (thanks Tom Higgins for the tip) appearing recently in the New York Times, there is an entire industry built around the appearance of academic qualification, “a parallel world of pseudo-academia, complete with prestigiously-titled conferences and journals that sponsor them. Many of the journals and meetings have names that are nearly identical to those of established, well-known publications and events.”

Unwitting scholars are solicited to publish in the journals and attend the conferences only to find after the fact that there are substantial fees for doing so.  Of course, while I am sympathetic to these individuals, I am more concerned for the net impact on academe as a whole.  For as the article points out, “[S]ome researchers are now raising the alarm about what they see as the proliferation of online journals that will print seemingly anything for a fee.”

The problem seems to lie in the abuse of the “open access journal” concept.   Open access journals are defined by Peter Suber as scholarly writing that is “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.”  While open access journals and their attendant online scholarly communities are a boon to the free flow of information and the collaborative sharing of knowledge–things I think most of us can see the benefit in—the open nature of the internet allows for abuse.  One kind of abuse stems from charlatans running vanity presses who seek to divest academics from their paychecks.  A much more insidious kind of abuse, I think, is the creation of academic seeming fora in which those who actively seek to obfuscate knowledge have a new megaphone to disseminate misinformation.  There is, for instance, no shortage of evidence about rightwing think tanks and pro-corporate forces trying to muddy the water of the science behind anthropogenic climate change.  If we have already witnessed well-funded think tanks astro-turfing (simulating grass-roots movements) for political causes, then why shouldn’t we expect similar assaults on academic discourse?

Jeffrey Beall, a research librarian at the University of Colorado in Denver, has developed his own blacklist of what he calls “predatory open-access journals.” He warns that their numbers are growing.   There were 20 publishers on his list in 2010, and now there are more than 300. He estimates that there are as many as 4,000 predatory journals today, at least 25 percent of the total number of open-access journals.  To be sure, not all of these sources are “bad” sources or even incredible ones.  The problem is that it is very difficult to tell one from another without a high degree of subject-specific knowledge and a savvy understanding of information literacy.  As the article points out, “[Researchers] warn that nonexperts doing online research will have trouble distinguishing credible research from junk….They will not know from a journal’s title if it is for real or not.”

And that, for me, is where the rubber meets the road.  I often hear teachers telling their students to use Google Scholar, and though GS is in no way connected to shady open access publishers, a cursory search on GS turns up a number of the journals listed on Beall’s blacklist.  Is all the information found in those journals wrong?  No, not necessarily.  But it IS suspect, and if our students have been told that GS is a good source, they are unlikely to realize that fact and evaluate accordingly.  I would caution that Google Scholar is never a substitute for a database search limited to peer-reviewed sources.

5 thoughts on “Pseudo-Academic Publishing, Astroturfing, and Google Scholar

  1. Hi, UnofficialFactChecker.

    There are many presuppositions here. For one thing, authentication of research and evidence must be established in order to create – and protect – academic discourse. Authentication of authorship (or, in this case, publisher) also must be established. Without such authentications the ability to conduct an academic argument – or any kind of reliable discussion, really – is compromised.

    Your example re: rightwing think tanks and pro-corporate forces means that an effective academic and civically engaged response (from the political Left?) depends upon closing down such open-ended fora through the application of the presuppositions noted above.

    “The open nature of the internet” – such as the wanton use of anonymity and pseudonymity –“transgresses” those presuppositions, but in this instance it seems clear that those kinds of transgressions are not empowering/democratizing (e.g. re: free speech) – at least not if one is interested in preserving academic freedom/freedom from pseudo-academia. Or teaching.

    Effective resistance to such machinations depends upon drawing the line between such fora and academic discourse and holding it.

    12keystrokes offers no criticism but seeks only to offer some niblets for thought.

    “While open access journals and their attendant online scholarly communities are a boon to the free flow of information and the collaborative sharing of knowledge . . . the open nature of the internet allows for abuse. One kind of abuse stems from charlatans running vanity presses who seek to divest academics from their paychecks. A much more insidious kind of abuse, I think, is the creation of academic seeming fora in which those who actively seek to obfuscate knowledge have a new megaphone to disseminate misinformation. There is, for instance, no shortage of evidence about rightwing think tanks and pro-corporate forces trying to muddy the water of the science behind anthropogenic climate change. If we have already witnessed well-funded think tanks astro-turfing (simulating grass-roots movements) for political causes, then why shouldn’t we expect similar assaults on academic discourse?”

    • “authentication of research and evidence must be established in order to create – and protect – academic discourse.”

      No. Credibility of research and evidence.

      “Authentication of authorship (or, in this case, publisher) also must be established. ”

      Credibility of author/publisher is established by a long track record of demonstrating credibility of research and evidence.

      “Without such authentications the ability to conduct an academic argument – or any kind of reliable discussion, really – is compromised.”

      Without evidence there is no argument.

      “Your example re: rightwing think tanks and pro-corporate forces means that an effective academic and civically engaged response (from the political Left?) depends upon closing down such open-ended fora through the application of the presuppositions noted above.”

      I was not calling for the closing of such fora, merely calling attention to their existence. I recommend that people simply use credible sources, and since it is often hard to tell which open access sources are credible and which are incredible (if not outright fraudulent) then I recommend that we tell our students to use the library databases, especially when searching for peer-reviewed sources.

      Thanks for commenting and asking me to clarify.

      • A bit late in replying. It’s that time of the year.

        One niblet meant to suggest that the exchange of information takes place between people. “Authentication” of the participants is assumed in academic discourse (no?). In general, academic argument proceeds from a certain set of agreed upon rules to govern the exchange.

        Otherwise some other kind of exchange is going on.

        Credibility and evidence are needed. Another “niblet” simply meant to ask what becomes of them without the structured exchange noted above. “Transgresssions” get a lot of play, as you know, in theory — but there is an obvious point of diminishing returns in actual practice.

        Finally, the “closing down…fora” phrase is unclear and does not fully articulate what was “in my head” (if you will permit the use of such a phrase/claim). It was meant to refer to the larger political context gestured toward in your post, to suggest that sometimes Astroturfing in itself might still make for “credible” arguments and evidence (until one feels “tricked” without authentication), and that of course the political Left can be just as incredible as the rightwing think tank.

  2. Perhaps a better place to search for open source materials would be the
    Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which launched just yesterday.

    The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) launched a beta of its discovery portal and open platform today. The portal delivers millions of materials found in American archives, libraries, museums, and cultural heritage institutions to students, teachers, scholars, and the public. Far more than a search engine, the portal provides innovative ways to search and scan through its united collection of distributed resources. Special features include a dynamic map, a timeline that allow users to visually browse by year or decade, and an app library that provides access to applications and tools created by external developers using DPLA’s open data.
    Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) Launches Today April 18, 2013

    http://dp.la/

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