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.