Door-to-door subscription scams: the dark side of The New York Times

An article appeared on the front page of the Sunday New York Times purporting to expose a “parallel world of pseudo-academia, complete with prestigiously titled conferences and journals that sponsor them”.

The story describes the experience of some unnamed scientists who accepted an email invitation to a conference, which then charged them for participating, and of some other scientists who submitted papers to a journal they had never heard based on an email solicitation and were later charged hefty fees for doing so.

Somehow, in the mind of author Gina Kolata, this is all PLoS’s fault, quoting someone who calls this phenomenon the “dark side of open access”.

Here is her logic:

The number of these journals and conferences has exploded in recent years as scientific publishing has shifted from a traditional business model for professional societies and organizations built almost entirely on subscription revenues to open access, which relies on authors or their backers to pay for the publication of papers online, where anyone can read them.

Open access got its start about a decade ago and quickly won widespread acclaim with the advent of well-regarded, peer-reviewed journals like those published by the Public Library of Science, known as PLoS. Such articles were listed in databases like PubMed, which is maintained by the National Library of Medicine, and selected for their quality.

But some researchers are now raising the alarm about what they see as the proliferation of online journals that will print seemingly anything for a fee. They warn that nonexperts doing online research will have trouble distinguishing credible research from junk. “Most people don’t know the journal universe,” Dr. Goodman said. “They will not know from a journal’s title if it is for real or not.”

There’s so much that is wrong with this I don’t know where to start.

First, this IS a real phenomenon. I get several emails every day from some dubious conference inviting me to speak or some sketchy journal asking me to be on their editorial board or to submit an article. However these solicitations are so obviously not legit, I can’t believe anyone falls for them. To suggest this is some kind of dangerous trend based on a few anecdotes is ridiculous.

And yes, a lot of these suspect journals charge authors for publishing their works, just like open access journals like PLoS do. But suggesting, as the article does, that scam conferences/journals exist because of the rise of open access publishing is ridiculous. It’s the logical equivalent of blaming newspapers like the NYT for people who go door-to-door selling fake magazine subscriptions.

Long before the Internet, publishers discovered that launching new journals was like printing money – something Elsevier specialized in for decades, launching hundreds of new journals with hastily assembled editorial boards and then turning around and demanding that libraries subscribe to these journals as part of their “Big Deal” bundles of journals. These journals succeeded because there are always researchers looking for a place to put their papers, and many of these new journals greased the wheels by having fairly lax standards for publication.

The same is true for conferences. For as long as I can remember I’ve been receiving solicitations to attend and/or speak at conferences organized by for-profit firms like Cambridge Health Tech that seem to cobble together sets of speakers from whomever they could get to accept – taking advantage of scientists’ desire to put “invited speaker” on their CVs – and then charging scientists, often from industry where travel budgets are bigger, to attend. I am sure some of these meetings are useful to some people (I’ve never been to meetings like this, some people tell me they’re basically junkets with little scientific merit, others say they are very useful) – but the idea that profiteering on people’s desire for prestige in science is something that came onto the scene with open access publishing is patently absurd.

The real explanation for the things described in the article is that it’s insanely easy to create conferences and journals and to send out blasts of emails to thousands of scientists hoping a few will take the bait. It’s science’s version of the Nigerian banking scams – something far more deserving of laughter than hand-wringing on the front page of the NYT.

But if Gina Kolata and the NYT are really concerned about scams in science publishing, they should look into the $10 BILLION DOLLARS of largely public money that subscription publishers take in every year in return for giving the scientific community access to the 90% of papers that are not published in open access journals – papers that scientists gave to the journals for free!  This ongoing insanity not only fleeces huge piles of cash from government and university coffers, it denies the vast majority of the planet’s population access to the latest discoveries of our scientists. And if the price we pay for ending this insanity is a few gullible scientists falling for open access spam, it’s worth it a million times over.

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