Their websites look like they belong to typical scholarly publishers: august names on editorial boards, claims of rigorous peer review, inclusion in all the right databases. But looks are deceiving. According to the US Federal Trade Commission, at least one of these mimics, called the OMICS Group, is a “predatory” publisher. And in a first-ever move for the FTC, the agency is suing the company, saying that they are bilking researchers out of potentially millions of dollars.
In a lawsuit filed last week, the FTC says OMICS and two sister companies, which together publish hundreds of online journals, have been “deceiving academics and researchers about the nature of its publications and hiding publication fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.”
Despite OMICS’ claims to uphold high standards, the FTC says, many articles aren’t peer-reviewed, many of the scientists listed on editorial boards never agreed to appear there, and the publisher effectively holds manuscripts ransom by hiding its fees until the papers have been accepted, making it difficult for researchers to pull their articles and submit to other journals. The complaint also accuses the companies of deceiving scientists and the public through their promotion of conferences — meetings, the company boasts untruthfully, attended by high-profile researchers.
OMICS, which has offices in Los Angeles and Hyderabad, India, has been on the government’s radar for several years. In 2013, the Department of Health and Human Services accused the company of abusing the good name of the National Institutes of Health and its employees by, among other things, improperly listing NIH scientists on the mastheads of some of its journals. Others have noted that some of the journals have names that are awfully similar to legitimate publications, further confusing potential authors.
So untold numbers of researchers and universities have been swindled out of hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last several years. One estimate found that predatory journals published 400,000 papers in 2014, at an average cost of $178 per paper. The FTC took this as its opportunity to intervene.
The suit is groundbreaking, as it’s the first time the FTC has filed suit against a publisher. It also represents a new line of thinking in the age of online publishing: That “as researchers become the consumers in scholarly publishing, they need and deserve protection from corrupt publishers,” said Jeffrey Beall, a research librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, and an expert in predatory publishing. “This protection wasn’t needed in the past, because when a library was unhappy with a journal, it simply cancelled its subscription. With open access there are no subscriptions to cancel.”
Beall keeps a list of predatory publishers that now numbers more than 900 names — plenty of potential targets for the FTC.
But FTC attorney Ioana Rusu says the agency is unlikely to go after all the other predatory publishers around the world. “With a lot of our other areas in which there are bad actors, the best you can hope for is that it’s setting a precedent … marking a line in the sand and telling people that’s not OK,” Rusu told Inside Higher Ed.
And Beall suspects that the OMICS lawsuit may be fighting last year’s battles, anyway.
“The predatory publishers are clever and nimble, and I predict that most of the Asia- and Africa-based operations will figure out ways to remove the standing that regulators in Western countries have to sue and prosecute them,” Beall said. While having an address in the United States may seem like a mark of legitimacy to many of these publishers, it also means they can be prosecuted by US authorities.
In response to the FTC letter, OMICS lawyers posted a letter on their website, taking issue with the various allegations and maintaining that their processes were legal — and even hinting that corporate interests were driving the investigation. “Based on the facts all of your FTC allegations are baseless,” the letter says. “Further we understand that FTC working towards favoring some subscription based journals publishers who are earing [sic] Billions of dollars rom [sic] scientists literature.”
Still, regardless of the outcome, it is clear that predatory publishers are now on notice, at least in the United States. That’s a good thing. At times, the fight against them has been too tied up in wars over open access itself, because the “author pays” model that makes predatory journals possible is the same one used by legitimate open access publishers such as PLOS and BMC. So, open access advocates have stayed relatively silent on the issue of predatory journals. But the FTC is making a distinction: Rusu told Insider Higher Ed that the agency believes that both traditional subscription publishing and open access publishing “can be done in a fair, open, clear, and lawful way” — a positive sign for the future of legitimate open access publishing.
It should be said that even mainstream journals are guilty of shoddy peer review and stocking editorial boards with the names of marquee scientists whose contributions are minimal at best. That doesn’t condone OMICS’ practices, and it would be unfair to lump conventional houses with the likes of OMICS.
Still, the existence of the latter is possible only because the former — with the help of universities, the scientific community, and even scientists themselves — have made the paper such a critical marker of academic productivity.
In other words, OMICS might well be a pack of hyenas, but they’re part of a larger, hostile ecosystem.