Science publishers aren’t supposed to be in the disinformation business. And that’s precisely what a federal judge in Nevada was saying late last month when she slapped OMICS International with a $50 million penalty in a suit brought by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
Judge Gloria M. Navarro agreed with regulators that OMICS, which publishes hundreds of journals and puts on scientific conferences, was guilty of “numerous express and material misrepresentations regarding their journal publishing practices.”
The ruling clearly is a win for honest brokers in scientific publishing. But it’s not the solution to the problem of so-called predatory journals — a term used to describe for-profit publications that pretend to offer peer review and editing but in reality do little, if any, of either.
Predatory publishers like OMICS, which is far from alone in this space (one estimate put the number of bad actors at more than 900), thrive because the market for scientific papers is insatiable — and growing. Last year, researchers produced somewhere between 2 million and 3 million papers.
The world clearly doesn’t suffer from a dearth of pixels devoted to research. What it lacks is an effective mechanism for controlling the quality of all that information.
In a sense, then, OMICS is inadvertently right about one thing: Relying on peer reviewers to vet papers prior to publication is less critical than legitimate publishers would like us to believe.
Critics of OMICS, based in Los Angeles and Hyderabad, India, have long alleged that the company’s promises of conventional peer review are largely empty. Navarro evidently agreed. According to the decision, the FTC found that “out of 69,000 published articles, only 49% indicate that some form of review was conducted.” The judge also noted that although OMICS claims to have more than 50,000 expert editors on its mastheads, the company provided a list with just 14,598 unique names, “and evidence of an agreement to serve as an editor for only 380 individuals.”
Indeed, as we and others have argued, pre-publication peer review, even when legitimate, is often bark without bite. It doesn’t catch fraud, it allows plenty of junk science to enter the literature, it hasn’t stanched the flood of irreproducible results, and so on.
So, while punishing OMICS for its bad-faith practices is warranted, and might deter some would-be predators from similar misbehavior, don’t expect the fundamental problems in science publishing to go away without an effort to address their root causes. Predatory publishers such as OMICS are symptoms of those problems, not the problems themselves. There would be no prey — knowing or otherwise — if there weren’t a market.
Those markets don’t only exist in the developing world, where language differences may make predatory journals hard to spot. An international investigation published last year found that thousands of scientists in Western Europe had published in such journals, too.
Topping the list of problems here are the perverse incentives that force researchers to publish for their academic lives. Unless institutions and funders are willing to abandon their fetishization of the paper as the value point of productivity and a prime criteria for awarding promotions and tenure, we’ll continue to see a surplus of low-quality articles that publishers give a misleading seal of approval.
This change won’t occur overnight, so in the meantime, authorities in science should encourage researchers to take advantage of the burgeoning world of preprint servers that allow authors to, in effect, workshop their articles with peers before they submit for official publication. They have promise, though at least one study suggests that the results won’t be any different from the status quo: It found minimal text differences between preprints and their published versions.
Or maybe the answer will lie with some other model designed to improve on the current, broken system. There must be some scientific publishing experiments worth trying that could use $50 million.