Rampant parasitism hits the open access journal concept!

Many years back, before I tired of Slashdot, my signature included a phrase I’d picked up from some essay on systems theory:

“All successful systems accumulate parasites.”

As a vociferous advocate of open access publication, I would now observe: “Wow!—do they ever!”

The specific motivation for this entry is the very widely publicized “sting” by no less than Science magazine that demonstrated that most of the hundreds of new “open access” journals that have proliferated like fruit flies on a rotting banana will publish glaringly flawed research just to get the access fees. Adding to this—as if the universe were saying”Phil, remember, you meant to do a blog post on this!”—my email in-box was briefly inundated with “invitations” to submit to such entities, and I swear these emails were deliberately edited to mirror Nigerian 419 scams [1].

Without rehashing the Science study, here are three observations:  [2]

1. The fact that Science did this is a game-changer. While comparisons are being made to the famous 1996 Sokal sting of the [love’em!] post-modernists, Sokal was a single individual and his target was a single journal. In contrast, this effort is an industrial-strength sting by one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, and directed at an entire class of journals. While the approach certainly has its detractors—and not just among those who fell for it (this is, most of them)—those criticisms certainly haven’t risen to the level of delegitimating the tactic.

Which is to say, the exercise is now going to be repeated—probably on multiple occasions—and while the targets of the Science article were generally in the natural sciences, someone is almost certainly going to try this on the social sciences.

So, whether you are an editor or a reviewer, assume that for the foreseeable future any article you receive may be such a sting. Editors, of course, will have the advantage of knowing the identity of the [alleged] author, though some verification might be in order.

And thus now we wait for the deluge of reviews that begin “Hey, you thought you could fool me! Well, this is clearly a `sting’ article, with the following glaring flaws [brief list]”   Such heightened scrutiny could be a really good thing for many journals, if not for some authors.

2. Just when one thinks that the proprietary journals can’t sink any lower [3], they do: the usual suspects have gone on shopping sprees to pick up dozens of these bogus journals and lend them a patina of legitimacy while—as ever—raking in the big bucks, and specifically targeting young researchers in developing countries as their prey. While one can only hope that the long-term impact of this will be a large-scale construction project expanding the darkest and hottest reaches of Hell, the wheel of karma [4] moves relentlessly but very slowly and thus we are on our own for now.

Which is to say, do not, under any circumstances, submit to or review for any new journal unless you are 100% certain that it is legitimate. Even if it is under the imprimatur of an august proprietary publisher. Particularly if is under the imprimatur of an august proprietary publisher.

3. Somewhat lost in the focus on the flaws of the open access journals/scams is the fact that quite a few of the conventional proprietary journals also fell for the sting: While the problems are certainly worse in the scam journals, they are certainly not confined there. This yet more evidence that the system in general is broken: this has even received extended coverage in a recent issue of The Economist. Add to this that younger researchers are beginning to question whether all of the nonsense is even worth it, [5] and we’ve got a serious problem here.

What is to be done?

I’ve addressed a number of these issues in considerably more detail here [warning: large PDF file], though I did not anticipate how quickly the initial wave of open access efforts would be parasitized. That said, parasitism implies a rich store of resources ripe for exploitation, and this means there are abundant opportunities here as well. In particular, what we have here is not—I repeat, not, and that is absolutely critical—an issue of available resources, but one of collective action.[6] Collective action problems are hard, no question, but not nearly as hard as resource problems.

So briefly, seven problems with the existing academic publication system that are completely solvable but are not being solved.

1. First, admit that you have a problem. With the attention of the likes of Science and The Economist, we’re getting closer.

2. Giving away very expensive intellectual property only to have to buy it back. This is where the resources come from, as universities are giving away hundreds of millions of dollars in this manner every year and wrecking their library budgets. These same funds could instead fund any number of absolutely lavish legitimate open access systems and the research universities would still save vast sums of money. Once these legitimate systems are available, refuse all collaboration—submission, article review, and use of publications in hiring and promotion review—with the proprietary journals.

3. Giving away very expensive intellectual property—typically funded with public money—only to have it locked away from public access. See [2.]

4. Phenomenally long delays—typically three to five years in political science—for publication in quaintly packaged “volumes” with fixed page lengths, little different in form from scientific communications of two centuries ago, while contemporary research increasingly moves at “internet speed.” Actual scholarly communication thus occurs quite unsystematically in other venues and the published journals are little more than exercises in industrial archeology. The solution is moving everything to the web and matching the pace of the internet.

5. The rapid proliferation of bogus “open access journals” intended solely as exploitative traps for the unwary: see this. The solution is for the legitimate academic institutions, whether university consortia or professional organizations [7], to fill these ecological niches and drive away the pretenders.

6. A highly flawed system of peer review which moves at a snail’s pace, allows for no end of Hunger Games-style mischief by anonymous but scarcely uninterested reviewers, and still allows for a great deal of flawed, redundant and every once in a while, outright fraudulent research to be published. The solution is using the fundamental insight of FaceBook—your identity is your network [10]—and provide immediate feedback (with the provision for versioned revisions—that is, you can access the earlier versions of the article as well as the current version, which should provide considerably greater disincentives for the submission of total crap than the current “Oh, I’ll just shop this down the food chain” system does) from identifiable reviews on the Web. The good stuff will be noticed; the redundant stuff will get ignored; and if something seems too good to be true, that will be pointed out. But mostly, the junk will be ignored, which is what happens in the informal communications networks already.

7. Evaluation metrics based solely on the quantity of publications in a tiny number of “top tier” journals. The solution is to develop more sophisticated (and probably multiple) metrics—people, surely there are methods of doing this based on network science approaches!—and to adopt the “NSF Bio Statement Rule” in all professional evaluations: ten publications, max, and it is in your best interest to make sure they are as good as possible. [8]

This isn’t going to happen overnight, but it isn’t that complicated and in some rendition—probably in the “do the right thing only after trying every possible alternative” [9] fashion, it will get done.


1. Hmmm, maybe those were too well edited: was someone doing another sting to see how many people would respond? In any case, they’ve either subsided or someone has tuned the spam filters to eliminate them.

2. Sorry, couldn’t find seven this time.

3. Though why did I think ever that?—silly boy…

4. Hey, we’re multicultural on this blog…

5. That blog post is from an astronomer but I’ve heard almost exactly these sentiments expressed by several younger, absolutely first-rate quantitatively-trained political scientists in recent weeks,  in both North America and Europe, and no small number are seriously thinking about not going into academic careers. At their age, not mine. If that becomes epidemic, we could be heading for another period, similar to that from about 1700 to 1900, when most innovative research occurs outside of university environments, in large part because the universities refused to adapt to new technological realities.

6. Every time I think of “collective action” I now think of this. The first guy who gets the spear in the back?: that would be JStore. The dude in the robes who gets fried?: Sage or Elsevier. Alas, the academic community doesn’t speak Valyrian, and we know how the academic community regards women.

7. Many of which are proudly every bit as exploitative and rent-seeking as the for-profit publishers, with whom they are generally in cahoots. Maybe the dude in the robes is the  APSA? Anyone near Dupont Circle speak Valyrian?

8. Which as I’ve noted, simply returns us to the “make your very finite publications as good as you can” norms that prevailed in the social sciences until just a couple decades ago:

    • dissertation for placement
    • one book for tenure
    • one book for promotion to full

9. No, Churchill did not say this.

10. Or equivalently, your network is your identity: isomorphisms are handy that way.

This entry was posted in Higher Education. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Rampant parasitism hits the open access journal concept!

  1. Pingback: When the ISA outlaws blogs, only outlaws will blog | asecondmouse

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s