I’m becoming increasingly interested in the academic literature on predatory publishing, especially the differing definitions and argumentative strategies these articles use to illustrate the problem of poor-quality publishing. Over the weekend I scanned the recently-published article ‘Publishing in Predatory Journals: Guidelines for Nursing Faculty in Promotion and Tenure Policies’, by Broome et al. Through interviews and analysis of tenure and promotion documentation, the article explores the extent to which predatory publishing is mentioned or discussed in the publishing guidance given to faculty in schools of nursing in the USA.
While skimming the article to note down what definition of predatory it uses, I noticed this sentence in the authors’ literature review:
Unfortunately, the rise in number of these predatory publishers, which has recently been estimated to be an industry worth $10.5 billion annually (Wilkinson et al., 2019), has caused alarm, with many in academic communities fearing the potential destruction of the scientific literature.https://doi.org/10.1111/jnu.12696
$10.5 billion seemed unbelievably high to me so I followed the reference where this figure was taken from. This led me to Wilkinson et al., the first sentence of which contains the line: ‘In the last 10 years, a subset of ‘predatory’ publishers has been able to flourish within the $10.5 billion per year market [1-4].’ Already, then, it seems that the figure referenced by the authors of the original paper is talking about a larger market of which predatory publishers may be a part. Unfortunately, no more context than this is given and so I followed the references [1-4] cited by Wilkinson et al. for more context. Rather than an academic article, this led me to a blog of the publishing industry called The Scholarly Kitchen and an article by Joseph Esposito on the size of the open-access market. It turns out the figure cited is from an industry report by a company named Simba:
Simba notes that the primary form of monetization for OA journals is the article processing charge or APC. In 2013 these fees came to about $242.2 million out of a total STM journals market of $10.5 billion. I thought that latter figure was a bit high, and I’m never sure when people are quoting figures for STM alone or for all journals; but even so, if the number for the total market is high, it’s not far off.https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2014/10/29/the-size-of-the-open-access-market/
This seems to be quite different to the initial quote from Broome et al. illustrating incorrectly that the predatory journal market itself represents ‘$10.5 billion annually’, when it, in fact, represents the total STM journals market in 2013 (and even that is disputed by the author). So unless all the journals in the STM market are predatory (which is an argument for another time), this figure is way off the mark.
It turns out that a separate group of authors, Shen and Björk, did try to estimate the size of the predatory market and came up with a figure of $74 million, but even this is probably over-estimated based on the variety of definitions of predatory publishing that exist (and other factors explored by Walt Crawford on his blog). But even if this overinflated figure were accurate, the original figure cited by Broome et al. would still be over 100 times higher and gives the impression that predatory publishing is much, much larger than even the higher estimates claim.
I’m not entirely sure what to conclude from this, but the error seems pretty basic and took me less than a few minutes to get to the bottom of. Should this have been picked up by an expert peer reviewer? Probably. The article was subject to double-blind external review, as outlined by the Journal of Nursing Scholarship author guidelines, and so you would have thought that an expert on academic publishing would have caught this. Peer review is of course not a perfect way of evaluating manuscripts, although this figure does feel pretty egregiously wrong to be part of the scholarly record.
As part of their definition of predatory publishing, the authors themselves cite ‘questionable peer review done by these journals’. Here, we have a clear instance of questionable peer review that impacts the way the entire article is framed. This is not to say that the Journal of Nursing Scholarship is predatory, but rather that definitions of predatory are consistently insufficient and do not actually tell us anything about the substance or veracity of an article in question. They try to separate out good actors (in this case a subscription journal published by the for-profit commercial publisher Wiley) from bad actors based on inconsistently applied criteria often founded on prejudice (I have argued this previously). This has real-world effects because a huge body of scholarship is now dedicated to the analysis of ‘predatory’ journals that are leading to the ‘destruction of the scientific literature’, despite the fact that there is no fixed or useful definition as to what predatory publishing actually is. Paradoxically, as with this instance, many of these articles commit exactly the same sins they claim are characteristic of the kinds of publishing they are critiquing.