How to Protect Yourself from Predatory Publishers and Other Open Access FAQs

By Natalie Gerson, Open Access Publishing Editor at SAGE Publishing

Thanks to PLOS One, PeerJ, CHORUS, and even the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, open access has become a familiar concept to researchers and academics. Unfortunately, a large portion of that familiarity is due to highly publicized, negative aspects of open access, leaving researchers with an understandable distrust of this publishing model. Concerns range from predatory publishers, to “pay to publish,” to peer review quality. In reality however, the open access publishing model offers a unique range of benefits. Arming yourself with a bit of information can help you successfully navigate the open access landscape, and easily avoid the most commonly feared pitfalls.

Let's start by looking at the benefits of publishing research open access.

Increased visibility. With content free to all--not just paying subscribers--anyone with internet access can view and download your research. This allows for broader and faster impact as well as enhanced collaboration. Studies have shown increased citations to open access content and science as a whole moves forward faster when access to research is not limited to those who can pay.

Increased access. Traditional subscription journals limit their audience to those who can afford a subscription or who belong to an institution that pays for a subscription. This excludes a significant portion of the population including independent researchers, retired academics, and researchers in developing countries. Open access content is available to everyone, regardless of their financial situation.

Authors retain copyright. Most open access content is published under a Creative Commons or similar type of license, which allows the author to retain more control over their intellectual property including rights to distribute and reuse. For full details on the different kinds of Creative Commons licenses and their uses, check out the very informative Creative Commons website.

Meeting funder requirements. Increasingly, funders are making open access publishing a prerequisite for funding. Publishing in an open access journal easily fulfills funders’ requirements.

Although open access provides clear benefits, there is a darker underside to this publishing paradigm.

Predatory Publishers. Predatory companies take advantage of the crowded open access environment to launch journals with highly questionable practices. Some predatory titles list entirely fabricated editorial boards on their websites. Others go further by listing real academics without their knowledge or consent. “Pay to Publish” journals conduct little to no peer review, and will accept any manuscript so long as the author is willing to pay a fee. Some predatory publishers even mimic existing, high quality peer-reviewed journals, down to the journal logo. As unnerving as this is, a few simple tips can help you differentiate the good players from the bad:

·       Consult a white list. There are sites that list trustworthy open access journals and publishers. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) is an excellent resource with very strict parameters for inclusion. DOAJ links directly to the journal, so you can be sure you are not submitting to a mimic.

·       Trust reputable publishers. If you already know and trust the publisher and would submit to one of their subscription titles, you can trust their open access content as well. If you cannot easily identify and contact the publisher from the journal webpage, this is a red flag. For instance, if you come across a website for a journal and the publisher’s logo and branding are not prominently displayed, you are very likely on a predatory website.

·       Check the guidelines. Author instructions should clearly state the journal’s ethical and peer review guidelines as well as the Article Processing Charge (APC). If any of this information is missing, exercise caution.

·       Check indexes. Journal content appearing in reputable indexes (such as PubMed or Scopus) is a good sign, as is membership in the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). Always check the actual index rather than relying on any claims of indexing on the journal website.

·       Verify editorial board members. Look for editorial board members’ credentials online. You should be able to see their institutions listed on the journal’s website and find their faculty page at that institution. When in doubt, contact an editorial board member through their institution’s page to confirm their board membership.

·       Look for Creative Commons or similar licenses. Creative Commons licenses allow content to be shared, reused, and adapted as much as possible while still maintaining correct attribution. These and similar license types have become an industry standard for open access and most predatory publishers do not use them.

Finally, concerns about peer review, ethics, and the payment structure of open access give researchers pause, even after having identified non-predatory open access publishers and publications. A better understanding of these topics will help you understand what you can reasonable expect from a non-predatory open access publication.

Article Processing Charges (APCs). Open access titles are free to the reader but there are costs at every stage of the publication process including, but not limited to, operating submission and peer-review platforms, copyediting and typesetting, hosting the article online in perpetuity, and marketing. Since open access titles do not charge subscription fees, they need another way to be financially sustainable. Many open access journals charge a one-time Article Processing Charge (APC) that the author is responsible for paying upon acceptance.

The “author-pays” model is often accused of being vanity publishing, or “pay to publish”. When revenue is directly dependent on the number of accepted papers, editorial integrity is called into question. There is strong financial incentive to accept everything, regardless of quality. Reputable publishers address this problem by completely separating the editorial and commerce aspects of the submission process. Content is purely under the jurisdiction of the editor(s), while APCs are collected by the publisher, and only after an article has been accepted. The acceptance rate and any financial benefit that the editor(s) may receive should be entirely disconnected from each other. Discounts and waivers are frequently available to authors from developing countries and many funders and institutions are willing to cover their researchers’ APCs and have set funds aside for this purpose.

Interestingly, the one-time APC can be cheaper than publishing in a traditional journal with no APC. Traditional journals frequently have page charges (usually around $300 per page after the first few pages), color figure fees (ranging from $400-$1500 per figure), or supplementary material fees (up to several hundred dollars), which can easily make the cost of publishing in a traditional journal higher than an open access APC.

Peer review. Rudimentary or nonexistent peer review is a strong indicator of predatory publishing practices, where the priority is to accept as much content as possible. Reputable publishers ensure the quality of their open access titles by holding them to the same rigorous peer review standards as their subscription titles. External, expert reviewers support the editors’ decision-making. Reviewer comments should be thorough and relevant. Flawed manuscripts are rejected, or major revisions are required to resubmit. Many reputable open access titles have high rejection rates, a characteristic not found in pay-to-publish, predatory journals.

Peer review and ethical policies should always be clearly outlined on the journal website and practiced by the editor and publisher. Poor peer review is an indication of predatory publishing, not an accepted characteristic of open access.

Although open access has its bad players and opportunists, the quality indicators you would look for in a traditional journal also apply to open access publishing. Keeping an eye out for these will keep you safe in your publishing journey. Look for reputable publishers, clearly stated peer review and ethical policies, transparent peer review, and a reputable (and verifiable) editorial board. Check well-known indexing services and follow their links to journal websites to avoid mimics. A little knowledge will go a long way towards providing the confidence you need to successfully navigate the open access environment.

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