BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone, with a deeper look into medical journals that influence what your doctor prescribes, that affect your own well-being. It used to be that libraries, mostly college libraries, did most of the paying for those pricey academic journals, but early in the third millennium two things changed. First, those libraries started to balk at the astronomical subscription prices, and second, the open access movement took off, which sought to make information free to everyone online. Some journals responded by making their contents free to the online public. Instead, the scholars whose work those journals published would pay.
Now, at first, Jeffrey Beall, an academic librarian at the University of Colorado, was enthusiastic, until he started to get offers from what looked suspiciously like bogus journals to publish him for a price. As he told Bob, just before Bob went on his vision quest, Beall started assembling a list of sham journals with seemingly shady aspirations.
JEFFREY BEALL: What some publishers are doing is accepting as many papers as they can just to earn the author fees.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, are these publishers who are tricking academics into thinking that they're getting into a reputable journal, or is it kind of a wink-wink, nudge-nudge kind of deal, where all parties know exactly what's being bought and paid for?
JEFFREY BEALL: Well, the answer is both. The publishers are very good at making themselves look legitimate. One of the tricks they use is to send personalized spam email to the individual authors, requesting that they submit a manuscript to a particular journal. They praise an earlier work by the same author, and this strategy works very well on junior faculty, graduate students and post-docs who are unfamiliar with the scholarly publishing process. Oftentimes the publishers don't mention the author fee in the spam email that they send to the authors.
BOB GARFIELD: For those who do know what's going on, for those who submit a paper, understanding full well that there's no peer review, what does that mean to us at the end of the process in the ecosystem of science?
JEFFREY BEALL: I think your question is asking how does this affect science. And the fact is new research builds on existing research that's recorded in the academic record. The result is that pseudoscience and non-science is being published bearing the imprimatur of science. And this has a tremendous negative effect on science itself, and on scientists.
BOB GARFIELD: I don't mind if my pastor has gotten a theological degree from a diploma mill and no actual training, but I’m really nervous, you know, if my airplane pilot has gotten his credentials the same way. Do I have to worry that in some areas of science, medicine and technology that the plane’s going to crash because the pilot’s a fraud?
JEFFREY BEALL: Yes, you do. Lawyers in legal cases, they often refer to scholarly articles to establish the truth in a case. Public policymakers rely on research. And the medical profession also relies on research as it gets translated into clinical practice. And the more bad research we have published in the system, the more that research negatively affects the entire ecosystem, as you say.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you ever get kind of wistful about the bad old days of monopolist academic publishers and limited access?
JEFFREY BEALL: Well, I do. There were a lot of good things about the old model, and that's not to say there’s not good things about the new model. But the old model played a very important validation function. If your article was published in one of the traditional publisher’s journals, everybody knew that it had to go through a very rigorous peer review. Today, we don't know if a particular article is a good one or not.
BOB GARFIELD: What do we do?
JEFFREY BEALL: The problem is, in most cases, the predatory publishers aren't doing anything wrong. They enjoy the same benefit of freedom of speech that we all enjoy. I've made a list of them and have been advising scholars not to submit their work to them, not to serve on their editorial boards.
BOB GARFIELD: And some of them don't like your list. One Indian publisher threatened to sue you for billion dollars and to file a criminal complaint that would put you in jail for three years?
JEFFREY BEALL: I’ve gotten a couple of threatening letters from publishers. Fortunately, none has resulted in a lawsuit.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] And what has the University of Colorado done for you? Have they encouraged you to keep on keepin’ on, or perhaps to keep a slightly lower profile?
JEFFREY BEALL: I get mixed messages from my university. Legal staff will represent me in case a lawsuit really does get filed. Universities these days are too much controlled by the public relations departments, I think, and they want news to be happy. They're not happy at my university, I think, with a list of predatory publishers. They’re more happy to have a story about students distributing turkeys on Thanksgiving.
So there has been some pressure on me. Most of it is indirect pressure, but it’s pressure nonetheless. It’s like the farther you get away from my university, the more my list is, is respected. And the closer you get, the less it’s respected.
BOB GARFIELD: Well then, I would certainly discourage you from going on any national radio programs to [LAUGHS] – to talk about this.
JEFFREY BEALL: [LAUGHS] A lot of people have been helped by avoiding these predatory publishers. It's very easy to fall for their scams. So every day I get emails thanking me for my work.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Jeffrey, thank you so much.
JEFFREY BEALL: My pleasure, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Jeffrey Beall is a scholarly initiatives librarian at the University of Colorado at Denver, and the author of “Beall’s List.”