Last week, CTV News and Toronto Star broke the news about two of Canada's well known publishing houses for medical journals (Pulsus Group and Andrew John Publishing) have been bought by OMICS International, a predatory publisher based out of India. This publisher is under investigation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission which has charged OMICS of making false claims and deceiving academics and researchers.

What is open access (OA) publishing?

OA refers to free immediate access to, and unrestricted reuse of, original works of all types. In the OA model, authors own the copyright to their work, and agree to make articles legally available for reuse, without permission or fees, for virtually any purpose. Authors have to usually pay a fee to publish their work in OA journals. This is different from the traditional model, where publishers own the copyright, and access is limited to those who buy subscriptions that can be extraordinarily expensive.

All researchers like their work to be widely accessible. This, in part, has made the OA model quite successful in the past decade, with numerous credible, legitimate OA publishers such as PLOS, BioMed Central, and eLIFE. As a result, more than 50 per cent of new research is now made available free online.

This rise in OA has many benefits, including acceleration of discovery, greater access to science in low-income countries, higher rates of citation of published work, greater scope to publish negative results, improved education, and public enrichment. Indeed, many funding agencies now mandate that research funded by them (or by tax payers) must be made open access.

Emergence of predatory OA publishers

Sadly, the apparent success of the OA model has attracted a growing number of entrepreneurs who are trying to cash in. These entrepreneurs have little or no scientific credibility, but have launched their own 'journals' which essentially publish everything that is submitted to them, without any peer review or scrutiny, so long as they get paid.

Predatory journals publish anything and pay little to no attention to serious ethical violations, such as fabrication of data and plagiarism.

Jeffrey Beall at the University of Colorado maintains an online 'black list' of publishers and journals that may be predatory or questionable. His list had 18 such predatory publishers in 2011, increasing to 882 by early 2016.

A recent study found that predatory journals have rapidly increased their publication volumes from 53,000 in 2010 to an estimated 420,000 articles in 2014, published by around 8,000 active predatory journals. Authors paid an average fee of $178 per article to publish in these journals, with Asia and Africa contributing three quarters of authors.

How to spot a predatory OA journal?

The simplest approach would be look up Beall's black list and see if a journal is included in his list. Based on the spam emails we get, we suspect any journal that send us invitations full of grammatical errors, and invitations that have nothing to do with our field or expertise (e.g. yoga, management, and nursing).

Predatory journals tend to use very lofty titles ("International or World Journal of...") to mimic established journals. The adulatory spam emails (e.g. "We Adore Your Research" in the subject line) we get are typically sent using Gmail, Yahoo or such free email, and rarely provide the names of editors. The publisher's address is usually not provided or is fictitious. Emails from predatory journals rarely provide an opt-out option.

The email solicitations we get from predatory journals nearly always promise rapid publication (sometimes as early as within three days!), and tend of offer discounted fees or special offers (e.g. 50 per cent off, or $99 for a limited time). Typically, they will include some address based in the US, but careful scrutiny would suggest they are based out of India or Africa. In fact, there are data that India is probably the world's largest base for open-access publishing. OMICS is merely one of many predatory journals based out of India, a fact that has been highlighted in Indian media.

Why we should worry

Predatory journals publish anything and pay little to no attention to serious ethical violations, such as fabrication of data and plagiarism. The science-free process used by predatory OA publishers does not allow anyone to verify or challenge research studies that may have serious design flaws or biases.

This fact was demonstrated by a sting operation conducted by Science magazine in 2013. John Bohannon, a scientist who writes for Science, sent, using fictitious author names, completely flawed, fake manuscripts to 304 open-access publishers, including 121 from Beall's list. The flaws in the manuscripts were glaring and should have led to their rejection. In reality, 157 of the journals accepted the paper! For the publishers on Beall's list, a stunning 82 per cent accepted the paper.

Predatory publishing can have disastrous consequences. Already, researchers and patients are struggling to separate good from the junk that is online, and the explosion of predatory OA has made this even more challenging. Over time, junk science published in predatory OA journals will overwhelm the volume of good quality, peer-reviewed science. So, it is possible that medical practice will be influenced by seriously flawed work, including those published by folks with agendas (e.g. anti-vaxxers). This can harm patients.

Universities will now need to carefully scrutinize publications of faculty members when they are recruited, and when researchers go up for promotion. We predict there will be more and more examples of papers being retracted.

How should we respond?

In principle, OA publishing is a good idea, as it democratizes access to scientific information. Also, the OA model is forcing traditional publishers to get out of their greed mindset and come up with better solutions. The challenge is operationalizing and regulating OA, to ensure that the model stays credible and sustainable. Also, good peer-review and editorial oversight by credible agencies is key to ensure quality.

The acquisition of Canadian journals by OMICS has rattled the medical research community, and scientific societies that host the journals, putting their reputations at risk. Some of these journals have already migrated to other publishers, while others are doing so.

We call on our Canadian research fraternity as well as professional societies to distance themselves from any journal that is owned by OMICS. We also call on Canadian research agencies and regulators to investigate the sale of Canadian publishing groups to OMICS, and develop regulations to protect the integrity and independence of Canadian journals.

Madhukar Pai is a Canada Research Chair in Epidemiology & Global Health at McGill University, Montreal. He is the Director of McGill Global Health Programs, and the Associate Director of McGill International Tuberculosis Centre. (@paimadhu)

Eduardo L. Franco, is a James McGill Professor and Chairman, Gerald Bronfman Department of Oncology, McGill University. He is also the Director of the Division of Cancer Epidemiology at McGill University.

Disclosure: Professors Pai and Franco are members of the editorial boards of OA journals such as PLoS Medicine and eLife, as well as of several other traditional academic medical journals. Their interviews on predatory OA publishing can be found on CTV News and its website.

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