For the last couple of years I’ve asked the stage 1 students for THEO104 to work on a library research assignment.
It’s meant to encourage them (a) to use the library – the longer I teach the more I realise that libraries are places of mystery and terror to many students – and (b) to use some common sense and a bit of discretion when they’re deciding whether or not a research resource is reliable, relevant and useful for their assignments.
Yesterday (in a moment of procrastinatory distraction) I came across an example that illustrates why it’s important to develop these skills and then use them both inside academia and outside.
A friend on Facebook posted a link to an article about a study in the February 2015 issue of the British Journal of Education, Society, and Behavioural Science. The article was billed: “New Research on Same-Sex Households Reveals Kids Do Best With Mom and Dad.” The article’s title is a bit more circumspect: “Emotional Problems among Children with Same-Sex Parents: Difference by Definition.”
I don’t want to discuss the content of the article here. I’m a historian, this paper’s by a sociologist so it’s obviously outside my field of competence.
What I do want to highlight is why it pays to exercise a bit of caution when your mates on Facebook and other internets outlets enthusiastically tout the results of a “peer reviewed study” that confirms their views about subject x.
It doesn’t take much googling to find this study picked up by various conservative websites in New Zealand and abroad, since it seems to provide “peer reviewed” academic support for their opposition to legislation in favour of same-sex marriage and adoption by same sex couples.
Peer review (as my stage 1 students will soon learn) is the process by which academics submit the work of other academics to critical scrutiny before it’s published. Books and articles are sent to two, three or more of the writer’s peers in the same academic field. The reviewers send back reports (usually anonymous) expressing an opinion on whether the book/article should be published, and usually what revisions should be made before it reaches the press.
Peer review isn’t infallible. Academics sometimes talk about it cynically. But like other things about which we express cynicism (e.g. parliament) it’s currently the best – or least bad – system we’ve got.
But in an era in which the number of your publications has become a criterion by which academics and universities are ranked, savvy publishers with access to the internet and the scent of academics’ desperation in their nostrils have spied an opportunity for providing all sorts of publications with a veneer of “peer-reviewed” respectability, but often without the rigorous scrutiny, and always at considerable expense to the author who wants his or her article published. This is known in the business as “predatory publishing” and plays on academics’ need to bag a long list of publications in order to advance through the university or, these days, even to get a job.
This brings us back to the article in the British Journal of Education, Society, and Behavioural Science mentioned above.
In a spirit of curiosity, I decided that I’d have a look at the article my friend had mentioned. What struck me first about the website of this “British Journal” was that none of its editorial team was British. Most reside in America, one in China. I googled the details of these academics. As far as I can see, they’re legitimate. Although the article in question doesn’t yet appear on the journal’s website, most of the articles seem to be by scholars from African universities. This is not to suggest that there has to be anything substandard about scholarship from Africa, but it’s odd, once again, that African articles should be represented so disproportionately in something that bills itself as the “British Journal…”
Another thing I noticed on the top level of the journal’s website was that the publisher had a “special offer” reducing by 80-90% the amount that authors had to pay to get their articles published in its journals. As mentioned above, this suggests predatory publishing: it’s flourishing because of academics are often so desperate to get articles listed on their CVs that they’ll pay the US$500 this publisher charges for this privilege. At least in the academic fields with which I’m familiar (History, Theology, Religious Studies) legitimate academic journals don’t charge academics either for peer review or publication. I believe that’s also true of the sciences.
These features raised my suspicions and I decided to do a bit more poking around to find out about the publisher Sciencedomains International. Here I’ll refer to a 2012 review article by Jeffrey Beall in The Charleston Advisor  (which to the best of my knowledge and prudential judgement is a legitimate peer-reviewed journal in the field of Library and Information science – trust me, I’m an ex-librarian). Beal identifies Sciencedomains International as a predatory publisher.
Confirming my suspicions about the “British” journal Beall notes the following:
The journal titles are notable for gratuitously using geographic terms in their titles, e.g., American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Public Health, British Journal of Pharmaceutical Research. The word “International” appears in three other titles. The publisher lists offices in the U.K, the U.S., and India but is really an Indian company that operates out of India. Thus the geographical terms in the titles are an attempt to deceive potential authors.
In other words, it seems that “British” is used to lend the journal a gravitas (think British Academy, British Museum, British Medical Journal) which it might otherwise lack. In fact there’s nothing British about it.
Beall also offers the following observation about the publisher:
This publisher is a good example of a startup that tries to promote itself by closely attaching its mission and values to those of the Open Access movement itself. The message is that if you publish with them, you are a noble and benevolent researcher, making you work available to all, especially those from developing countries.
Sciencedomains lays claim to the mantle of the Open Access Movement – a legitimate attempt by academics and academic libraries worldwide to make research freely available to the communities and governments that paid for it in the first place. But this isn’t the business in which Sciencedomains finds itself. It charges its authors €375 or US$500 for publication, though it offers discounts to authors from developing countries provided that their institutions pay it $1000-4000 per year “institutional membership.” This perhaps explains the large number of journals from Africa in the British Journal of etc.
There is a conflict of interest involved in this publishing model. In Beall’s words: “the more articles a publisher accepts, the more revenue it earns.” This conflict isn’t present in genuine Open Access publishing, and it’s present to a lesser degree in the traditional user-pays model where the supply of articles – especially for the most prestigious journals – usually outstrips the demand (i.e. the filter of peer review).
Perhaps surprisingly in light of this Beall comments that Sciencedomain’s journals include some good articles among the bad ones (it’s a bit unclear about how he reached that assessment) and they do seem to be subject to some kind of peer review (the quality of which remains moot in light of the conflict of interest noted above).
As I say, I’m not really competent to judge the content of the article I mentioned at the outset – I’ll leave that to those who have some expertise in this area. Even so, the circumstances of the article’s publication do leave me darkly suspicious about its reliability.
The great cataract of information that assaults us through the internet every day is exhilarating, and I now remember with something close to astonishment my undergraduate days poking through the card catalogue and pulling books off the shelves of a rather small university library. But the caution required in trying to make some sense of the new deluge rises almost in equal proportion to its size.
Be careful out there.
Beall, Jeffrey. “Five Scholarly Open Access Publishers.” The Charleston Advisor 13, no. 4 (April 2012): 5-10.