After months of uncertainty, we now know why Jeffrey Beall removed his list of allegedly predatory open access publishers. In an opinion paper published in Biochemia Medica by Beall, he revealed the reasons behind his decision. It turns out that he, his colleagues and his university experienced constant harassment over long periods of time by many of the publishers on his list. Finally, after “intense pressure” from his employer (University of Colorado Denver) and fear of losing his job, he took down his list, his blog, his Facebook page and his university page.
The fact that these publishers deployed these kinds of guerrilla tactics trying to get a “heckler’s veto” in order to get rid of Beall and his list of publishers is a searing indictment of their practices. It is also a great shame that the University of Colorado Denver failed to give Beall their full support against those who profit from misleading and deceiving researchers and the scientific community. Defending high-quality open access to scientific research in a world where ignorance runs amok is more vital than ever. However, it is just as important to defend scientific research and the scientific community from the festering parasitism of predatory publishers.
Who is Jeffrey Beall and what are predatory publishers?
Jeffrey Beall works as an academic librarian at the University of Colorado Denver. He became an associate professor after getting tenure in 2012. Between 2012 and 2017, Beall maintained a blacklist of allegedly predatory open access publishers and several other lists of e. g. predatory standalone journals and hijacked journals.
A predatory publisher is a publisher that engages in deceptive methods that include publishing fake content, skipping peer review, pretending to have a more impressive credibility than they really have, picking journal names that are very similar to established journals to fool people, spam researchers to try to get them to submit papers and pay expensive fees. Because of little to no regulation, many predatory publishers are allowed to do their devious business in the open without much social or legal consequences.
On January 15, it was discovered on Twitter that the list of allegedly predatory publishers that Beall was curating was no longer there. This was puzzling, because he recently had released a new version of the list within the last couple of months. It turned out that it was not merely the list of allegedly predatory publishers that was gone, but also his three other lists of allegedly predatory standalone journal, hijacked journals and misleading metric companies and even the about page of his website. In essence, the entire website had been taken down. However, this was not the full story. The accompanying Facebook page and his academic page at his university were also gone.
Anonymous critics of Beall immediately started celebrating, while the community of researchers and science advocates were still in the dark about what had transpired. Several explanations flourished on the Internet, from WordPress problems and collaborations with Cabell to legal threats and academic politics. Beall himself continued to edit Wikipedia, but took an extended break from social media. After a few days, the story of the list being removed hit the larger science community and articles were posted on Nature, Science and Retraction Watch websites. They offered little in the way of clarifications, merely that Beall had decided to take down his list, that he is still on the university faculty but planning on changing his field of research to something else.
More details are available in the Debunking Denialism article What Happened to Jeffrey Beall’s List of (Allegedly) Predatory Publishers?.
The real reasons Beall removed his list
In an opinion piece entitled What I learned from predatory publishers (cache) in Biochemia Medica, Beall finally explains the reasons behind why he removed his list of allegedly predatory publishers and looks back at some of the lessons he learned from the experience. Beall highlights two of the most crucial factors in his decision:
In January 2017, facing intense pressure from my employer, the University of Colorado Denver, and fearing for my job, I shut down the blog and removed all its content from the blog platform.
Others used more aggressive strategies. Some publishers, especially the publishers of standalone mega-journals, would go through my university’s website and cherry-pick names and email addresses of the university officials they thought important. Then they would send an email blast to them, denouncing me and making false accusations about my work, my ethics, and my ability to make judgments about journals and publishers.
They kept sending the emails to the university chancellor and others, hoping to implement the heckler’s veto. They tried to be as annoying as possible to the university so that the officials would get so tired of the emails that they would silence me just to make them stop.
In essence, these allegedly predatory publishers systematically harassed Beall, his colleagues and the University leadership and the support from the university appears to have started to waver. Fearing for his job, he took down the list and decided to move on to other research areas.
The fact that these allegedly predatory publishers went to such great lengths to harass Beall, his colleagues and the university administration speak volumes to the nature and activities of these publishers. If a publisher insists on rebuking the claim that they engage in predatory behavior, using these dishonest methods are not exactly reassuring.
I think there are a lot more that the University of Colorado Denver could have done. They could have publicly supported Beall and created a large research group of several dozen people to maintain and develop these lists, increase transparency and handle any issues that would crop up. They probably would not have to do this alone as I am sure there are many other interested research institutions that understand the benefit with such a list.
If email harassment by publishers was problematic for the university, they could easily have blocked those email domains, required objections to being included on the list to be sent in writing via the standard post or even implemented a rule that says that objections will not be considered for, let’s say, a full year if the publishers harass researchers. I do not think it would have damaged the University of Colorado Denver to stand up for scientific integrity and oppose predatory publishers. I doubt that any researcher or institution would honestly support predatory publishers if they were aware of all the facts and reasoning without fallacies or biases.
What did Beall learn from his experiences?
The opinion piece was sent in on February 15 (about a month after Beall removed his content) contains a sliver of bitterness. This is both expected and psychologically understandable considering the harassment and pressure that Beall received and how little critical attention has been given to the problems with predatory open access journals and some of the problematic incentives that exist for open access journals.
So how can we summarize the lessons learned by Beall from researching open access publishing? Here are ten of my own personal take-home impressions I got from reading the opinion piece (Beall does not always use the same phrases e. g. sunken cost):
(1) increased subscription costs were due to many reasons, but several reasons are not commonly mentions (including the regional economy, growth of the researcher population, and invention of new fields).
(2) library-managed repositories were largely ignored in the development of the open access movement.
(3) both the academia and industry have been too slow to fully grasp the problems with predatory publishing.
(4) shady open access journals have a clear conflict of interest: the more papers they publish, the more money they get.
(5) some predatory publishers will systematically harass critics with vile personal attacks and try to get them fired, essentially a version of the merchant of doubt strategy that tobacco companies, oil companies and the organic industry uses against scientists who support scientific integrity.
(6) researchers who have published in an allegedly predatory journal have not only a conflict of interest in the discussion, but is also subject to sunken cost fallacy. This makes it more difficult for them to embrace criticisms of predatory publishers.
(7) blacklists are disliked by both publishers and universities, but whitelists have substantial limitations.
(8) predatory publishers are a crucial component to many modern examples of pseudoscience and quackery, such as alternative medicine.
(9) the scholarly publishing industry is facing serious problems, and we have to put in the work to mitigate or fix these problems.
(10) preprint servers will likely become more important in the future, it removes the financial conflict of interest that predatory open access publishers have (since preprint servers are cheap to run) and overlay journals might be put together by experts, highlighting the most important papers published in a certain area.
A “Netflix”-version for scientific papers?
Although not mentioned by Beall, I think there are some insights that can be gotten from the media industry as well. For instance, production companies for television and movies used to oppose having their material on YouTube before the understood the true power of the platform and now many of them have their own account and upload thousands of hours of their own copyrighted material. Relatively new efforts like Netflix and Spotify is revolutionizing movies, television and music. Not all of these efforts are profitable, but many are.
Perhaps it is time for a Netflix version of subscription to scientific journals? Since there are many orders of magnitude more people interested in science than there are libraries, it has the capacity to attract an enormously large target audience with diverse interests. Just think about how many people would be willing to pay, let’s say, 22 USD per month to get access to a collection of scientific journals in an area they are interested in? Or just the ability to access ~20-30 papers per month? The possibilities are vast.
These considerations are especially timely since the appearance of services such as Sci-Hub that offers millions of pirated papers (roughly analogous to BitTorrent) and browser extensions such as Unpaywall that finds free and available full text versions of published papers. Although one should not take the comparison to the music or television and movie industries too literal, one cannot help but to note the similarities.
We might be at a crucial point where we have to make decisions on where to take scholarly publishing into the future. Perhaps publishers need to come to similar conclusions that the media industry has come to? It is very difficult or even practically impossible to defeat the demand for content that is either free or very cheap and high-quality. So one way forward might just be to approach the future of publishing in the same way that the media industry finally understood the value and impact of approaches such as YouTube and Netflix, while making sure to maintain scientific integrity and high quality content. It will not be easy, but it might just be worth it when the dust settles.
Cached versions of Beall’s lists are available online and some have even put up the lists on their own websites as a sign of solidarity with Beall and the important work of calling out predatory publishers. A curated whitelist and blacklist are being maintained by a company Cabell that had Beall as a consultant. Unfortunately, it requires a subscription and is likely not accessible by the average critical consumer of the scientific literature.
The fight against predatory publishers will continue without Beall by other people who also care about the quality of the literature and the future of scientific publishers. The silencing of Beall and his list might very well end up being an example of the Streisand effect. The sustained efforts by allegedly predatory publishers to remove incriminating content might just backfire and make both the lists and awareness about predatory publishers spread even more to the humiliation of predatory publishers everywhere.