We suggest that there is a worrying trend that practices common among predatory publishers are becoming increasingly common also among traditional publishers. If we are right, scientific publishing is becoming increasingly compromised in quality and, thus, harder to trust.
A first example is that the familiar piracy practice of spamming researchers’ email boxes with offers to submit papers in areas they know little or nothing about (like offering a bioethicist to publish papers on radiology, gene sequencing, or whatever) seems to have spread to some legitimate journals. We have numerous times been invited to write scientific papers in journals from established publishers that focus on biology, epidemiology, etc., without any acknowledgement that our expertise lays elsewhere.
Also the practice of collecting large volumes, such as extensive anthologies, sold very expensively to libraries rather than being aimed at a broad scientific audience, seems to have spread outside predatory circles. We recently were informed by a well-known publisher that an article of ours were to be included in such a volume, which were to be printed in 175 copies that would retail for over 400 £ each. The editor was someone we had never heard of, and we had no say in the matter. While the publisher could not afford to give us any complimentary copies, the collection would be “an invaluable resource for university libraries worldwide, especially in countries where academic holdings are relatively less comprehensive” (from the e-mail informing us about the publication). Our experience does not seem like an isolated event (Anonymous academic 2015; Askey 2009; Bogost 2008; Paul 2016; Weber-Wulff 2007).
While most traditional journals have long been profit-driven, the competition from OA as well as their own forays into the world of OA have made it painfully clear that they sometimes put revenue before all else. They typically charge considerably higher fees than most predatory journals (Ahmed 2015; Bauer 2013; Butler 2016; Cofactor 2012; Graziotin et al. 2014) and frequently turn into “hybrid” journals, which is to say that they are both subscription-based and charge individual authors willing to pay for publishing open access. In adopting strategies such as these, the major publishing houses frequently draw criticism for primarily trying to maximize revenue at the expense of scientific exchange and openness (Bohannon 2014; Shen and Björk 2015; The Cost of Knowledge 2016).
A typical sign of predatory publishing is a stubborn refusal to engage with retractions, corrections or assisting in misconduct investigations. Recently some of the most prestigious journals in the medical field were criticized by Ben Goldacre on the COMPARE website for e.g. not accepting corrections to misleading articles or giving access to protocols when fraud is suspected (COMPARE 2016). Others have recently criticised one of the biggest open-access publishers, PLOS, for not providing authors with page proofs and then not publishing corrections for the resulting formatting errors (Chawla 2016).
Also, fake or lousy reviews, or editors disregarding thorough negative reviews, are not exclusive to predatory journals. When Bohannon wrote his famous fake papers and sent them to 304 publishers, Elsevier, Sage, Wolters Kluwer, and several university-based publishers were among those who accepted the papers (Bohannon 2013). Some journals count Nobel laurates among their contributors, yet reportedly accept papers after insanely fast peer review (Nature News article comments 2014).
Perhaps the most noteworthy example of reputable publishers engaging in questionable practices is the much-discussed case of Elsevier. They notably issued several journals that basically served as adverts for unnamed drug companies while appearing as peer reviewed medical journals, with no disclosure of sponsorship (Grant 2009b; Singer 2009). Elsevier is also criticized for high subscription costs that exasperate even wealthy universities such as Harvard: “We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free … and then we buy back the results of our labour at outrageous prices,” a Harvard library director complained to The Guardian (Sample 2012). Elsevier then in several instances charged readers for access to articles already paid for by the authors to make the articles open access (Jump 2014; Mounce 2015).
It is obvious that the greed of publishing houses may conflict with scientific goals and standards. It is troublesome if predatory publishers influence traditional publishers to increase focus on profit and feel more forgiving to quality-reducing shortcuts.