Open access and online publishing present significant changes to the Australian higher education sector in a climate demanding increasing research outputs from academic staff. Today’s researchers struggle to discern credible journals from a new wave of ‘low credibility,’ counterfeit, and predatory journals. A New York Times article on the issue resulted in hundreds of anonymous posts, having a whistleblower effect. An analysis of reader posts, examined in this paper, demonstrated that fear and cynicism were dominant, and that unscrupulous publishing practices were often rewarded. A lack of quality control measures to assist researchers to choose reputable journals and avoid fraudulent ones is becoming evident as universities’ funding and workforce development become increasingly dependent on research outputs. Online publishing is also redefining traditional notions of academic prestige. Adapting to the twenty-first century online publishing landscape requires the higher education sector to meet these challenges with a combination of academic rigour and innovative tools that support researchers, so as to maintain quality and integrity within changing academic publishing practice.

Open access and online publishing have dramatically changed the way that research is disseminated and distributed throughout the higher education sector. Open access provides unrestricted access via the web to publication outputs. Within a decade, online publishing has moved the realm of publication from solely print copies to producing materials which remain almost exclusively in electronic forms, which are either downloadable or printable by an end-user (Steele 2008). Open access and online printing are innately good and have placed access to research within the realm of other researchers and readers, in a fast and accessible manner and with significantly lower costs than were previously encountered in subscriptions to print-copy journals (Inman 2013).

Open access and online publishing are also inevitable outcomes of a digital age in which digital scholarship and digital research have become the norm (Salem and Boumil 2013). The use of materials within databases is now an accepted practice and considered the norm within undergraduate, post-graduate, and more broadly, higher education research and study (Goodall and Pattern 2011).

This new digital context presents significant challenges to the Australian higher education sector’s maxim of “publish or perish” for two reasons. First, Australia is currently experiencing an increasing demand for research outputs by academic staff (Jackson 2013). This is driven by universities’ search for continued funding. Many universities clearly quantify research output and directly state this as a specific target point when developing their workforce strategies (Nagy 2011). This emphasis on greater research outputs does create, between primarily teaching and primarily research staff, significant issues. An imbalance in the nexus between teaching and research may inadvertently lead to a decline in teaching standards, with students gaining less exposure to research-active academics.

Secondly, the mechanisms that Australian universities currently use to assist in evaluating their research lack an effective tool to control quality in this new open access and digital scholarship environment (Geuna and Martin 2003). This environment now includes “low credibility,” counterfeit, and predatory journals. Journals have emerged to attract both new and experienced researchers under pressure to “publish or perish” by workforce strategies structured to guarantee university funding based on the quantity—rather than quality—of their research output (Munro and Savel 2013).

In expanding on these two challenges, this paper contributes to the mapping of this new environment. It does so by examining online comments by academics about open access, and by analyzing a small sample of journals to help identify the range and impact of “low credibility,” counterfeit, and predatory journals on Australian researchers. Online publishing is redefining traditional notions of academic prestige. This exploratory paper suggests that current university models require new quality control mechanisms that will factor in the rapid growth of “low credibility,” counterfeit, and predatory journals. Academics will be required to meet research output targets to sustain their career trajectory (O’Brien and Hapgood 2012). Unfortunately, a conundrum exists for researchers, in particular those beginning to get their research published; it can be hard to find a publication vehicle, and it can take a significant lead-time from submitting an article through to publication. Many journals carry a significant backlog of articles queued for review and potential publication (Steele 2008).

The combination of open access online publishing with the demand for increased publication rates from academics has created the opportunity for predatory and counterfeit publishing to exist within the sector (Willinsky 2010). The economics of how academic journals charge fees for publishing research has changed as they must now make up for a shortfall in subscriptions as more papers become available through open access. This, in turn, has created both a financial incentive and a ready-made market of desperate researchers under pressure to “publish or perish.” Private individuals and groups have created bogus journals which appear to replicate credible peer-reviewed journals and made these available through open access (Beall 2010). Such journals did exist in the days of exclusively print-publishing; however, the nature of the online environment and the speed with which things happen there has led to a proliferation of low-quality outlets. The “low credibility,” counterfeit, and predatory journals are also an excellent potential source of publication for unscrupulous authors. It is possible that under pressure to publish, an academic or higher education student may opt to publish in a journal knowing that it is predatory or counterfeit, because it is unlikely to be detected. It is noted that evidence for such a hypothesis would be virtually impossible to find, save for anonymous online posts or a whistleblower.

A New York Times (NYT) article, “Scientific articles accepted” was published online on April 7, 2013, and discussed changes within academic publishing. The article was innately interesting, but reader comments that followed the article, in quick succession after online publication, were very revealing.

The posted reader comments have been analyzed. Notably, anonymity provided an opportunity for the disclosure of professional views with regard to counterfeit and predatory journals (Posey et al. 2010). The readers’ feedback has been categorized into ten classifications but overwhelmingly demonstrated both fear and cynicism. In an era of digital scholarship, readers’ comments on online materials provide a valuable source of information for the higher education sector (Mishne and Glance 2006). This NYT article provided the opportunity to explore the implications of counterfeit, predatory, and “low credibility” journal publications within academia and the reasons for their rise. Reader comments were most frequently classified as “cynicism.” The frequency of category usage for posts is set out in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Post count by comment categories (see Table 1)
Figure 1. Post count by comment categories (see Table 1)

Before expanding on these findings, the nature and context of the new open access and digital scholarship environment should be discussed. The current nexus between teaching and research in Australian universities also requires a re-evaluation; the interplay between open access, digital publishing, and increasing pressures to publish is creating conditions that require stronger quality control.

New Era of Academic Publishing

The web challenges old ways of constructing material for publication as it tends to follow an organic process which engages with the release of new understandings, new ways of thinking, and new ways of conceptualizing problems (Byington 2011). The immediacy of being able to publish a new idea and have it promoted is in stark contrast to traditional publications that tend to take an extraordinarily long time prior to being available for access, within both the professions and the community. Blogs and wikis focus on readability and reader engagement; they do not thrive unless this is achieved (Lewis et al. 2011; Michne and Glance 2006). This will present a challenge to traditional publication sources and formats.

In the technological and digital world of news reporting, commonly, online news articles are capable of instant and anonymous feedback via a comment box under each article, news story, YouTube video, or blog post (Hopia 2013). Readers are encouraged to make a contribution, which is often without moderation until after the fact, allowing for rapid reader commentary (Denizet-Lewis 2009). Readers’ comments attract other reader comments, and often a distinct line of discussion, perhaps serious, confrontational, humorous, or inane banter, occurs on the sidelines of such commentaries (Mishne and Glance 2006). Hlavach and Freivogle (2011, 24) note that “anonymity seems to unleash the worst in some of these posters; they hide their faces behind a pseudonym while their voices shout out angrily, free of the normal bonds of civility”; it should be noted that anonymity can be negatively used, just as it can provide freedom and opportunity (Hlavach and Freivogel 2011).

To explore this point, the tables below clarify how comments on the article “Scientific Articles Accepted (Personal Checks, Too),” (April 2013), were categorized. There were 316 comments posted on the nature of fraudulent and predatory journals, (289 analysed) by 202 commentators. The reader posts were read by three academics and classified under 10 categories, set out in Table 1.

Table 1. Reader posts categories and definitions with examples
Category Definition of Category Example from posts with comment identification
Counterview Reader proposes a view contradictory to the view and theme of the article “...it does make ever more work publically available... (5)
Cynicism Comments disguised in humour often sarcastic; describe the disillusionment or disappointment of the reader “...for a recent example of how well pulling rank with a bad paper works ....” (20)
Invitations Posts related to being invited to attend conferences or submit papers “I am regularly inundated with requests from dubious journals...” (29)
Open Access Comments on the Open Access system and fee structure “If nothing else I hope the Wikipedia-utopians will recognize that open access to information creates as many problems as it solves” (132)
Peer Review Comments upon the peer review system that articles go through “The traditional peer review process is dysfunctional, a huge system of self-fulfilling prophecy.” (83)
Pay to Publish The premise of paying a fee before articles will be published “The fees are nothing new and not even attention-getting” (105)
Publish or Perish Comments on the premise of academia being based on publication rates, the padding of CVs etc “While no doubt the ‘publish or perish’ culture in academia has led to the proliferation of junk journals...” (238)
Scam Relating to the dubious means of obtaining money, shady deals “Academia is a scam as it is. This is just some new twist on that scam.” (2)
Spam Posts on the spreading of fraudulent information and unsolicited emails “does not come with an ‘unsubscribe’ link, and the by line changes often enough to make use of a spam filter difficult.” (59)
Reply A post by one commenter to another by using ‘reply’ “excellent wordsmith” (130)

There are several observations to make about the data represented in Figure 1. The first is that the largely anonymous postings are overwhelmingly negative about the academic publishing landscape, although they do not necessarily see this as a sole product of electronic open access. The follow-up recommendations of postings show a similar consistency, commending the posts which highlight systemic flaws. Bloggers refer to “a very disturbing trend,” “papers that were not only profoundly flawed but incoherent,” “open to serious abuse (not just mediocrity) ,” “steadily decreasing ‘signal to Noise’ ratio in scientific communication,” “actual malicious intent,” and “fly-by-night web journals.” Nearly all those comments which contest the author’s conclusions do so on the grounds that the problems, which are rarely contested per se, are outweighed by the benefits, or that the problems have been around for a long time, or that good researchers should be able to look after themselves. There is clearly a near-consensus that many problems lurk in the world of academic publishing.

Journal Quality

Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) was an initiative that assisted in the evaluation of research produced by Australian universities, under the auspice of the Australian Research Council. Until 2011, ERA produced a ranked list of journals, categorizing them A, B, and C, with A being the highest level. Although the system is currently not in official use, it still provides guidance to the academic community. To compare the practices of legitimate, valued journals with those on the weaker end of the spectrum, the costs of publishing with 20 A ranked journals and 20 C ranked journals were compared. It was ascertained that, in legitimate journals, the usual publishing costs for authors were restricted to: use of color; page fees (often for excess pages); and processing costs. The journals were also noted if they provided open access and its associated fee system. The journals were each researched online, and either the journal or an editor was sent a short email requesting information on the fees for publication with that journal. There are several systems of open access. The two major systems offer three options to authors: to opt out with no open access publishing, to delay open access until twelve months after publication, or to immediately become open access upon publication (“gold”). “Green” open access is the online publication of the article, often in the author’s institute.

Similar fee profiles are noted between the A and C ranked journals, with open access being the most common fee, followed by color charges. It is noted that there was a much lower response rate from the C ranked journals regarding their fee structures, and information on websites was difficult to find (if they had a website at all).

Broader Challenges to the Current Prestige Publishing Model

The postmodern world is multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary and reflects the intersection between reality and knowledge. The postmodern world finds new ways of naming and responding to new knowledge in a connected society in which data, information, and knowledge can be shared with speed and engage a far broader audience than existed in previous generations (Lewis et al. 2011; Giddens, Duneier, and Appelbaum 2012). It is possible that web-based research will produce higher efficacy than traditional publication means; or it may be the web has greater impact, calling for new definitions of ‘impact factor’ in research. This “impact factor” is influencing how society defines the prestige of information. The challenge for research credibility in this new environment is how to create flexible but reputable quality control measures that assist researchers to maintain the quality and integrity of their research.

Moves to open access and online publishing may create a new generation of academic and research professionals open to new knowledge and new ways of thinking (Weller 2011). These changes may result in the previous boundaries that existed between higher education and the outside world becoming more permeable. A positive outcome of a better level of collaboration between researchers and non-researchers may be that higher education becomes less closeted and less isolated from the contextual real world outside the domain of higher education (Ding et al. 2010). It is the potential of universities in this postmodern world to create and enhance distribution processes, which engage far more people in traditional academic areas.

An academic who maintains a quality blog may be writing in a collaborative way with colleagues and constructing shared knowledge. Sharing information via social media, such as Twitter or Facebook, may link to more users engaging with the same material (Garrigos-Simon et al. 2012). This becomes cyclical in nature as people share and respond to the information, passing it back through various applications such as Pinterest, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, wikis, and websites (Broxton et al. 2013). Information can be self-generating as users contribute, add to, and improve shared information, which can exist in technological spaces. Digitally-based research enables outcomes to be refined, reviewed, and redeveloped in an ongoing and organic way, as well as purposely constructed through the mediums available. To do so requires a willingness to engage in discussion that challenges established notions of prestige used in current funding models.

A digital scholar (Weller 2011) intentionally shares materials electronically to seek feedback from readers. In many cases, a digital scholar will maintain a blog or website, place information on it, and seek feedback with the full knowledge from reader-commentators that their feedback will be used to shape and direct future written outcomes. Digital scholars premise their work on the web as a social construction under a social constructivist model; they assert that jointly-constructed knowledge and collaboration strengthen and build the academic community (Byington 2011). In recent years, blogs have developed a strong readership base; often, they are read far more than traditional journal sources. Publications such as The Conversation, have demonstrated that researchers can have high impact by placing their existing research within the realm of everyday readers (Shema, Bar-llan, and Thelwall 2012). Through hyperlinks to original research outputs, the writer enables an interested reader to seek further information and a greater depth of content. Staying abreast of one’s own area is a challenge and researchers rely on online publications (Evans and Reimer 2009), which enable a conversant level of knowledge to be developed through reading best described as “recreational” rather than academic.

The desire for non-highbrow writing and research has spawned a number of quality publications and blogs, all available solely in electronic formats. Blood (2000) notes that only a decade previously there were 23 blogs on the internet; it is estimated that there are now more than one hundred million blogs online. The popularity of blogs has had a major impact on the world of academia, and the popularity of blogs themselves has led to a number of academic studies which review the purposes, values, and interests in blogging. There have been attempts to understand the motivation behind an academic blogger’s desire to make material freely available through an open access format (Meyers 2012).

Blogs may be used to seek information, to provide a commentary, to share a special and specialized interest area, to participate in community issues and engagements, to describe daily life, or to give voice to creative expression. It is contended that blog readers have increased their knowledge and understanding of a wide range of social, political, and economic issues through that readership. Blogging continues to expand as a common professional practice as readers choose to follow key thinkers within fields (Byington 2011). Reader feedback on blogs and web articles is often from highly regarded professionals who are quite willing to provide their personal details on blog feedback forums and also in matching articles (Chesney and Su 2010). This is having an effect on academic notions of prestige and it seems that the professional standards will come from within the body of academics, not from outside it (Cohen, Mansion and Morrison 2011).

Quality Control

Whilst ERA ranking scales and similar mechanisms are valuable, useful, and worthwhile, they do not address the issue of “low credibility,” counterfeit, and predatory journals emerging today. They cannot replace the importance of professional credibility and self-assessment conducted by academics as high quality researchers. They can, however, implement quality control measures that support researchers and universities in dealing with this growing issue, especially when research output is largely measured by research publication output.

Traditionally and currently, most academics in Australia produce work for publications and expect they will not be charged for providing this material to the broader community. The significant change with open access is that high quality journals, even those ranked as A within the ERA ranking system, are increasingly likely to charge “pay to publish” fees for open access publication (see Figure 2). This expectation of author payment was previously restricted to less prestigious publication sources or was an indicator of a potentially bogus journal or conference. Predatory journals have begun to reposition themselves in the market to provide open access publishing, and simultaneously, to provide an easy way for academics to add to their publication record and to meet institutional demands, whilst concurrently creating profits for themselves.

Predatory journals, which previously lacked professional presentation and were easy to identify, now maintain websites and publications that mimic the highest standards of publication and electronic presence. The credible ERA ‘C ranked’ journals may but have the problem of looking more fraudulent than the known fraudulent journals. In testing articles and journal titles from “low credibility” publishers, this paper found that quality databases, such as Google Scholar and Summon, are not immune to low-quality journals (see Figure 2). It is possible that some academics will be deceived into publishing with, and researching from, predatory journals (Beall 2010). It is also a potentiality that some academics will intentionally take the opportunity to publish within predatory journals as such, to grow a base of respect within the sector. What this article describes as predatory journals may well in the future be seen as simply a natural part of the market. For academics who may want to embellish their curriculum vitae, their annual performance review, or their application for academic promotion, the capacity to use journals for their own purposes (Shah 2011), will be as motivating as it is for the journals themselves to use that publication work for their own profits. The complexities between motivation and opportunity here are manifold and require further and robust debate if any new quality control measures are to be formed.

A new era of due diligence is dawning for academics, undergraduates, and post-graduates around Australia. Once, when a journal was selected from a reputable database it could be reasonably concluded that the publication was appropriate to use (Fitzpatrick 2011). The fact that predatory journals have infiltrated mainstream electronic databases highlights the need for researchers to be far more self-aware and self-reflective about their source of publication (see Figure 2). In the preparation of this paper, the author mindfully worked with screened papers on high quality electronic databases. It was noted that predatory journals existed in these places and were of deceptive quality, at least on a cursory or superficial viewing. It should be noted that the fraudulent journals unearthed all had independent websites that looked on the surface to be reputable.

The names of predatory and fraudulent journals were obtained via a list maintained and updated by Jeffrey Beall, whose website “Scholarly Open Access” attempts to critically analyze open access in academia (Beall 2013). Using the journals from this list, the information below was harvested using predatory journals searching in Google Scholar and Summon (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Predatory journals searched online
Figure 2. Predatory journals searched online

Selecting a particular article from one of these journals, another search was made for it. This article jumped between the listed predatory journal and another suspicious journal. The question of poaching or simply article duplication remains. High quality published work can appear, with an author’s knowledge or consent, in a predatory journal. Thus, the same article could be found in innately different publication sources.

The pressure to publish

There is no certainty that increased pressure on academic staff to increase publication outputs will be positive for the sector. Pragmatically, it is clear that there is no choice in this matter; “publish or perish” is the expected and accepted maxim within the higher education sector (Jackson 2013; Steele 2008). A research-active university is able to attract significant funds from private and government organizations to support its research (Schuermans et al. 2010). A university’s professional standing is often measured by the quality and quantity of its research outputs rather than teaching outputs.

Universities conduct research for a range of reasons. Predominantly, they attempt to be on the cutting edge of innovation and new ideas; developing new knowledge is core business. Universities are also research-active in that they enable and encourage students to engage with the development of new ideas, new understandings, new technologies, and new ways of thinking about old problems, through focussed research (Biggs and Tang 2011).

There is a vast difference between the creation of new knowledge and innovation, and publication outputs. Publication outputs, whilst valuable, are often not research but reports, position papers, and commentary (Cohen, Manion, and Morrison 2011). If research is intended to be creative and discover new ideas, publication can be the antithesis— designed to reinforce orthodoxies and ways of doing things which already exist in practice.

Young academics are trained specifically in their capacity to replicate research writing rather than to be innovative with it. Often, publishing requires a focus on a formulaic writing style which is demonstrated and repeatedly re-enacted through standard, stylised, directed, forms of writing. Very often, publication sources use templates and structures that exclude any creative proposition by an intending author (Miller, Taylor, and Bedeian 2011). The focus remains on the formulaic writing and not on the “new knowledge.”

This formulaic writing has ensured that most publication outputs provide for low reader engagement, let alone enjoyment. An illustration of this is provided by referencing systems manuals; tomes of work, hundreds of pages long, detail the specificity of minutest detail related to structure, layout, and referencing (Hughes et al. 2010). Formulaic writing, however, also provides an open template for unscrupulous operators to copy credible journals and fabricate text that follows the cumbersome requirements of academic publishing. As the comments on the NYT’s article indicate, distinctions between credible publications and “low credibility,” counterfeit, and predatory journals are not easy for researchers to make. Like many victims of scams and fraud, researchers are also embarrassed to make the admission that they have been deceived. Others may see these journals as an opportunity to bypass producing rigorous research.

Academics will need to become far more skilled in the development of their own digital citizenship skills which will enable them to identify fraud on the internet and to be selective about their use. It is possible that a bona fide journal article has been poached by a predatory journal and published under its auspices, and although it is identical to the original article, this is a strategy designed to entrap other writers. In this example, and many were found, the real source of the original journal is a quality journal that was peer-reviewed and respected. These bogus publishing sources are challenging to identify. Even with care, it is possible that academics will inadvertently use them and unconsciously offer their material for publication.

The author acknowledges the invaluable assistance of colleagues Jessica Davey and Carl Gopalkrishnan in the production of this paper.

Professor Keith McNaught was, until recently, the Executive Director and Head of Campus, Broome, and also Director of the Academic Enabling and Support Centre, Fremantle and Broome campuses, for the University of Notre Dame Australia (UNDA). From March 2015, he has been an Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Ethics and Society, at UNDA, and he is now in a staff leadership and formation role in the healthcare sector. His background was in teaching, then Teacher Education, specifically Mathematics. He has been an active researcher, particularly in the areas of academic support and mathematics education, and increasingly in the area of ethical professional conduct.


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