8 letter

“Predatory Journals” or “Predatory Scholars?” The Essential Role of the Peer Review Process

Received: May 8, 2017

Accepted: May 20, 2017

Dear Editor,

I carefully read your Editorial about “predatory journals,”1 which are considered a challenging issue for scholarly publishing. I agree with your exhaustive and interesting insight. A predatory journal is a journal that publishes papers without peer review or using an unfair review process and charges publication fees. They can have serious negative consequences for scientific progress, because bogus research spreads easily through the Internet and the media.2 In my opinion, the most curious feature of this troubling matter—as your Editorial highlights—is that on one hand, we have predatory journals publishing quality articles, because many good authors are deceived and submit their work to such journals. On the other hand, not all articles published in legitimate journals are good, because sometimes legitimate peer review fails to identify weak or fraudulent papers.1 Therefore, the distinction between legitimate and predatory journals concerns, ultimately, the good faith, validity and effectiveness of the editorial peer-review process.

It is widely recognized that peer review is an essential part of scientific process, and a good scientific journal depends on its database of reviewers, who assess the quality of papers. Furthermore, peer review is at the heart of science, because it is “the method by which grants are allocated, academics promoted and Nobel prizes won.”3 Therefore, a serious problem for all academic publishers and editors in chief of medical journals concerns papers reporting counterfeit data, as it is often difficult to check them. For instance, Bohannon submitted a fake article to more than 300 open-access journals, and more than half accepted it.4 The question is, how can a scientific journal recognize a fake or fraudulent manuscript?

A study published in PLOS ONE found an average of 1.97% of scientists admitted to having “fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once,” and up to 33.7% admitted to other questionable research practices.5 In a review, Ioannidis described key factors and some corollaries about the increasing concern that, in modern research, most claimed research findings are false.6 The academic institution is responsible to investigate and punish researchers' misconduct, but this is a hot issue, because there are evident conflicts of interest among all actors involved. Any research reporting too perfect data and findings could be suspected to be fraudulent. However, the picture of the problem is also complicated by scholars' tendency to publish only significant and positive findings, which can disturb the balance of findings, leading to the so-called “publication bias.”7 From the editors' point of view, some defensive weapons are available, such as text-matching software to detect plagiarism. However, it is still difficult to check on whether well-written manuscripts are reporting counterfeit data.

After Beall's list of predatory publishers, now withdrawn, which was a precious instrument in the fight against the dubious practices of some online open-access science journals,8 nowadays, we can describe a new scientific phenomenon, which we can call “predatory scholars,” authors publishing fraudulent research in legitimate journals. Indeed, according to a paper in Nature, published retractions in scientific journals have increased around 1200% over the past decade, and around half of them are suspected cases of misconduct.9 In medicine and life sciences, the percentage of retractions exceeded percentages among Web of Science (WoS) records. Retractions can be due to alleged publishing misconduct (47%), alleged research misconduct (20%), or questionable data/interpretations (42%).10 In my opinion, this new phenomenon could answer the question why the number of predatory publishers on Beall's list, as reported by Narimani and Dadkhah, grew from 18 in 2011 to 923 in 2016.11 Most researchers are eager to publish their papers at any price to get research funding and grants, and to gain academic promotions. However, evaluating individual research performance is a complex and puzzling task that should balance the quantity and quality of publications, and it is still the object of debate in the scientific community. I agree that legitimate journals should make every effort to publish scientifically rigorous, evidence-based articles. However, this effort could be negated by scientific misconduct and by a scarce or ineffective peer-review process. Therefore, I believe the best potential solution is to invest in a serious and effective peer-review process.

A good solution, already adopted by some publishers, such as BioMed Central, is to carry out “open peer review,” which is a well-established model of peer review, where authors know who the reviewers are, and the reviewers know who the authors are.12 If the manuscript is accepted, the named reviewer reports are published alongside the article. Even though this solution can be expensive for authors, as journals must charge fees to authors to pay reviewers, and scholars from low-income and middle-income countries could be disadvantaged, it shows several advantages compared to the traditional peer-review system. First, reviewers would be more tactful and constructive and encouraged to be more scrupulous than in other types of peer review, making the entire editorial process more transparent. Furthermore, open peer review would encourage post-publication discussion, and reviewers could gain “scholarly credit.” To address open peer review's disadvantages, DeCoursey suggested a halfway house, in which reviewers make open, constructive suggestions for revision or additional work only after the manuscript is accepted for publication.13 But, I believe that ultimately, the most important role should be played by the editor, who should be able to assume responsibility for the final decision. This, in conclusion, can make the difference!

Conflicts of Interest: None declared.

Financial Support: None.

Francesco Chirico, MD

Health Service Department, State Police, Ministry of Interior, Italy, Via Umberto Cagni, 21 20162 Milano, Italy

E-mail: medlavchirico@gmail.com


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Cite this article as: Chirico F. “Predatory journals” or “predatory scholars?” The essential role of the peer review proces. Int J Occup Environ Med 2017;8:186-188. doi: 10.15171/ijoem.2017.1082

 pISSN: 2008-6520
 eISSN: 2008-6814

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