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Me and my predator….or how I had a near brush in the netherworld of shady publishing and lived to tell the tale

There’s been a lot written about the many changes that have been shaking up the academic publishing world, including the rise of ‘predatory journals’. Somewhere between vanity presses and Nigerian 419 scams, these journals have been established in the wake of the gold ‘open access’ movement to offer easy publication in a seemingly ‘international’ journal, all at a discount price with relatively ‘light’ peer review. Fly-by-night publishers make money from Article Processing Charges (APCs) while 2nd-rate scholars get their articles published in journals with titles (and editorial boards) designed to convince promotion panels that they’re the acme of academic rigour. It’s a win-win situation for everyone…except the research councils and taxpayers who bankroll the APC payments and the scholarly world that expects that articles achieve publication because they’ve undergone rigorous peer review rather than because their authors have the ability to pay.

I’ve been a minor contributor to debates about academic publishing and ‘cultures of excellence’ for some time, as a side interest. I’ve contributed to a number of editorials and discussion fora on the topic in Political Geography (see, in particular, the 2014 editorial authored with my PG co-editors as well as the 2012 exchange that I coordinated between Andrew Kirby, Lawrence Berg, and Kate Petersen). My most direct contribution to date, though, has been in Terra, the in-house journal of the Geographical Society of Finland, where I reviewed the state of Nordic geography publishing and lauded the Society’s commitment to maintaining an independent, Finnish/Swedish-language publication (this piece is published in Terra in Finnish and on my website in English).

It was in this context that I reacted favourably when Andrew Kirby (editor of the Elsevier journal Current Research on Cities) contacted me asking me if I could contribute to a special issue that he was editing for the journal Publications on the challenges involved in starting up a new journal. I told him that I wasn’t prepared to write anything directly on that topic: I spend enough time maintaining an old journal (Political Geography) and the last thing that I would want to do is start a new one! However, I’ve known Andrew (slightly) for a long time, plus his query came to me via my Political Geography colleague John O’Loughlin. So I suggested a relatively low-effort way that I could contribute to his project. I offered to prepare an English-language, non-Nordic-specific version of the Terra article, if he could deal with it being a) largely a reprint and b) not directly on topic. After Andrew gave me the green light, I checked the Publications website to confirm that I wasn’t going to be hit with a surprise APC. A page on the website informed me that because Publications was a relatively new journal the publisher was waiving the usual APC (it’s between 300 and 1,800 Swiss francs for other journals from the same publisher). So, after receiving permission from the Geographical Society of Finland to reprint and after spending a few hours editing the old Terra piece, I submitted the article.

I knew the piece wasn’t going to catapult me to stardom (or, as we say in the UK, 4-stardom), but I figured that the publication’s relatively low prestige was commensurate with the low level of effort that I was putting into the article. My primary interest was in getting more people to engage my thoughts about the future of academic publishing, and I figured that a good way to do this would be to have a second version of the Terra article appear in a new format that, hopefully, would receive wider distribution than a Finnish-language in-house society journal. In short, I viewed the submission as a low risk-low gain project that might garner me attention if not academic plaudits. I approached the whole venture with a minimum of caution or concern.

It was only after the article was published that I looked more closely at the journal and discovered that its publisher, MDPI, is on the Scholarly Open Access list of ‘predatory publishers’. Reading through the various posts on MDPI on the ScholarlyOA website, it emerges that MDPI is what one might call a ‘borderline predator’. Jeffrey Beall, the librarian behind ScholarlyOA, calls MDPI’s practices ‘questionable’ and announces that his choice to add it to the ‘predator’ list was not being made lightly, presumably because some of the material in MDPI journals have considerable academic merit. Beall’s speculation that MDPI exists less to directly generate revenues than to provide ‘international’ platforms (through Swiss corporate offices and globally diverse editorial boards) for aspiring Chinese scholars appears to be plausible. Certainly, the waived APC charge for my article suggests that MDPI is orientated toward something other than short-term revenue maximisation.

At the same time, Beall notes that MDPI engages in a number of shady practices, including inviting prominent academics to guest-edit ‘special issues’. The ‘special issue’ strategy effectively enrols senior scholars to use their academic clout to recruit others to contribute to the nascent journal. By pursuing this strategy, the journal’s foundation can be developed until it reaches the point where it receives a steady flow of submissions, and at this point the journal can stop waiving APCs and begin making money. Hmmm…..sounds familiar. Furthermore, a close perusal of the website reveals that ‘special issues’, like the one on ‘The Challenges of Journal Start-up in the Digital Era’ in which my article (‘Reclaiming Society Publishing’) appears, are really more like ‘virtual special issues’ that exist only in the world of journal marketing. In the case of the ‘Journal Start-up’ special issue, one article was published in Volume 2, mine was published in Volume 3, and the others are still to come.

Notwithstanding these critiques of MDPI, I didn’t find the process of publishing in an MDPI journal to be that different than publishing in any other 2nd-tier (or 3rd-tier) journal. My article was peer reviewed, although by two reviewers, unlike the three reviewers sought by most higher-end journals. It was clear that both reviewers had actually read the article. The reviews were briefer and more general than those that I typically receive at Political Geography (or for articles that I have submitted to other journals), so they may have been conducted in-house, but they still reflected a general understanding of the topic. Reviewer #2 felt that the article could be published as-is. Thank you, #2! Reviewer #1, on the other hand, had big problems. It appeared to me that this reviewer quickly determined that my article was critical of corporate publishing and that therefore (s)he didn’t like it. #1 therefore honed in on the paragraphs that (s)he deemed most critical of corporate publishing and critiqued them as baseless. The funny thing is that these paragraphs were not meant to be sharply critical; indeed in some cases I was bringing up criticisms so that I could dismiss them and thereby assert the value of corporate publishers. But the reviewer’s comments did lead me to clarify and evidence my point (which, as it happened, led me, in the end, to be more critical). The reviewer (begrudgingly, I presume), accepted my edits: (s)he had asked for evidence and I now had given some, so the reviewer couldn’t really complain, although I’m sure that (s)he still disagrees with my conclusion. As a result of the review process the final product is, I think, a better, more convincing article.

Will anyone actually read the article? I have no idea, but I suspect that hits and downloads are more likely to be due to this blogpost (and perhaps to Andrew publicising the ‘special issue’) than to publicity by MDPI. But then, that too may not be that different than would be the case with a less ‘predatory’ journal. There were some logistical problems using the MDPI article upload interface, but I think these were more the result of poor communication between myself, Andrew, and the MDPI editor in Beijing than because of a lack of transparency at MDPI.

Would I publish in an MDPI journal again? Probably not. Would I accept an invitation to guest edit for them? Almost certainly not. But I don’t feel particularly exploited. After all, every journal publication involves a ‘deal’ where the author and the publisher each do what they do best in order to make the other ‘look good’. If all works well, the author gets a promotion or tenure and the publisher gets revenues (and, if it’s a society journal, the society gets further legitimacy as the voice of the discipline). As I note in the Publications article, there are structural tensions in the relationship between author and publisher (and also between society, reader, research council, university, etc.), and these are more severe in some institutional settings than others. The tension (and the potential for abuse) is probably greatest when a ‘predatory publisher’ is acting as gatekeeper. Yet, my experience with MDPI teaches me that predation is a matter of degree. At some level, we are all ‘predators’.

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One comment on “Me and my predator….or how I had a near brush in the netherworld of shady publishing and lived to tell the tale

  1. University and academic staff ranking (h-index) appear to be the root course for the spread of “predatory journals”. Pay or perish is often the only way for younger staff to get a new contract or be promoted.

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