Dr. Alexandre Martin has seen countless young, inexperienced graduate students be duped into thinking that an email invitation from an online journal to publish their work is legitimate. This is why he puts in extra time and effort while teaching his introduction to research class at the University of Kentucky's College of Engineering. Martin wants to impress on these young scientists that these emails are, in fact, too good to be true.
These journals are categorized as a 'predatory open access' (pOA) journals, which indicates that the peer review process is either incredibly loose or nonexistent. There are hundreds of these journals, many of which can be found on this list of potential, possible or probable predatory scholarly open-access journals, maintained by Jeffrey Beall.
Dr. Martin's distaste for these journals inspired him to test the open access publishing system by submitting a paper with a sole author - his seven year old son, Tristan. They submitted an actual report on "The Living Habits of Bats" that Tristan wrote to International Journal of Comprehensive Research in Biological Sciences (IJCRBS) a pOA journal that Dr. Martin says that he choose randomly.
pOA journals are notoriously known for their low standards. The most infamous example was a 2005 manuscript that consisted of only one sentence repeated over and over again which read, 'Get me off your f****** email list', in response to the intense spamming that these open journals aim at academic scientists. There are other examples of sham papers making it through the 'review process', however, the Martins' experiment was unique in that they took it one step further - they intended to go through with the publication, if the paper was accepted.
Because they followed the process to the end, this exercise revealed that this pOA journal's unethical behavior went way beyond lacking a peer review process.
The 153 word paper (one - sixth of this article) written by Tristan, with basic facts about bats, was submitted. The introduction reads
"Bats are really cool animals! They are the only mammals that can fly. They sleep by day and fly by night. They use Echolocation to find their way around. This is when they send an Echo (see Fig. 1) that does not make any sound and the Echo comes back to the bat and tells them where things are."
The Martins heard back within a few weeks that the manuscript was being considered, but, a few revisions were necessary and it needed a minimum of five references.
After resubmitting the corrected manuscript, an email of acceptance was received (and an invoice for $60.00.) Dr. Martin recalls being very surprised that the paper had been accepted. Although wanting to take the process to completion, he went back and forth for a while, considering any damage that may be done to his son down the road by authoring in a pOA journal. Finally - his wife pulled the plug simply because it was a waste of money. And, it's a good thing that she did.
Dr. Martin didn't bother responding to the journal's email, and after a few weeks, the journal sent a follow up email, again requesting the $60.00, with the page proofs attached. Page proofs are the final stage in publishing; the last time to look for small typos and other errors.
In looking at the page proofs, Dr. Martin was astonished, since the paper no longer resembled the original submission. Only the title, authors and the figures were the same. All of the other material was written by.... someone else (presumably not a child.)
After thinking about the paper for a while, he decided to cut and paste a few sentences into Google and, lo and behold, found that the entire paper was taken verbatim from two previously published papers. A side by side comparison of the first pages of the new and old versions of the papers can be seen at the end of this article.
After realizing that his son might be "guilty of plagiarism," Martin immediately notified the journal that he wanted to retract the paper.
The journal responded that the changes were simply a "suggestion," and that if he wanted to publish the original manuscript, that was still an option. Dr. Martin declined.
When Dr. Martin looked into other papers that had been published in that journal, every one that he checked (he did not check them all) was plagiarized or published in multiple journals (what? I'm shocked!)
Dr. Martin says that "one big take away from this is that universities need to be made more aware of this" and use appropriate caution. Publication rates are an important metric of evaluating performance. In his own department (and many others) one published paper is a requirement to receive the PhD degree. If it doesn't matter where the publication is, these pOAs are a graduate students ticket out of a PhD program and into the job market.
Of course, it should not be left unsaid the impact that these publications have on broader science where peer review is the cornerstone.
After speaking with Dr. Martin, I told him that I would send him the link to my published article. He responded that it might be better if he see the draft before publication. Of course - who could blame him?
1) The IJCRBS journal has, since the time that they were going through this process, closed down.
2) Dr. Martin wrote up their experiment as a case study in the journal Learned Publishing, a peer-reviewed journal that is published by the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) and the Society for Scholarly Publishing - so, not a pOA.