Why engineering dominates the world of predatory open-access science journals

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E&T’s data analysis suggests engineering has now one of the largest footprints among blacklisted predatory academic science journals. Experts and insiders speculate how the domain became such a big part of academic publishing and why the area remains so prone to scamsters and their money-making schemes.

When you meet engineering academics at a conference, it's interesting to ask them about predatory publishing. They may spill the beans about occasions when they've been approached by 'predatory' journal owners, often using poor English and offers that sound too good to be true, one insider at the IET says. In engineering, those who are tempted by such offers may consider speed-to-publication as one of the top baits that fishy journals use these days to offer open-access publishing at a price.

Light-speed publishing can only be offered because such journals fail to respect scientific integrity, ethics and a thorough peer-review process. Experts and guardians of scientific publishing argue it makes these journals dangerous and blemishes the hard-earned reputation of science.

New data reviewed by E&T now sheds more light on a seedy element's impact on our sector. The findings place engineering among the top domains of predatory journals. Cabells, a company that has for years collected and updated a vast blacklist of predatory journal publications, confirmed the dominance of engineering.

Amid its blacklisted 14,825 journals as of July 2021, a whopping 2,330 (15.7 per cent) are engineering related. In another updated list for standalone predatory journals, E&T found a similar picture (see charts). E&T's word-frequency analysis places both 'engineering' and 'technology' at the top of the concerned domains in terms of how often these words appear in journal titles – arguably, this list represents a smaller sample than the blacklist by Cabells, but the data has authority, one source explains. 

Domains like management, medicine or biological-related journals also rank high but insiders point to the fact that engineering has a few unique things going for it that make it a vulnerable target. 

Simon Linacre, marketing director at Cabells, explains that engineering research is slightly more applied. As a result, the time to publication for engineering journals is usually slower than, for example, in medical journals with a faster turnover. Scammers know this and lure engineering academics with speedy publication routes, often even at a lower price than for legitimate journals.

"If [the academic researcher] goes to a mainstream engineering journal, and they'll have you pay $2,000, and they may publish it in six-months time. They will peer-review it and accept your article. A predatory journal may offer to publish tomorrow for $400. So, if you just need to get your article published and you're not really aware of all of the scams, then it's seems a no-brainer to opt for a journal where you are charged five times less".

That's not the only reason, he thinks. Engineering is a major STEM subject, which accounts for a significant share anyway. Open-access publishing demand from China could be another driver. China has the most extensive output of engineering research in the world. Chinese authors are also known to be keen to publish in English-language journals. It breeds demand for predatory publishing. 

They may fall for predatory open-access journals more easily and may find it harder to verify their legitimacy. Engineering and technology companies may also seek to receive quick recognition for their work, which may be particularly beneficial for the stock price performance and investors' expectations. There is a precedent. In 2018, a German national broadcaster exposed more than 5,000 German scientists published in pseudo-scientific journals. Among them were staff of large German companies. Some climate-change sceptics used the publications as a means to inseminate their unreviewed theories into science. Staff of 12 of the 30 Germany's stock exchange-listed companies in its blue-chip stock market index were found to be involved, either by publishing articles or taking part in conferences.

Another reason for the large share of phony engineering journals may be the overall size of subdomains. Nearly all predatory journals listed by Cabells are open-access. Areas like IT, internet-related subdomains, web development and similar engineering beats, popular in open-access publishing, may add further weight to the large of sum predatory journals. Paradoxically, despite the Internet playing a role in making predatory journals what they are today, IT and digital forensics may be predatory journals' biggest enemies right now. 

If there was no Internet, there wouldn't be any predatory publishing, Linacre explains. When the Internet came along, it had a huge impact on academic publishing in the 1990s because publishers' three biggest cost drivers were paper, ink and distribution. The Internet took those three things away at a stroke. The open-access journal publication movement in the 2000s, which included journals charging researchers for publishing their findings freely on the web, did the rest and formed a fertile ground for predatory publishers to attack.

Today, though, predatory journals might be hoist by their own petard. New capabilities with open-source online technology make it also much easier to spot the bad apples. Digital forensics, machine learning and open-source intelligence allow predatory offers to be analysed. They might find spelling mistakes in the text. Operators are tested on their legitimacy on the grounds of their online presence, exposing who they are and what real motivations and track records they have.

As to whether that's enough to see a phenomenon of ‘killed by the Internet’, Linacre is sceptical. Part of it is that Cabells adds on average between 1,500 and 2,000 new predatory journals to its blacklist every single year. “There are no signs of a slowdown. The demand for publication seems to be as strong as it ever was, amid the fact that more people are now aware of open-access publishing,” he adds.

While there seems little the regulator can do to clamp down upon predatory journal operators – partly because in many instances it’s not illegal to operate as a predatory journal - the academic science community can disincentise demand and educate academics.

The UK is at the forefront of intervening in what the science researcher community calls 'publish or perish'. It's the pressure to publish research. In the past decades, it was cited as a cause for shoddy research work being submitted to academic journals.

Britain leads in changing the dynamics via something called the 'Research Excellence Framework', a system that helps assess the quality of research in UK higher education institutions over quantity. This may alleviate the pressure to publish and increase quality, Linacre says. Output is not any longer the only determining factor.

The new evaluation criteria place more focus on the impact of the research. It might help to lessen demand for predatory journals and tell one needs to look no further than the many other countries that still rely on traditional number-of-publication metrics – such as global south or Asia, Linacre says. There, publish-or-perish dependent predatory journals still have a market.

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