13 April 2017

From predator to mutualist, or: What if predatory journals published reviews?

Earlier this week, I argued that we could kill predatory junk journals with a single stroke if regular scientific journals would publish the text of the pre-publication reviews along with the paper. This way, junk journals couldn’t hide behind the claim that they are peer-reviewed.

I argued that junk journals wouldn’t want to take the time and effort to create reviews in any way. But a couple of people on Twitter responded that the junk journals could (and apparently sometimes do) ask for reviews, but ignore them.

This makes things interesting.

Even for a regular journal, soliciting reviews but ignoring them is not out of the question. The buck stops with editors. The editor makes the decision about what to publish, and in some cases this means overriding recommendations of one or all reviewers. We just don’t expect it to happen intentionally and systemically.

When viewed from the traditional norms of pre-publication review, consistently asking for reviews but ignoring them is a massive waste of effort. But the traditional norm is that reviews only exist in the files of the reviewers, editor, and author.

What happens under the suggested new norm, that the reviews are published along with the paper?

Suddenly, the difference between a traditional journal and a predatory journal gets very blurry, very fast.

Presumably, the scam publisher would ignore the reviews and publish the paper immediately alongside the reviews. The paper would not get the benefit of revision in light of the reviews. But that would put the paper at the same level of editorial vetting as a pre-print. Let’s take a second to note that many have found great value in pre-prints (though my experience has been underwhelming). Even stodgy old biologists are using them more and more.

But let’s not forget that it is now a verifiable fact that the paper has indeed been peer-reviewed. The review is available for all to see to help form a judgement about that paper. And we can also judge how detailed the review is. In this scenario, we can think of pre-publication reviews as a rating instead of as a publication decision maker.

Essentially, by publishing the pre-publication reviews, the predatory journal has suddenly moved to a format that is very similar to what some scientists have been advocating for years: the “publish, then filter” model of publishing, rather than “filter, then publish.” If there are verifiable pre-publication peer reviews done, can we even still call it a “predatory” journal?

What the predatory journal no longer provides is any judgement of the importance of their submissions, which many readers badly want. Readers want guidance as to what is more likely to be a breakthrough. But then, the rise of open access megajournals has shown that journals can be successful without rating “importance.” Articles in megajournals can still be found and cited and used by people in the field.

If “publish review content” became standard practice across the board, predatory journals might start to serve a useful purpose instead of being the bane of science.

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One weird trick that would kill predatory journals
Pic from here.

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