OMICS is a Symptom of Twisted Publishing Incentives

The Story: On Friday the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a complaint against the OMICS Group, alleging deceptive and extortionate business practices.

The gist of the FTC’s complaint: OMICS promises to facilitate rigorous peer review of scholarly research with no intention of actually doing so. This leads to the creation of sham journals. In addition, authors are not aware of the steep publishing fees OMICS intends to charge while offering no legitimate services. After an author submits a paper in good faith, OMICS holds that paper hostage until the author pays the ransom. This is a problem for many reasons, one of which is that other academic journals generally do not wish to review a paper that has been submitted elsewhere. This is a real-world consequence of the Ingelfinger rule (first promulgated in 1969), which states that no journal should republish findings that have already appeared elsewhere.

OMICS purports to be an open access journal publisher, meaning that anyone can read what they publish rather than only subscribers or licensees. The reality is that OMICS is a front operation and not a publisher at all. An actual open access publication providers legitimate peer review and stores its contents in a stable repository such as PubMed Central. OMICS fails both tests. As Jeffrey Beall, who tracks these things, observes: OMICS is “the most notorious and predatory scholarly publisher ever to exist.”

This is because OMICS has exploited the fact that authors often pay to publish in open access journals to develop a sham service. But that’s a collective market failure with respect to how the academy values and pays for scholarly publishing, and not an indictment of the concept of open access publishing itself. There are many outstanding open access publishers that produce quality products, such as eLife, PLoS and PeerJ.

Beall’s own hands are far from clean in the overall debate about open access publishing. From his useful beginnings in tracking “predatory” open access publishers, Beall has devolved into a tiresome scold about the supposed evils of open access publishing. People have noticed the fundamental duplicity and sleight of hand in his arguments, in which he uses the rotten fringes of the publishing world to stand in for all of open access publishing. But despite my general unease about quoting Beall, he is right about OMICS. By all evidence the FTC is as well, as the complaint’s specific claims against OMICS are very well substantiated. I hope this suit prevails, that OMICS pays all the damages due, and that OMICS and all its subsidiaries are shuttered from business forevermore.

The Subtext: The FTC’s press release about this filing notes that the Commission files such complaints after determining “that a proceeding is in the public interest.” The concern with OMICS certainly passes this bar, both as a matter of law and of ethics. But those of us who support open access need to guard against OMICS being used as a proxy or stand-in for all of open access publishing. Beall’s false conflations represent the edge case, but even people with more upstanding motivations are apt to conflate open access with shoddy research.

Such as, perhaps, the FTC’s Commissioners. The complaint against OMICS includes language that should give open access proponents pause.

Each of the quotes below comes from “Background on Academic Journal Publishing” section of the complaint, which describes the broader context of the case against OMICS:

  • “Under the standard academic journal publishing model, publishers charge user-based subscription fees to libraries or to individuals for access to the published material” (pgs. 5–6 of complaint, italics mine). This is a true statement, but the term “standard” implicitly grants a normative status to subscription-based publishing. This, of course, is exactly what open access proponents seek to change.
  • “Peer review typically requires the participation of a community of experts in a given (and often narrowly defined) field, who are qualified and able to perform impartial review (pg. 6 of complaint, italics mine). Ahh — impartiality! A reviewer with absolutely no axe to grind other than pure and unwavering fealty to the very best scholarship, regardless of the author. Would that this were so. Peer reviewers are human beings, and as such are subject to all of the usual venal and unflattering temptations. One of those temptations, particularly in narrowly defined fields in which everyone knows each other even if the review is “anonymous,” is to squelch interesting ideas so that they do not enter the literature. This denies the author does not get the credit they deserve. Harsh, but true — not always, of course, but not never either. Open access journals actually reinforce the peer review chimera, as this is currently the only viable means of establishing academic legitimacy. The FTC’s language reinforces this chimera too. One positive innovation is open peer review, in which reviewers sign their names as a tool of accountability. Although not exclusively true, in general it is legitimate open access journals that practice open peer review. A complete system of scholarly reform would not do away with vetting, but would realign incentives so that honorable rather than malicious critiques are rewarded.
  • “The impact factor rates the relative importance (impact) of a journal by measuring the average number of citations in the scholarly literature to the articles published by that journal in the previous two years. A higher impact factor would indicate a more important or credible journal” (pg. 6 of the complaint, italics mine). Ugh. By now gaming of the impact factor by journal editors is a very fine art, and a small majority of articles generally account for most of the citations that lead to a high impact factor. By this point even editors of very well-established subscription journals acknowledge this, and are calling for more honest metrics of impact. The proper unit of analysis is the individual article, not its containing journal. Keeping the impact factor unchallenged rewards incumbent publishers and hurts open access competitors.

My intention is not to pillory the FTC Commissioners, who never claimed to be experts in scholarly publishing. In a strict sense, all of the quotes above are factual and accurate. But in a broader sense, they speak to the profound conservatism of academic publishing and the tremendous first-mover advantage subscription-based journals continue to hold. More than ten years after the concept of open access publishing surfaced, it is still an avant garde conversation rather than one that has penetrated into broader consciousness. I deliberately chose old links to substantiate my points in this section, as a way to show how long this conversation has persisted.

Even a world of complete open access would simply solve a distribution problem while not actually addressing the twisted incentives at the heart of academic publishing. These incentives are at the root of our challenge, and are what have allowed a sham operation like OMICS to flourish.

The Root: “Publish or perish” remains the coin of the realm for academic advancement. This is still true even though many scholarly products, such as source code or data visualizations, cannot be “published” in the traditional sense. It is the reason that retractions bear watching and why citation rings are flourishing. It is the reason the impact factor retains such a tight grip despite the many sub-optimal ways it is used — whatever its weaknesses, the impact factor does provide a simple heuristic for determining whether a candidate for promotion and tenure is worthy of that distinction.

OMICS stepped into this morass boldly, shamelessly and with dispatch. They are at the most graceless end of a continuum that sustains and maintains our dysfunctional publishing system. Coming to honest grips with, and transforming, this system for the benefit of all “stakeholders” is the challenge of our age.

In the immediate wake of the OMICS suit, open access proponents should be vigilant so that all open access publishers are not tarred with the OMICS brush. But this is simply the beginning of the conversation, not the end.