What can we believe in? The question acquires new urgency when the IT revolution makes it easier to spread information through channels that obey other laws than those hitherto characterizing journalism and academic publishing.
The free flow of information online requires a critical stance. That critical stance, however, requires a certain division of labor. It requires access to reliable sources: knowledge institutions like the academy and probing institutions like journalism.
But what happens to the trustworthiness of these institutions if they drown in the sea of impressively designed websites? What if IT entrepreneurs start what appear to be academic journals, but publish manuscripts without serious peer review as long as the researchers are paying for the service?
This false (or apparent) academy is already here. In fact, just as I write this, I get by email an offer from one of these new actors. The email begins, “Hello Professor,” and then promises unlikely quick review of manuscripts and friendly, responsive staff.
What can we do? Countermeasures are needed if what we call critical reflection and knowledge should retain their meaning, rather than serve as masks for something utterly different.
One action was taken on The Ethics Blog. Stefan Eriksson and Gert Helgesson published a post where they tried to make researchers more aware of the false academy. Apart from discussing the phenomenon, they listed deceptive academic journals to which unsuspecting bioethicists may submit papers (deceived by appearances). They also listed journals that take academic publishing seriously. The lists will be updated annually.
In an article in Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy (published by Springer), Eriksson and Helgesson deepen their examination of the false academy. Several committed researchers have studied the phenomenon and the article describes and discusses what we know about these questionable activities. It also proposes a list of characteristics of problematic journals, like unspecified editorial board, non-academic advertisement on the website, and spamming researchers with offers to submit manuscripts (like the email I received).
Another worrying trend, discussed in the article, is that even some traditional publishers begin to embrace some of the apparent academy’s practices (for they are profitable). Such as publishing limited editions of very expensive anthologies (which libraries must buy), or issuing journals that appear to be peer reviewed medical journals, but which (secretly) are sponsored by drug companies.
The article concludes with tentative suggestions on countermeasures, ranging from the formation of committees that keep track of these actors to stricter legislation and development of software that quickly identifies questionable publications in researchers’ publication lists.
The Internet is not just a fast information channel, but also a place where digital appearance gets followers and becomes social reality.
Eriksson, S. & Helgesson, G. 2016. “The false academy: predatory publishing in science and bioethics.” Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy, DOI 10.1007/s11019-016-9740-3