Not the Beall and end-all*

Assessing quality publications from multiple perspectives

By Dr Andy Pleffer & Susan Shrubb

MQ Lib_Bamboo garden_SS

image by Susan Shrubb CC BY

In the wake of the Scholarly Open Access blog shutting down (January 15, 2017), many commentators have focused on its author Jeffrey Beall and the now defunct blacklists he once maintained on ‘predatory’ publishers and journals, ‘misleading’ metrics and ‘hi-jacked’ journals. Adding to the mystery, Beall’s typically active Twitter account was recently dormant for over two months, with until recently the only public statement on the matter being supplied by his employer, the University of Colorado. Beall now says that “there was pressure from my university to stop”.

Regardless of whether you considered his work divisive, an essential service to the academic community, or somewhere in between, these opinions are beside the point. No single person or source is equipped to bear the responsibility of being the ultimate authority on what constitutes as a best (or poor) practice scholarly publishing outlet. And nor should we – as a community of academic researchers and support staff – be so willing to bestow such authority on individuals, lists, metrics or indexing databases alone. Outlets need to be assessed in the context of many measures of quality and this will always require some level of additional work.

Assessing reputable places to publish is a shared responsibility; one that should (ideally) be dispersed among academic authors and their institution(s). Those who have a stake in such assessment may include – but by no means be limited to – researchers and trusted colleagues, students and supervisors, research administrators and research librarians.

Beall’s work has most certainly shone a light on some of the most deceptive publishing practices to take place in recent years. However, his work is only a small part of the landscape. Positive attributes of scholarly publishers cannot be adequately identified through examples of negative behaviour alone, nor can they be determined in isolation from any positive measures of quality. Comprehensive decisions on quality can only be achieved when authors are widely informed. Therefore, in order to obtain a sense of the bigger picture, we must first ‘zoom out’ by consulting a broad range of sources – just as you would when investigating any research topic.

There is a wealth of reputable resources to be drawn on when critiquing suitable publishing outlets for your scholarly research. Many such resources have been established for some time (e.g. DOAJ, Ulrich’s, Scimago and SHERPA/RoMEO), while other credible initiatives continue to emerge (e.g. Think Check Submit). The usefulness of each of these for your own situation may vary depending on your motives for publishing, your research topic and any time constraints or pressures. What is of greater importance though is the series of questions we ask alongside the collective information that can be gathered on a publication outlet.

Is the scope of the outlet clearly defined on its official website? Does the outlet transparently list an editorial board (with institutional affiliations) comprising recognised experts from relevant fields? Are the peer review, copyright and Article Processing Charge (APC) policies easy to find and understand?

While Beall’s sudden departure from this discourse has been met with some suggestions for others to fill the void and take up his mantle, this again misses the point. The time is ripe for the academic community to encourage users of his blacklists – or, for that matter, users of any other list attempting to rank or articulate quality outlets – to actively adopt a broader suite of indicators and thereby build a stronger evidence base with which to make informed decisions on where to publish.

This approach has been the central to Macquarie University’s Strategic Publishing statement: a wise publishing strategy is supported by informed decisions about an outlet prior to publication. When you have invested many months or years thoroughly researching and writing your scholarly work, make sure you also take the time to ask and investigate some basic questions about a publishing outlet’s operations.

Regardless of whether we, as a community, support retiring the term “predatory publishing” or opt to replace it with another phrase altogether, we must agree to focus less on what constitutes poor (or ‘parasitic’) practices and instead facilitate a shared commitment to continuous learning, sharing knowledge among colleagues and educating each other about how to navigate the current publishing landscape together.

Dr Andy Pleffer (a research administrator) and Susan Shrubb (research librarian and budding photographer) lead the Strategic Publishing initiative at Macquarie University, Sydney.

Macquarie University is a member of AOASG.

*Thanks to Emma Lawler for inspiration behind the title.

Webinar recording & slides now available here