Thursday, 11 November 2010

Publish or Perish

The above phrase strikes both fear and loathing into the hearts of any scientist, especially one *sob* who is not yet established and does not have a reputation to precede them. Scientists are largely judged on their publication output: the number, quality and impact of these publications is probably the key determinant of career progression. Needless to say, the pressure to publish is immense, and the temptation to cut corners is omnipresent. One way to cut corners is to avoid peer-review, a problematic but “the best we’ve got” process whereby experts in the field review research papers and give their opinions on the quality of the work, and any changes that they think need to be made before it should be published. This is supposed to improve the finished publication and weed out poor quality work or outright wrong work.

How does one avoid this process? Publish in a journal or newsletter that doesn’t have peer review, or write a book, or publish original research on a blog. The problem is, employers aren’t stupid, and other scientists aren’t stupid. If you publish original research in low quality or non-peer-reviewed literature, your research will be either ignored or belittled, as will your reputation. This is what I like to call (ever since I just made it up) WOT publishing: Waste of Time publishing. I’ll give you a few examples that I've come across recently.

VDM verlag is a German publisher that describes itself thus
VDM publishes academic research worldwide - at no cost to our authors. We specialize in publishing theses, dissertations, and research projects. From the large number of research papers that are continuously being completed in higher education, we identify those which - due to their quality and practical relevance - are suitable for publication. In this way, the latest research is conveyed quickly and tailored to the needs of the respective specialist audience.
They also spam researchers offering to publish their books. Recently, my university circulated an email to all researchers with the following warnings about this organisations:
  1. The quality of these books is very low.
  2. They encourage academics to purchase copies of their own text, and appear to gain most of their income from this (“at no cost to our authors”, eh?).
  3. They are not peer reviewed.
  4. They pay abysmal royalties.
  5. This company is becoming more well known and publishing with them makes you (and the university) look like a fool.
InTech - “Open Access publisher in the fields of Science, Technology and Medicine”, uses a slightly different method. It charges an upfront fee of €470 for each “book chapter”, using the open-access model, which is a perfectly legitimate publishing model – where the author pays to allow free access to their research papers – increasingly used in the traditional, peer-reviewed publishing system, that is being bastardised by companies such as this into a form of vanity publishing. I, myself, recently received a rather flattering invitation to publish with them:
You are invited to participate in this book project based on your paper "Digital recordings of gas-vesicle collapse used to measure turgor pressure and cell-water relations of cyanobacterial cells", your publishing history and the quality of your research.
I knew nothing about this company then, and was a little suspicious, having written exactly one paper that mentions hydraulic conductivity, and even then it was only mentioned in a small section, and the results were inconclusive. I ignored the email and moved on with my life. Exactly one week later, a reminder came:
I contacted you by email last week, and since we have not as yet received a response from you, I am taking the liberty of resending as we are aware that you may be engaged in other activities or my message may not have successfully reached you. If you are interested in participating, may I respectfully ask that you respond at your convenience in order to secure your participation in this project.
Which I duly ignored. Then, exactly one week later, I received yet another reminder with the subject “Feedback required”. This time I was a little peeved and did a little snooping into InTech and found a fascinating article by Richard Poynder featuring an interview with the CEO of InTech, or is it Sciyo, or are they the same company? Regardless of that odd situation, the article confirmed my fears that this is not a publisher that I should be submitting articles too, let along paying to take my articles. I then looked into them a bit further, found some interesting titbits, and, somewhat cheekily, perhaps naively, wrote an email reply.
Dear X,
Thank you for your continued invitations to write a chapter for the book "Hydraulic Conductivity". Before I accept this offer, I have a few concerns that I am hoping that you can clear up. I was previously unaware of your organisation, InTech, and I hope that you understand that I need to be fully convinced that I should take the time to write a scientific article to publish with you. No editor is listed for this book. I will need to know the name of the editor so that I can form an opinion of the likely quality of this book. Also, your website says my paper will be indexed and abstracted in major repositories and scientific search engines, yet I searched for a random article from one of your books (Zhiwei Zhao and Helong Jiang (2010). Enzyme-based Electrochemical Biosensors, Biosensors, Pier Andrea Serra (Ed.), ISBN: 978-953-7619-99-2, InTech), and it did not appear on Google Scholar, Web of Science or Scirus. Can you explain this? Also, the lack of peer review concerns me. I am a firm advocate of open access, but only when it also adheres to the highest scientific standards. I note that your company does not appear to be a member of OASPA, and therefore there appears to be no independent verification of the standard of your publications. Perhaps I am being presumptive, but it appears to me that this is simply a way for researchers to easily publish poor quality research, for a price, and simply a money making exercise on the part of your company.
If you are able to allay my fears, I would be happy to consider preparing an article for you book. If not, please stop pestering me, and please remove my email address from your database.
Daryl Holland.
P.S. The article I mentioned above has a spelling mistake in the first sentence, and the first 17 words are copied word-for-word from the cited article.
And that was that. Well, at least I thought it was, until exactly one week later (yes, it is starting to get a bit creepy), I received a reply.
Dear Dr. Holland,

I will gladly answer Your questions.
And he does answer a couple of them, badly. Apparently the editor is not, and will not be named because
In the past, we have had some organizational difficulties when each of potential author would contact the editor directly.
Like there is something wrong with an author or potential author wanting to talk to the editor of their book. Regarding the quality of the book
...once the abstract will be reviewed and in case there will be a need to make changes, the Book Editor will give You clear instructions
i.e. no proper peer review. Regarding the indexing of articles
All the content from the Sciyo platform is currently being shifted to the main websites of the publishing group – and (our reading platform). That is the main reason why You could not "locate" the mentioned articles.
And I was sent the following two links to prove that they are indexed. The first was simply a Google search for “ pdf” and was therefore irrelevant, and the second was a Google Scholar search for “Search within articles citing Iwahashi: Robots that learn language: A developmental approach to situated human-robot conversations” which, as far as I could tell, did not refer to a single InTech publication.

In conclusion (unless I receive another email reminder in exactly one week, in which case I may well be killed by a pale, dark-haired Japanese girl), avoid at all costs (especially if that cost is €470), and make that spam filter work for you. I really cannot summarise the situation any better than Phil Davis
Most of the journals in which I aspire to publish never ask me for a manuscript. They don’t need to. They receive thousands of voluntary contributions each year and turn most away.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

AFAIK InTech is peer reviewed now. But it's still not indexed by Web of Sci or Scopus.