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The Absolute Bottom of the Publishing Barrel

Every so often, you come across scientific journals that you’ve absolutely, completely never heard of. Back in graduate school (mid-1980s for me), I used to keep track of the weirdest references that came up – Journal of the Siberian Oil Chemist’s Society, or Bulletin of the Kentucky Academy of Sciences (1954), which I think you’d have a hard time laying your hands on even in Kentucky. Then there are all the obscure “flag carrier” journals. One that shows up fairly often in searches for odd heterocyclic systems in the Egyptian Journal of Chemistry, but there are others that I have never seen a reference to in nearly 30 years of looking at the chemical literature, such as the Revista Colombiana de Quimica. Europe used to be covered with national chemistry titles, most of which have ceased publication or were merged into Chem. Eur. J. or the like. But some of the newly independent countries were glad to start up their own literature, so you have (for example) the Journal of the Serbian Chemical Society.
Now, I have no wish to offend any Serbian readership I may have, but I will not be bringing any unexpected news if I point out that JSCS is not the most prestigious venue available. In the old days, such a title would be full of local papers, and to be sure, there are plenty of manuscripts from Belgrade. But there are also plenty from places like Brazil, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, and (naturally) the further corners of India and China. I suspect that some authors from these countries get to count such papers as having been published in a European scientific journal, as opposed to the less-impactful venues closer to home. There is, for example, an Iranian Journal of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, as there is a Journal of the Brazilian Chemical Society.
But these days, there’s a much larger and fuzzier category of obscure journal, and we have the internet and the idea of open access to thank for them. Well, those and greed. If I had to pick, I’d say that greed is the main factor. I’m talking about scam publishing, the dozens upon dozens of “open access” journals that have sprung up that (1) accept everything, and (2) charge a significant publication fee. That money is supposed to cover the costs of editorial work and open access on publication – and such fees can be completely legitimate, of course. But in the case of these publishers, it’s a scam, since there are very, very few costs involved. No one edits these papers to any significant degree, and to a good approximation, no one ever accesses the papers, either. Bandwidth charges are thus held down to manageable levels.
Here’s a good resource on these outfits, Beall’s List of Predatory Open-Access Publishers. Jeffrey Beall of the University of Colorado-Denver has compiled a list of shady operations, most of which are characterized by suspiciously vast lists of titles and hefty publication charges. The one publisher on the list that you might have heard of is Bentham Open, the “open-access” arm of Bentham Publishing. I’ve always considered their regular list of journals to be pretty borderline stuff, although they have published some useful reviews. But Beall characterizes Bentham Open as “a scholarly vanity press”, and that seems pretty accurate.
Take, for example, their Open Medicinal Chemistry Journal. It appears to have published two papers so far this year. Last year, it put out a special issue on “Medicinal Chemistry of Novel Anti-Diabetic Drugs”, which sounds interesting until you note that there are three papers therein: a leadoff editorial (from an author at the University of the United Arab Emirates), a paper from that editorial writer and several collaborators (four authors, four countries), and still another paper from him and one of the authors of the first paper. Hmm.
Now, the scholarly worth of such things can be debated. They’re of little immediate interest, but if the results contained are real, then they are, presumably, tiny bricks in the great edifice of scientific knowledge, and might conceivably be useful to someone, someday. From that standpoint, I don’t have much room to criticize them. But since I’ve said many unkind things about the established scientific publishing houses and their business models, it’s only fair that I point out that some of the untraditional ones are just as rapacious. The sorts of “journals” on Beall’s list are not even pretending to add anything to the store of human knowledge: they’re publication mills, turning anything you want to pay for into a “scientific paper”. Some (not all) of the authors may deserve sympathy, by virtue of their obscure, unfunded origins (although they must have enough funds to pay for these papers), but the publishers deserve none at all for taking advantage of them. And when they’re not taking advantage of ignorance and/or desperation, then the transaction is a cynical one indeed, reminding me of the old joke from the Soviet Union that went “As long as they pretend to pay me, I’ll pretend to work”.
Will they really publish anything? Why, yes, they will, as a mathematician proved by submitting a paper full of incoherent gibberish and getting it accepted. He used MathGen, a modified version of the random-paper generator SciGen that I’ve written about here. You’d think that the institutional address of “University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople” would tip someone off, but there are no P.D.Q. Bach fans in that audience.

27 comments on “The Absolute Bottom of the Publishing Barrel”

  1. RB Woodweird says:

    The Guild of Learned Chemists, or whatever name is given to the oft-suggested replacement for the ACS, will give its imprimatur to open journals which are not evil.

  2. FredB says:

    The University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople has a Facebook page. What more do you need for validation?

  3. Dave says:

    Not necessarily about the Kentucky Academy of Science:

  4. nitrosonium says:

    a collaborator decided to publish some of our work in the following journal:Annals of the University Dunarea de Jos of Galati, Fascicle VI: Food Technology
    i can only imagine that ground breaking report has generated SERIOUS impact….somewhere in an orthogonal universe!!!

  5. Canageek says:

    Oddly enough I’ve had very good luck with some older papers in the Canadian Journal of Chemistry, despite it being a small regional publication.
    I’m surprised we haven’t seen an explosion of small journals in very narrow fields. “Journal of High Oxidation State Actinide Chemistry”, “Journal of Silicon Polymer Chemistry” and so on. Sure, getting into one of them wouldn’t be as useful, but you’d be pretty sure the editors know what they are talking about, and it would be easier to follow publications in your area of interest.
    Also; some interesting advice I got from a postdoc at my last position: Lower impact factor journals (ex. Advanced Materials) often have better procedures then JACS or Science, since people are less likely to try and leapfrog you, so you won’t obfuscate your synthesis.

  6. Derek Lowe says:

    Oh, Canadian Journal of Chemistry is fine. It’s like the higher end of the old European national journals; no one ever had complaints about Recueil, Chem. Ber., or the like. It’s a long way from Canada to Egypt (or Serbia).

  7. med chem from serbia says:

    I’ve never read any article in JSCS, although I’m from Belgrade. I usually follow, let me say, standard well known med chem journals, and also publish there my results. But then again, I dislike mocking with low impact regional third world scientific journals, no metter how trivial articles you may find there. Because there is actually bigger part of the world struggling to do any kind of science. And, at least I admire trying and struggle, its better than doing nothing. Not every country is USA or UK…. I was lucky enough to be in the good research group, but there are lot of people all over the world who were not lucky as me. And considering open access greedy journals, they are just different kind of the absolute bottom or “trash” and there is clear distinction between being greedy (and playing scence) and struggling with real problems.

  8. gronk says:

    Those papers are not real papers; they’re made for the tin-foil-hat crowd who believes 9/11 was a setup, and who think they can impress people and give tby having a few references to ‘peer-reviewed papers’. Then it’s not a scam; it’s an investment. Nobody bothers to investigate the reputation of such a journal; true chemists/physisicts know it’s a bullshit paper, but those are not in the crowd that those ideas are sold to.

  9. AlphaGamma says:

    Since I can remember my department library (at a major British university) has had the same issue of Bulletin of the Ethiopian Chemical Society on the rack, in a labelled space!

  10. Mica says:

    Derek: “But some of the newly independent countries were glad to start up their own literature, so you have (for example) the Journal of the Serbian Chemical Society.”
    Just to correct you, as the proud author of several papers in JSCS, it is actually ~80 years old. Similarly, Croatica Chemica Acta used to be decent journal ~20+ years ago, when I last time checked it out.
    There is actually point to national journals, and if you (Derek) think a bit deeper about this, you should be able to figure it out.

  11. Jordan says:

    I’m glad someone else mentioned Can J Chem — which used to be a fairly respectable journal, but has unfortunately gone way down in significance since its heyday.

  12. Derek Lowe says:

    Mica, has it been named “Journal of the Serbian Chemical Society” all those years? That seems like the sort of thing that Tito would have had renamed J. Yugoslav. Chem. or the like. (Hold that thought – I found the history: It was Documenta Chemica Jugoslavica from 1957 to 1985. From 1947-1957, it was the Journal of the Chemical Society of Belgrade, and before the war it was (among other things) the Journal of the Chemical Society of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
    According to that history page, it doesn’t ever seem to have been JSCS until 1985. So you can see why I took it for a new journal, when it was only newly named.
    As for national journals, I know the point you’re referring to, although I think that there’s less to that argument than there used to be. That’s worth a whole new post in itself, which I’ll try to get up soon.

  13. Sisyphus says:

    9/11 wasn’t a setup?

  14. Nick K says:

    Slightly off-topic, but to echo what Canageek and Derek said about Can. J. Chem., I’ve always found its procedures to be rock-solid and as honest as the day is long. Same with Aust. J. Chem. I just wish I could say the same about JACS…

  15. eugene says:

    My old boss got suckered into publishing a good paper in Can. J. Chem that could have made it to one of those secondary ACS journals like Organometallics or Org. Lett., just because they sent a request for an issue celebrating some famous Canadian chemist’s birthday. I think the birthday issues or the ‘special edition’ issues is how most of them manage to maintain a modicum of quality.

  16. petros says:

    And many many med chem journals are there now of varying standard?

  17. Mica says:

    Derek, yes, it wasn’t named JSCS; that had nothing to do with Tito, but with King Alexander who was promoting “Yugoslav” idea. Not much to do chemistry. Something named “Notes of Serbian Chemical Society” was published at the end of 19th century.
    Croatica is from before second world war, and it was continuously publishing even during WWII. It was fun reading issues from that period, including, how Vladimir Prelog (yes, that guy), ended up at ETH.
    And, let’s just disagree over the role of national societies and their journals. But without them, and some element of irrational pride in doing science under impossible conditions, and for no reward, the science there would be in much worse shape. So, yes, I appreciate very much somewhat quixotic efforts of our colleagues from Egypt and Iran, and their attempts to go “international”.
    Also, I genuinely enjoy your blog, which is why your comments were more difficult to just ignore.

  18. med chem from serbia says:

    Mica I agree absolutely with you – about every thing you said, so thanks for being here.

  19. bnk says:

    Derek, JSCS existed before destroying former Yugoslavia, so did not belong to ‘newly independent country’ as you described. Something parallel as you quoted ‘Journal of the Chemical Society of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia’ never existed. Such way of thinking is typical for (under)informed Americans, so majority of readers probably did not offend too seriously. On the other hand it is true that number of articles of low quality could be found in it. From this end please remember that articles of low quality can be found in the sound Journals, matter of fact editors was probably guided by different criteria to publish such articles, see for example:
    Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys., 2011, 13, 18530–18538
    Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters 20 (2010) 1510–1515

  20. Mr. Lasse says:

    When I started my studies in Astronomy, physics and mathematics I was overwhelmed by the amount of obscure and weird publications in my fields. I gradually got used to it.
    What I read from your post is: the academic world is a mess, even from a graduates perspective?

  21. dave w says:

    It occurs to me that the only thing keeping the journals going (now that they no longer perform any sort of unique service in the physical act of printing and distribution of the content) is the perceived “respectability” conferred by “formal publication” – except for that, it occurs to me that everyone would just be posting their papers as PDF files on the web anymore.

  22. Justin Peukon says:

    A funny thing with these journals is their gigantic advisory boards. The Open Crystallography Journal (Bentham Open) is managed by 4 Associate Editors and an Editorial Advisory board of 69 academics. However, the single issue for 2012 is very thin, with one paper released… Maybe each Associate editor works one year and then takes a break for a 3 years period (with extra work for the poor guy involved during leap-years). And don’t think that the advisory board has nothing to do: I suspect that rejection rate is above 99.9%.
    Seriously, why remain in an advisory board if no advice is requested? WHY???

  23. WB says:

    Nova Publishers is another notorious source of trash. They seem to be publishing a million journals and books with no peer review at all. Here is a selection of their rubbish:

  24. Justin Peukon says:

    RECTIFICATION: The Open Medicinal Chemistry Journal (Bentham Open) has now published THREE (3) articles for 2012. The 150+ members advisory panel is very busy, please don’t complain for delay in reviews.

  25. The Iron Chemist says:

    @22: Vanity editorships look even better than vanity authorships.

  26. Timo says:

    Funny – in the manuscript I have submitted just the other day I have cited a paper from Revista Colombiana de Quimica. What does this say about the quality of my own publication? ;-))

  27. Anna Rittenberg says:

    The link you sent is in fact a great title.
    The company publishes approximately 1800 titles a year. Some of the books are peer-reviewed while others are not.

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