Scholarly Open Access
Critical Analysis of Jeffrey Beall's Blog - Open Access Publishing

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Jeffrey Beall
Potential, possible or probable
predatory blogger

February 24, 2015

The case for treating Beall as a questionable source : Beall acting as prosecutor, judge and jury
Sad case of Jeffrey Beall : He’s the one man authority on predatory—but only predatory OA—publishing

Open access (OA) is all about ethics, economics and equity, and the three interact in various ways. OA is inherently at the intersection of libraries, media, policy and technology—but that’s a different issue. This is the first of a trio of essays: two related to fairly specific situations, one covering a range of ethical discussions. Depending on how you define “ethics,” I could also include sections on Elsevier and OA, embargoes, fallacious and misleading anti- OA arguments and the whole area of peer review. Or maybe not. In any case, we lead off with the sad case of Jeffrey Beall. Since Beall’s chief claim to fame is his ever growing list of supposedly predatory OA journals, and since I’m showing the case for treating Beall as a questionable source, I have to say this: In case you’re thinking “Walt’s claiming there are no scam OA journals,” I’m not—and toward the end of this essay, I’ll quote some useful ways to avoid scam journals regardless of their business model


Before the Storm

By his own admission, Jeffrey Beall came late to the OA party. His interest began in 2009—22 years after the first known U.S. gold OA scholarly journal appeared (New Horizons in Adult Education), 19 years after the first U.S. gold OA scholarly journal in the library field that I know of appeared, a journal I was involved in for most of its life (The Public-Access Computer Systems Review), eight years after I started writing about the field and seven years after the meetings and proclamations that gave it its name. Coming late is fine. OA needs to have more people involved all the time. Beall’s involvement was always a little different, however.

He first encountered OA when reviewing a publisher, Bentham Open, for The Charleston Advisor. It’s a very negative review for what seem to be good reasons, and at the time Beall seemed to be at least potentially positive about OA itself, based on the first sentence of this extract: "The Open Access model is a good one, for it makes research freely available to everyone. However, Bentham Open is exploiting the good will of those who established the Open Access model by twisting it and exploiting it for profit. Just because a journal is Open Access doesn’t make it legitimate or high quality."

I can’t imagine there are many knowledgeable folks who would argue with that last sentence, which would be equally correct if you substituted “subscription- based” or “very expensive” or “published by one of the big journal publishers” for “Open Access.” It should boil down to this: Just because a journal exists or has a given business model or is from a given publisher doesn’t automatically make it legitimate or high quality.

But there’s an oddity in the review, which is presumably of one OA publisher. Beall finds it necessary to quote an Elsevier executive and praise Elsevier: Speaking against the “author pays” model, Crispin Davis, the CEO of Reed Elsevier said, “if you are receiving potential payment for every article submitted, there is an inherent conflict of interest that could threaten the quality of the peer review system.” Indeed, McCabe and Snyder state, “Good articles provide a reader benefit; bad articles do not. Readers cannot tell the quality of articles prior to reading them, and reading an article requires an effort cost.” Here again, these statements bring to mind the role of the collection development librarian in making resource selection decisions that benefit library users. In addition, they offer a new perspective on the high subscription costs of journals published by companies like Reed Elsevier. Perhaps the consistent high quality their journals bring justifies the high subscription prices after all.

Given the increasing number of Open Access STM journals, scholars need a reliable means of finding only the research worth reading. [Emphasis added.]"

Apparently Beall would disagree with my “It should boil down” above—he’s asserting that all Elsevier journals are high quality (or at least that’s how I read “consistent”). Setting that aside, it’s my impression that a fair number of Elsevier journals charge page charges and other forms of “author pays,” and there’s no question that Elsevier and other big publishers use increasing numbers of published articles as one basis for ever-rising prices.

Thus, the Crispin Davis quote applies equally well to many subscription journals. I haven’t followed all of Beall’s work (you can find quite a bit of it from the “Research” tab of his blog Scholarly Open Access), but it’s pretty clear that he’s made a specialty of identifying gold OA journals and publishers as being predatory and unworthy— and, in the process, started taking more and more swipes at OA itself. There was apparently an earlier Posterous blog that has disappeared along with Posterous itself; the current incarnation began in January 2012.

Just looking at the January 2012 archive begins to suggest real issues in what might otherwise be an admirable pursuit. Consider, for example, “Scholarly Open-Access Publishing and the ‘Imprimatur of Science,’” posted January 25, 2012. He discusses a chapter of The AIDS conspiracy: Science fights back and says it “indirectly relates to scholarly openaccess publishing.” How?

The author tells the story of an Elsevier journal called Medical hypotheses that some AIDS denialists used to legitimize their arguments that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. Summarizing, Nattrass wrote, “The episode highlights the importance of peer review as a core scientific value” (p. 135).

She defines and discusses boundary work, which is work by scientists that essentially draws a line between what counts as science and what doesn’t. Medical hypotheses allowed denialists’ work to be published without peer review, while still conveying scientific status. Defending peer review, Nattrass states that “For all its faults, peer review remains an essential mechanism for the allocation of trust in the results of others” (p. 139).

Wow! That’s pretty shocking! Medical hypotheses must be some predatory gold OA journal from…wait, Elsevier? That publisher with “consistent high quality”? Well, at least it must be a gold OA…hmm. Nope. As with many Elsevier journals these days, the journal (which still exists) offers a pricey OA option, but it’s a subscription journal. It was an Elsevier journal without traditional peer review (unlike nearly all gold OA journals), but it was nonetheless an Elsevier subscription-based journal.

But when Beall looks at apparent failure in peer review by a subscription-based journal published by the world’s largest STM journal publisher, he sees this: Many questionable open-access publishers are making a mockery of peer review. Unfortunately, it’s hard for us to observe and validate their peer review practices, for they are not transparent.

It’s like seeing JP Morgan Chase pay a multi billion dollar fine for questionable business practices and concluding that credit unions must be sketchy! In the same month, and I’d guess many times since, Beall explicitly equated gold OA with “author- pays model,” either ignorant of or deliberately ignoring the fact that most gold OA journals don’t have article-processing charges and that a higher percentage of subscription-based journals than gold OA journals do have author-side charges (or page and other charges).

Beall started with a list of a few “predatory” publishers. The list grew by leaps and bounds, sometimes including long-established publishing houses with the misfortune of being headquartered in India (specifically, Hindawi), with Beall acting as prosecutor, judge and jury on who’s predatory and who’s not. He’s still doing it—in just one year, his list nearly doubled in size. Recent posts have made it clear that Beall’s own criteria are all that matter: He’s the one man authority on predatory—but only predatory OA—publishing. Remarkably, hundreds if not thousands of librarians and others seem to take Beall’s word as gospel.

I looked at Beall’s list of questionable practices. It’s an interesting list, including this item:

The publisher requires transfer of copyright and retains copyright on journal content.

Which means nearly all subscription-based journal publishers engage in questionable practices.

I didn’t read all of Beall’s blog posts. I honestly don’t know whether the misleading items noted above are typical or special cases. As with most library folk, I was appalled when a publisher attempted to sue Beall for libel—but being sued for unfortunate reasons doesn’t automatically make the defendant a saint. As with a number of other people who’ve been involved with and writing about OA for years, I was growing increasingly nervous about Beall’s growing stridency about “predatory” OA publishers— and amazement that there never seem to be sketchy or predatory subscription publishers, even among those charging high page charges and other article fees.

Crawford, W. (2014). Sad case of Jeffrey Beall.  Cites and insights, 14 (4).

Posted by Friends of Open Access