Open Access publishing versus Quality

Anna Besse-Lototskaya¹ and Marcel Zwietering²

¹ Programme leader WUR Open Science & Education, WUR Library, anna.besse@wur.nl

² Chair of Food Microbiology, Wageningen University & Research (WUR), marcel.zwietering@wur.nl

‘I want to be read’, the famous Dutch writer Multatuli (1820-1887) said. The most important outcome of  Open Access publishing is that more people can read your work. As such, researchers in developing countries, professionals at small companies, and individuals from a broader public who cannot afford to pay for expensive journals, get access to scientific work. Consequently, research results are wider read, better used and cited more often (Hajjem et al., 2005; Wang et al., 2015; Piwowar et al., 2018). Another advantage is that we keep the copyright to our work when publishing Open Access.

There are various ways to publish Open Access; one of them is making individual articles Open Access in a subscription journal. ‘Big deals’ between Dutch universities and major publishers allow for publishing Open Access in established subscription journals at no extra costs. These are so-called “Read and Publish” deals where reading and publishing are included in one package, with the Open Access costs being settled centrally. At the moment, more than 11.000 journals are available for WUR authors throughout these deals. The intention is that in the long term we will no longer pay these publishers for reading, but for publishing. In this way, almost all of the research that we publish in subscription journals, will become Open Access.

Another way of publishing Open Access is in full Open Access journals. Since the Open Access business model became common about 10 years ago, an army of new Open Access publishers and journals has been flooding the scene of academic publishing. Many of them have a rigorous peer-review process where the quality, validity and relevance of an article is assessed by several independent peers within the research domain. But the Open Access business model also provides space to exploitation. Some publishers actively solicit manuscripts and charge publication fees without providing robust peer review and editorial services. In a worst scenario, as long as anyone pays publication fees, anything can be published. There are many examples of fake articles published in these so-called predatory journals by researchers who wanted to prove the lack of a proper peer review process (e.g., substance abuse essay, pay someone to do my research paper , Predatory Journals Hit By ‘Star Wars’ Sting). In this case, when reading it, one will quickly recognise that the article is fake.

However, low-quality articles are published not only in such obvious predatory journals; this problem also extends to a broader group of low-quality journals. Here, even for an experienced scientist, it is much more difficult to recognise a low-quality article. Additionally, students and scientists may use this work as foundation for their own work and cite to it. The other way around, there is a risk of accidently publishing a quality article in a predatory journal.

Prof. Marcel Zwietering: ‘As supervisor, I regularly see non-correct statements in student theses, with a citation to such a bad journal. However, I may also miss it when it is not obvious nonsense. We cannot fully blame the student for that, because it is not easy to know the facts and to evaluate the quality of an article or a journal. I am an editor of a scientific journal, and also there I see this happening occasionally. One time I even saw a reviewer advising an author to use a certain article that was published by a predatory journal. This really becomes a cancer that is getting into science.’

Also, the media or general public might make use of these journals, not being able to really judge the difference in quality of high-quality, average and low-quality journals. But this is not an inherent problem of Open Access; it is a problem of predatory publishers that can be solved by having good quality control and all being attentive. Using, citing, and building upon bad papers is neither good for science, nor for your career. Quality is the basis of science.

Are there ways to improve the quality control of journals and publications?

Curated databases, such as Web of Science and Scopus, generally exclude predatory journals and poor-quality journals. Use those, rather than general search engines when searching for literature.

WUR Library has put together an information sheet with a thorough overview of ways to recognise predatory publishers/journals. See also the WUR blog by Ellen Fest ‘Watch out for predatory publishers!’.

Furthermore, WUR Library has developed WUR Journal Browser. It only includes journals that meet the basic quality requirements. Predatory journals are excluded; however, you would still need to ensure a journal’s quality. In the WUR Journal Browser, you can check whether the journal has an impact factor (be aware that predatory journals place a fake impact factor on their websites!), how often it has been cited by your WUR colleagues, and how many of them published in these. Finally, the WUR Journal Browser explains whether you can publish Open Access in this journal at no extra cost or at a discount, and how.

And in the long term, opening up the peer-review process will help to control the quality of publications. Having peer-review reports and the response of the authors alongside the article enables readers to judge the quality of peer reviews and thus, of the article. In 1999, Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has come with the Guidelines on Good Publication Practice, encouraging Open Peer Review procedures. Together with practices like publishing open protocols, corresponding raw data and scripts, open peer review contributes to transparent, open and collaborative science, Open Science.

Famous scientists already warned: “Chance favours only the prepared mind” (Pasteur) and “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters” (Einstein). Please, pay attention and may the favours be with you and with our world.

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