Research

Federal Prosecutors Join Fight Against Predatory Journals

August 30, 2016

The rising number of predatory journals has become a major blight on academic publishing, deceiving authors, their institutions, and the wider scientific community.

And now the federal government is fighting back.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, in its first such foray into academic publishing, filed a civil complaint this month in federal court in Nevada against one of the largest publishers of online science journals, OMICS Group Inc.

The federal law-enforcement agency charged OMICS, two affiliated companies, and their president, Srinubabu Gedela, with running an operation that routinely tricked researchers into paying fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars for publication in its journals.

The FTC made other complaints against OMICS, including publicly listing as editors of its journals numerous academic researchers who either never had agreed to an affiliation or had asked to have their names removed.

It’s typical of the behaviors seen at many disreputable academic publishers, and FTC officials said that after receiving numerous complaints and conferring with officials elsewhere in government, they decided to get involved.

"No one really seemed to be stepping up and taking action here," Ioana Rusu, a staff attorney in the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the FTC, said on Monday. "And we looked at our jurisdiction, we looked at what we do on a day-to-day basis, and it just seemed like a natural place for us to go."

The FTC’s move is welcome and long overdue, said Jeffrey Beall, an associate professor of library science at the University of Colorado at Denver, who tracks predatory publishers.

"These horrible publishers have been victimizing many people in the United States and indeed all around the world, and it’s consumer fraud, and they’re right to get involved in it," Mr. Beall said.

That said, neither the FTC nor Mr. Beall expects prosecuting the predators to be easy. Such publishers are typically located overseas, where U.S. law enforcement’s reach is limited, they can easily move operations into new organizational structures, and the profit incentives are high, Mr. Beall said.

Even OMICS, which is based in India, has spinoffs, he said, in the form of former employees who have created similar companies. "People are copying OMICS because it’s been so successful at generating revenue from victimizing researchers," Mr. Beall said.

The Name Game

OMICS, in a written response to the FTC’s complaints, made clear the challenges facing the federal agency. It began by questioning the FTC’s jurisdiction, saying the company has no physical assets in the United States. OMICS then denied each charge leveled against it, saying any academics working with the company do so with a full understanding of the relationship.

Typical complaints against OMICS, Ms. Rusu said, include soliciting articles, accepting them for publication, and then billing the author large fees that were not previously disclosed. Often, she said, an OMICS journal would quickly publish a piece, leaving the author unable to get it accepted elsewhere.

The FTC also heard repeated complaints about OMICS charging fees to attend conferences at which promised speakers never materialized, and OMICS journals enticing authors with fraudulent lists of editorial-board members, the agency said.

“These horrible publishers have been victimizing many people in the United States and indeed all around the world.”
One OMICS journal, known as Gynecology & Obstetrics, lists among its editors in chief S. Robert Kovac, an emeritus professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Emory University. Dr. Kovac, contacted in Florida, where he moved after taking emeritus status, in 2011, said he was unaware of the reputation of OMICS, as described in the FTC action, and expressed uncertainty about his actual affiliation with OMICS.

Dr. Kovac said he accepted an editorial position at an OMICS journal a few months ago, after suffering a rejection from a regular publisher of his work, a journal with a very similar name — Obstetrics & Gynecology, the official publication of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Obstetrics & Gynecology felt his new manuscript, a study of vaginal hysterectomy involving 11,000 patients, wasn’t enough of an advance over a previous study involving a few hundred patients, he said.

He acknowledged never actually meeting anyone from OMICS or realizing it was not based in the United States, and said he would now look more deeply into the situation, very alarmed at the possibility of damage to his hard-earned reputation.

Tricky Tactics

The situation, with OMICS giving its journal a name very similar to that of an existing established publication, is one among many tactics that easily trick many researchers, Mr. Beall said. "The company just uses subterfuge at every opportunity," he said.

Ms. Rusu said the FTC recognized such cases can take years to prosecute and can be difficult to win. "While this particular coating of it is different, we really see it as no different than a lot of other deceptive representations" that FTC more commonly pursues, she said.

And winning in court, while important, isn’t the only objective, Ms. Rusu said. At least as valuable, she said, is helping to educate the many academics who still "aren’t fully aware of how far and wide this goes," she said.

"In other areas where we’ve done law-enforcement action," Ms. Rusu said, "you don’t necessarily have to go after everyone in the field. You just have to pick a couple big ones to put a line down in the sand, to tell the marketplace what your expectations are."

Paul Basken covers university research and its intersection with government policy. He can be found on Twitter @pbasken, or reached by email at paul.basken@chronicle.com.