Thematic sets of scientific papers

By September 30, 2023Science, Technology

The website ‘arXiv’ is a curated research-sharing platform open to anyone. It was a pioneer in digital open access, and now hosts more than two million scholarly articles in eight subject areas, and is curated by a community of volunteer moderators. It offers researchers services such as: article submission, compilation, production, retrieval, search and discovery, web distribution for human readers, API access for machine readers, together with content curation and preservation. It currently serves the fields of physics, mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance, statistics, electrical engineering and systems science, and economics. It was founded by Paul Ginsparg in 1991 and now operates out of Cornell University1.

On the social networking site, Mastodon, I bumped into a link to a recent paper in arXiv titled ‘The strain on scientific publishing’2. In this article, the authors note that scientists are increasingly overwhelmed by the volume of articles being published. They state that total articles indexed have grown exponentially in recent years with the number of articles published in 2022 being about 47% higher than in 2016. This has outpaced the limited growth in the number of practising scientists. Thus, publication workload per scientist (writing, reviewing, editing) has increased dramatically. They characterise this problem as ‘the strain on scientific publishing’2.

To analyse this strain, they presented five metrics showing publisher growth, processing times and citation behaviours. Their findings are based on millions of papers produced by leading academic publishers, and they have found that specific groups of publishers have disproportionately grown in the number of articles they publish per annum, which contributes to this strain. Some publishers have enabled this growth by adopting a strategy of hosting ‘special issues’, which publish articles often on particular themes, with reduced turnaround times2. Some of these journals are what are termed predatory journals.

In recent years, I have been contacted numerous times by some of these predatory journals to either submit papers or to edit these thematic volumes (perhaps because I used to be the editor-in-chief of a real journal). I have declined because, when you submit a paper to them, they eventually sting you for cash. Given that you have written the paper, drafted or compiled assorted figures, sent it to them, and await its publication, many people simply pay up, often from their research accounts (something I didn’t have as I was not dependent on grants). These fees often run to hundreds or thousands of dollars and the submitted articles are not peer-reviewed and examination of their quality is often only cursory. Most of these predatory journals are open access and stinging the authors is the way they make money. One of the most bizarre instances I have had in this sphere is that I was recently contacted a couple of times asking me to submit (resubmit?) a paper which had already been published in a real journal. This idiocy has been seen before3.

The phenomenon of predatory publishing was first noticed by Jeffrey Beall, then at the University of Colorado, and he prepared a list of predatory publications. That list is still updated and the number of predatory publishers and potential predatory publishers is enormous4.

There are many open access journals which are bona fide and to protect themselves from being conflated with the predatory journals, they formed the ‘Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association’ in 20085. Some of the predatory publishers have now moved into predatory conferences. Again, in recent years, I have been contacted to submit an abstract to a conference6  of which I had no knowledge and which I had no intention of attending. Often the name of the conference was too vague or all-encompassing to elicit any interest. This to me seemed a clear sign that it was only interested in hoovering up suckers in numerous fields of science, getting them to submit papers and then stinging them for cash.

So, while I would usually not submit a paper to any journal or conference who contacted me to provide one, when I used to edit a journal, I did exactly that; asked researchers for submissions to thematic sets of papers. However, the people I contacted either knew me or knew of me, knew that the journal was bona fide and published by a professional association, and that they would not be stung for cash. The moral of the story is: if you are contacted by a journal to submit a paper, make sure they are not on Beall’s list, and check out the ‘history’ of the journal (i.e. how long it has been around), and look at the quality of the papers published in it.



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