It used to be that publishing a scientific journal was a significant undertaking, requiring infrastructures for peer review, printing, and distribution, and the costs were often defrayed by charging authors for the honor of publishing. Now, it’s possible to simply convert submissions to PDFs and throw them online. With those barriers gone, science quickly became plagued by predatory publishers who decided to eliminate peer review as well.
The profits of these “predatory publishers” come from a mixture of genuine scientists who are unwary, people who want to pad their publication records, and fringe scientists who just want to see their ideas in the literature regardless of their lack of merit. All of them can end up putting misinformation into the scientific record and confusing a public that generally doesn’t even know about the existence of predatory publishers.
Now, the Federal Trade Commission has won a summary judgement that just might cause some predatory publishers to step back from their business model. An India-based predatory publisher has been hit with a $50 million dollar judgement for deceptive business practices, along with permanent injunctions against most of the activities that made it money.
The FTC brought this action back in 2016 under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which covers unfair or deceptive practices. The commission targeted two companies—OMICS Group, a publisher, and iMedPub LLC, which organized scientific conferences—along with an individual, Srinubabu Gedela, who runs the two companies. Part of the case involved showing that these were actually a single entity, sharing business addresses in both the US and India.
The practices of the companies, as documented by the FTC, are pretty egregious. While the OMICS Group claims that its publications are peer reviewed, two different journalists have submitted nonsense papers to its publications and had them accepted without revision. Scientists who have submitted articles indicate that they came back from review in a matter of days; the court recognized that peer review typically takes months. In some cases, the manuscript was simply published without warning after submission.
Scientists who are listed as editors for the OMICS journals submitted letters indicating that they had never received any manuscripts to review, and others contacted by the FTC were previously unaware that they had been listed as editors. In a number of cases, the scientists asked to have their names removed from the journal website, but the requests were ignored.
It keeps getting worse
The problems documented by the FTC didn’t stop there. The quality of journals is often evaluated using a metric called an impact factor, calculated by Thomson Reuters. That company doesn’t include OMICS Group journals, so the OMICS management responded by making up its own rating system based on Google Scholar searches and called that an impact factor, then advertised the impact factors of its journals. Similarly, it put logos of the National Institutes of Health’s PubMed Central and Medline on its journals’ pages, even though none of its journals were indexed by these systems. In fact, the National Library of Medicine has asked OMICS to stop these deceptive practices.
Similar things went on with the scientific meetings organized by iMedPub, which would identify prominent scientists in relevant fields and then declare that said scientists were attending the conference. In most cases, the scientists had no idea the conference was even happening—and again, some asked unsuccessfully that their names be removed. Meanwhile, people who did sign up to attend ended up disappointed by the actual speakers at the conference.
The icing on the cake here is that people who fell for these practices ended up providing Gedela and his companies with their revenue. The journals’ websites often failed to list the publishing charges and allowed scientists to submit their publications without ever being informed of the cost.
All of this means that the FTC supplied the judge with an extensive factual record of problematic business practices. The commission then asked for a summary judgement in its favor as a way of avoiding the time and expense of a trial. In order to avoid this, the companies’ lawyer would have to indicate that either some of the facts presented by the FTC were in dispute or there was something legally unsound about the charges it was facing.
Rush to judgement
The lawyers did neither. Instead, they presented a document describing 74 complaints about OMICS Group’s business practices that had been voluntarily resolved. The lawyers did not, however, provide the court with any evidence that these issues had actually been resolved. In addition, the defendants argued that peer review doesn’t have to take several months; the judge noted that this did not explain why some of the OMICS Group’s editors had never received a paper to review.
“As Defendants have failed to raise any genuine issues of material fact,” the judge concluded, “the Court grants the FTC summary judgment.”
That judgement comes at a significant cost. Everyone involved with the company has been issued permanent injunctions that enjoin them from engaging in any of these practices in the future. And the FTC calculated the total revenue of the companies during the time the infractions were documented, subtracted any refunds to customers, and issued a fine for the rest. That fine ended up being over $50 million.
Many of the companies that engage in predatory practices are small and based overseas, so it’s not clear how well the FTC will be able to pursue them. And, as long as these journals are willing to provide crackpot ideas with a veneer of scientific legitimacy, it’ll be tough to shut them down entirely. Still, it’s nice to know that there’s legal recourse should predatory publishers become a large-enough problem.