Ethics and Access 1: The Sad Case of Jeffrey Beall

Jeffrey Beall

Jeffrey Beall

Cites & Insights
Crawford at Large
Libraries • Policy • Technology • Media

Volume 14, Number 4: April 2014 ISSN 1534-0937 Walt Crawford

Ethics and Access 1: The Sad Case of Jeffrey Beall

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.

Inside This Issue

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 submit- ted, 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 open- access 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 multibillion- 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.

The Wheels Come Off…

Then came May 7, 2013, when the wheels really came off the Beall Express. The story picks up from there.
The Serials Crisis is Over.
That absurd title heads this May 7, 2013 post by Beall at Scholarly Open Access; just below it is a silly image of a locked version of the OA open-lock with smart quotes around it.
I declare that the serials crisis, the event that gave birth to the open-access movement, is over. I base my declaration on my observations as an academic librarian and on the scholarly literature, selections from which I include here:
That first sentence may qualify as “not even wrong.” Beall’s evidence that the serials crisis “gave birth to the open-access movement?” I guess because Beall says so. Just to be clear: If all scholarly journal publishers agreed that, for every academic library in the world, the total cost for all scholarly journals would be, say,
20% of the library budget (which would be much lower than what most medium-sized and larger academic libraries spend now), that would not eliminate the need for OA. Just for starters, it would not provide any access to me or any other researcher or layman who’s not affiliated with an academic institution.
In any case, that’s not likely to happen, and the serials crisis is only “over” to the extent that academic libraries are being slowly bled to death by journal costs rather than being rapidly bled to death. Price increases are still much higher than inflation; even Harvard can’t afford all the journals they’d like to have.
The rest of the post consists of Beall’s “evidence” for the serials crisis being over. What evidence? Let’s see:

  • The first is an assertion within a report (not in any sense part of the scholarly literature) to the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers—a trade group that wants to believe the crisis is over

  • The second, which is peer-reviewed, claims that the serials crisis may not be “as acute as some have suggested” and that “most academics are clearly operating productively under the existing methods of scholarly communication.” (The article itself is behind a paywall—but in any case the excerpt only argues that the crisis within academia is less severe than some claim. It’s also pretty limited, based on eight New Zealand universities.)

  • The third is, astonishingly, excerpted from an interview with Derk Haank, at the time CEO of Springer and formerly chair of Elsevier Science. Is it any surprise that Haank says the crisis is over?

  • The fourth is apparently a peer-reviewed article and the excerpt says ARL libraries—the ones most able to handle serials price increases—get a lot more serials (not necessarily journals) now than they did in 1989-1990. (Specifically, the asserted median has gone from 21,187 to 80,292.) How this establishes that the serials crisis is over for all academic libraries or that open access is less necessary? It doesn’t. It says that the Big Deal increased the number of available journals; it says nothing about affordability or about access beyond ARL libraries. (Just as a reality check, I looked at FY2010 figures for Carnegie Classification 15, which appears to encompass what used to be Research I and II and includes 151 reporting institutions: it’s not quite the same set as ARL. The median number of serials is 59,942; 48 of them have 80,292 or more, and that 48th institution is precisely 80,292. If you’re wondering, the median number of serials for Carnegie Classification 16, what used to be Doctoral I and II, is 12,739 serials.)

  • The fifth? Eureka: this one does specifically say that the Big Deals “essentially resolved the serials crisis by 2004.” It’s behind a pay- wall. It’s a short communication, not a scholarly article, appearing in Learned Publishing (when I had a full article in that publication, it was not peer-reviewed). Oh, and it’s by Jeffrey Beall—the piece appears to be another attack on gold OA. So his one solid piece of evidence is…quoting himself.

    Go through that list again. I don’t know about you, but it strikes me as remarkably thin.

    The first comment, by Steve Hitchcock, is interesting—as it accepts the quotes at face value (which I’m not prepared to do for either Haank or Beall):

    You make two assertions in your opening sentence: 1 there was a serials crisis, 2 this led to open access. Your selective quotes do not show either, so it is hard to justify your headline point on this evidence. What your quotes may show, however, is that the serials crisis was about journals pricing, and the Big Deal was a response to that. But the Big Deal is not open access, and the case for open access is not over.

As for the first assertion, in a way it’s true: there never was a serials crisis, there were—and are— many serials (primarily journals) crises affecting different segments of academia in different ways.

The next comment, by Pierre de Villiers, makes another interesting point (although I partly disagree with the first sentence, which offers too narrow a case for OA):

The main case for open access is free access to public-funded research. The big deal does not solve that, and actually worsen the situation by consuming library budgets in favour of those big deal- publishers, excluding journals from smaller publishers. I also doubt the statement that the far- above-inflation in serial subscriptions came to an end. Is this supported by evidence?

Beall “responds” to the question with a non-answer: “Please see quotation number 4, which shows that libraries pay a lot less per journal title than they did in the past.” Actually, the quotation doesn’t say that at all. It says the median ARL library, not in any way typical of all academic libraries, gets four times as many serials (most of them, presumably, not refereed scholarly journals) as it did a decade earlier. It says nothing about how much that library paid. Across extensive doctoral institutions, a somewhat larger group of libraries, the median library also spent 51% more on serials in 2010 than in 2000 after adjusting for inflation, which pretty much answers Villiers’ question. (For all academic libraries taken as a group and not adjusting for inflation, 2010 serials spending was considerably more than twice the level of 2000 spending—and close to 65% higher after inflation. If you want to see a truly gulp-inducing graph, consider ARL’s “Expenditure Trends in ARL Libraries, 1986-2011” with its 402% increase in serials expenditures.)
Dr. Gunn offers a quick snark questioning the assertion that academics are doing just fine—and Andrew Miller basically says that’s true, quoting yet another publisher-association report…and admitting that he’s an Elsevier publisher, perhaps not a wholly disinterested party.
Mike Taylor takes the light approach:

Jeffrey, was this post a satire? If so, of what? Sorry if I am being dense, I just don’t get it.

To which Beall responds by basically repeating his absurd assertion. Karen Coyle chose to point to by book The Big Deal and the Damage Done, which came about partly because of other claims that the Big Deal had solved the serials crisis, and says my analysis suggests Beall is wrong. His response?

I think you’ve got it backwards. He should have read the sources I site first.

To which I felt a need to respond:

I had in fact read most of the sources you cite. The suggestion that quotable sources, mostly publishing-related, count for more than the actual facts is an amusing one, but I think I’ll go with the real world for now. (Also, as has been said before, the serials crisis is neither the only nor the primary reason for OA.)

In fairness – and because it’s a nice tough – I should quote Vinz Clortho’s response to my comment:

Jeffrey’s sources are better. He said so.

Which is, in essence, what Beall’s trainwreck of a post boils down to: Beall’s right because Beall’s says so. And has mostly Beall and publishing industry assertations to back him up. Well, and eight New Zealand universities.

To read the rest of the article, go here: Cites & Insights


Jeffrey Beall