Published Studies Give Dietary Supplements Credibility, but Watch Out for Bad Journals

October 16, 2014

Don’t become the next victim of “predatory” journals and conferences.

A predator is stalking the nutraceuticals industry. As research on nutraceuticals grows, so has the number of academic journals publishing study findings. Hidden among truly legitimate journals is a growing crop of highly questionable publications. In a market in which research on ingredients and nutraceuticals is prized and encouraged, these so-called “predatory” journals prey on companies seeking legitimate, peer-review publication of their latest studies.

The problem of predatory journals became apparent to our staff at AIBMR Life Sciences a few years ago when we were presented with a new dietary supplement ingredient claiming to promote satiety that had not gone through a New Dietary Ingredient (NDI) notification submission with FDA. Because none of our staff had heard of the ingredient, we contacted the ingredient supplier, who promptly sent us several PDFs of papers published in a journal-a journal we had never heard of. After noting the poor quality of the papers in this journal’s first few issues, we soon realized that the journal was one of the predatory journals causing increasing alarm among the scientific community. How those papers ever made it through the peer-review process into publication is a mystery to us.

Predatory journals are accused of sending spam e-mails to potential authors to solicit submissions. These journals lack credibility in the academic world and are rejected by regulatory agencies that review scientific substantiation. The damage such journals can cause is extreme-not just to the industry at large, but to companies themselves. It will only be a matter of time before these questionable publications taint an industry already suffering from repeated criticism. Publishing a study in such journals casts serious doubt on the credibility of the study findings reported. If a company tried to use these journal publications to support its structure/function statements or marketing claims and their claims were ever challenged, these published studies would not hold up to regulatory scrutiny.

The growing problem of predatory journals and their publishers has reached such alarming heights that one of the leading scientific journals in the world, Nature, addressed the subject in an article that explored the “dark side of publishing.”1

In 2009, a student at Cornell University tested firsthand the insidiousness of the problem after receiving numerous unsolicited e-mails from an alleged predatory publisher. The student submitted a computer-generated manuscript that contained nonsensical information to an open-access predatory journal. Even the “center” the student claimed to be affiliated with, as a “corresponding author,” was fake. In a matter of days, the publisher accepted the bogus paper for publication-but asked for a publication fee first. The student withdraw the paper after receiving the journal’s agreement to publish.2

In addition to journals, there are also predatory conference organizers. Below are examples of how these entities lure honest companies.

 

Predators in the Real World

Imagine being invited to a conference to chair a panel on natural products. To entice you to accept the invitation, the conference organizer provides a list of invited speakers who have allegedly already agreed to participate in the conference. You’re impressed. Some of the speakers are affiliated with government bodies and prestigious academic institutions. You accept the invitation after considering the advantages of attending, of networking and learning from these esteemed peers. You book a flight and a hotel room, get yourself to the conference, and on the morning of the conference go to the registration desk to pick up your conference nametag. “I see you haven’t paid your registration fee of $1,250 to attend the conference,” the registration clerk points out. “No one mentioned anything about a registration fee,” you respond, explaining that you were in fact invited to attend and to chair of one of the featured panels. The registration clerk is firm: “Well, you have to pay the fee. We don’t make any exceptions.”

What do you do then? Say you refuse to pay the fee and simply walk out the door, obviously very upset by this switch-and-bait tactic. Two weeks later, you get an invoice in the mail for $1,250.00. You think, “They must be kidding!” You tear up the invoice-and every invoice you are sure to receive thereafter. Then one day a notice is sent by certified mail to pay up, or be faced with a collection agency. A steady stream of phone calls to your office and home, demanding payment, follows.

If you think this sounds crazy, think again, because this situation is actually happening.

Now imagine that you hold a key technical position at a nutraceutical ingredient supplier company. Your responsibility includes seeing to it that the results of studies the company has sponsored and invested in are published. The company’s latest study outcome, performed in a series of in vivo animal studies, demonstrates the safety of the company’s ingredient. Given the favorable results, the company plans to include the results in its NDI notification submission to FDA, or possibly for submission to a Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) expert panel review. (In the case of GRAS affirmation, the results of such studies need to be published in order for an ingredient to be deemed “generally recognized as safe.”)

Just as you wonder which toxicology journals you should submit your company’s study results to for peer review, you receive an unsolicited e-mail from a publisher. The subject line catches your attention. You learn that the publisher is soliciting papers for one of its journals-a toxicology journal, no less. The publisher’s solicitation promises a quick review of any submission to the journal in just seven days. You click on the journal’s homepage link and find author guidelines. The guidelines state that there are no restrictions on the length of submissions or on the number of tables and figures that can be included. Further, it offers publication of supplemental data for “free” (but without specifying for how long).

More encouraging, the journal promises that, from the date of the study’s submission, a decision to publish the study will be made in less than three weeks. The publisher will also publish the accepted manuscript online within just three days of acceptance and will send the publication out to an undisclosed number of databases. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it?

You then call the authors of your company’s study to share the good news about the journal you’ve discovered. But there’s a problem-none of the authors have ever heard of the journal. They strongly recommend submitting the manuscript to an established journal. You consider the advice of the authors. While mulling the pros and cons, you learn that initial peer review of a manuscript submission by the established toxicology journals in question could take 30 days or longer, and that if the manuscript is accepted, it may not be published for a year or longer. Worse still, the manuscript acceptance rate following peer review for most of these established journals is somewhere between 10%–15%. The study authors also point out that should the manuscript be accepted for publication, none of these journal are open access, which means that in order for someone to read the entire paper beyond the abstract, he or she would have to pay a flat fee of $36–$42, depending on the journal’s publisher. Finally, copyright laws prohibit reproducing the paper for commercial purposes without the publisher’s approval, unless a negotiated fee is paid. Two of the journals might offer open access, but only after a fee of $2500 is paid, which is not in your budget.

You weigh the options. Which journal should the authors, and the company, choose?

You ask management, who would like to see the study results published as soon as possible, especially considering that a major trade show is only two months away. If the results are published by then, it could mean significant sales of the ingredient for the company.

Faced with this dilemma, will the company-and the study authors-become another victim by publishing in a predatory journal?

 

How to Identify Predatory Journals

Which journals are predatory? To start, check out the so-called Beall’s List3 (easily accessible online) of “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers.” The creator of this list, Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado (Denver), keeps the list updated because, in his words, “journal publishers and journals change their business and editorial practices over time.”

Beall’s List provides criteria for how to determine who is not a predatory publisher.4 One of the criteria is whether a publisher is a member of one of these associations, whose members follow codes of conduct: the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), and the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers (STM). Predatory journals are not members of these associations, according to the Beall’s List criteria.

According to Beall’s List, predatory journals will often engage in the following sketchy business practices:

  • Engage in excessive use of spam e-mail to solicit manuscripts or editorial board memberships
  • Demonstrate a lack of transparency in publishing operations
  • Lack policies or practices for digital preservation
  • Rely on author fees as the sole and only means of operation
  • Begin operating with a large fleet of journals, often using a template to quickly create each journal’s homepage
  • Provide insufficient information about author fees, or hide information, and offer to publish an author’s paper but later send a previously undisclosed invoice
  • Display prominent statements that promise rapid publication and/or unusually quick peer review
  • Publish papers already published in other venues/outlets, without providing appropriate credits
  • Claim to be a “leading publisher,” even though the publisher may only be a startup or a novice organization
  • Operate in a Western country chiefly for the purpose of functioning as a vanity press for scholars in a developing country
  • Do minimal or no copyediting
  • Publish journals whose coverage is excessively broad (e.g., Journal of Education) in order to attract more articles and gain more revenue from author fees
  • Publish journals that combine two or more fields not normally treated together (e.g., International Journal of Business, Humanities, and Technology)

Being aware of the above practices can help you avoid getting involved with predatory publishers and their publications.

In April 2013, The New York Times covered the topic of open-access publishers and conferences and interviewed Beall.5 Beall’s List has since added more publishers to its list, after these publishers were identified and exposed.6 One was added for the following reasons:

  • The publisher does not reveal its location information.
  • The publisher’s website includes content pirated from other websites (i.e., privacy policies and author guidelines).
  • The publisher’s website has numerous broken links and dead image links.
  • Some of the publisher’s journals have empty editorial boards, yet the journal still publishes papers.

Another publisher was added to the list because:The editorial boards are listed but lack members’ institutional affiliations.

  • Some of the journals use the word advanced in their titles, but the articles do not reflect advanced research.
  • The author guidelines are pirated from other sites.
  • The journal’s site makes no mention of whether authors are charged a fee and, if so, the amount. 

Still another publisher was added to the list after it boasted that it was the “world’s leading publisher” in its field, despite specialists polled who had never heard of the publisher.

Another useful source for determining the legitimacy of most journals is Thompson Reuters and its Journal Citations Reports guidelines, which offer a “systematic, objective means to critically evaluate the world’s leading journals, with quantifiable, statistical information based on citation data.” Thompson Reuters publishes a “journal impact factor” that can be used to gauge the credibility of thousands of journals, helping visitors rank, evaluate, categorize, and compare journals. The journal impact factor measures the frequency in which the “average article” in a journal has been cited by others in a particular year or other time period. The journal impact factor is “calculated by dividing the number of current-year citations to the source items published in that journal during the previous two years,” according to Thompson Reuters.

Before selecting a journal in which to publish research results or reviews, you might also want to check Ulrich’s database-a source that library staff have used for more than 75 years to establish the legitimacy of various serial publications.

Finally, a particularly useful guide to protect against getting involved with predatory publishers and their journals is the University of Manchester’s Open Access at Manchester.7 Like Beall’s List, it, too, recommends determining whether a journal of interest is a member of specific open-access associations, which require abiding by respective codes of ethics-one of the many reasons that predatory journals and their publishers might shy away from membership.

 

Future Opportunities for Predatory Journals

Positive changes unfolding in the world of journal publishing may unfortunately also provide new opportunities for predatory journals. In May 2014, Mexico and China issued new policies to require publicly funded research to be open access, a move meant to make research widely available and to “facilitate knowledge dissemination and accelerate the globalization of science.”8 Efforts to make publicly funded research open access are part of the recently formed Global Research Council (GRC), a group “comprised of the heads of science and engineering funding agencies from around the world, dedicated to promoting the sharing of data and best practices for high-quality collaboration among funding agencies worldwide.”

Predatory journals are always open access; they do not publish printed issues. If more studies are made open access globally, open-access studies published in predatory journals may fall into the mix-making it further difficult to distinguish between studies from predatory and non-predatory journals.

Hopefully, the GRC will provide guidelines to help authors choose publication in legitimate journals that aren’t predatory in nature. The GRC has already taken the first step, publishing on its website the “national guidelines on merit/peer review” of 19 member countries.9 The United States and China have yet to post their guidelines on the GRC website.

 

Industry’s Reputation on the Line

The nutraceutical industry is under pressure to substantiate claims according to recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines. Companies must choose carefully when selecting which journals in which to publish the outcome of studies they sponsor. Be mindful that the FTC is very aware that predatory publishers exist, even as it reviews substantiation data. The bottom line? Where you publish results matters. 

 

References

  1. Butler D, “Investigating journals: the dark side of publishing,” Nature, vol. 495, no. 7442 (March 28, 2013): 433-435.
  2. Basken P, “Open-access publisher appears to have accepted fake paper from bogus center,” The Chronicle of Higher Education blog, June 10, 2009.
  3. http://scholarlyoa.com/publishers/ (Accessed 5/18/14)
  4. http://scholarlyoa.com/2012/11/30/criteria-for-determining-predatory-open-access-publishers-2nd-edition/ (Accessed 5/18/14).
  5. Kolata G, “Scientific articles accepted (personal checks, too),” The New York Times, April 7, 2013.
  6. http://scholarlyoa.com/2013/04/30/the-onslaught-of-questionable-open-access-journals-persists-unabated/#more-1605 (Accessed 5/18/14)
  7. www.openaccess.manchester.ac.uk/checkjournal/predatoryjournals/ (Accessed 5/18/14)
  8. Sharma Y, “Research funders announce open access policies,” University World News, vol. 321 (May 23, 2014).
  9. www.globalresearchcouncil.org/documents (Accessed 6/11/14)

 

 

Photo by iStockphoto.com. Edited by Quinn Williams.

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