Can This Journal be Saved?

General Interest, Intellectual Freedom Issues, Professional Ethics, Technology

by Joyce Johnston

Each semester, I look forward to the geek delights of introducing my college juniors and seniors into the intellectual wonders inside scholarly journals. With the help of our fabulous research librarian, we look at impact factors, major presses, and citation indexes. Students learn to see past the dense text to appreciate new discoveries and to imagine the future of their fields from the discussion sections in research studies. When I also taught high school English, I lamented that schools like mine couldn’t afford the databases that would have exposed students to cutting-edge information.  The one thing I never doubted, though, is that those journals, in all their fusty glory, would always be there for us.

Or maybe not.retraction image1

As a specialist in intellectual property, I already knew that research articles were being compromised at an alarming rate.  But the bad news has just kept on coming. R. G. Steen found that retractions have increased 10-fold in the last decade, most of them in medical journals. Just this August, Springer, which publishes 2,200 research journals, announced that it was retracting 64 articles in that month alone. A week ago, the journal Anesthesia and Analgesia announced that it had had to retract no fewer than 22 articles by a single person—German Joachim Boldt—who, as of last week, weighs in at 94 retractions and counting for ethics violations.

Then two more threats appeared.  Just this month, COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) reported wide-spread efforts to fake positive peer reviews, either by groups of friends lauding each other or, even worse, by companies who can be hired specifically to produce puff reviews. So far, faked reviews have caused about 15% of all retractions in the last three years. While BioMed Central, PLoS1 and Springer immediately cracked down on the practice, the damage to credibility has been done.

In November, John Bohannon’s article in Science Magazine described a con I had never even imagined.  With more than 20,000 online journals published last year, scammers have gone undetected as they spoofed journal websites so they could divert some of the $750,000 that unsuspecting individuals, libraries and schools pay each year for subscriptions.  If a journal neglects to send in $10 to renew its domain name each year, scammers can legally registered for it themselves, then fraudulently collect the fees that online authors often pay for open-access publication of their work, which then, of course, never appears.

So now what? COPE is already on the job industry-wide, helping publishers to guard against false reviews. But what can librarians and teachers do to protect these grand old ladies of research? First, match the journal’s supposed web address against the official list in Web of Science.  If they don’t match, contact the curator, Thomson Reuters, at once. The quickest, easiest move is to check in with Retraction Watch, whose constantly updated website tracks retractions by author, country, journal, subject, and type. Even better, introduce students to Retraction Watch so they can see that not only does academic dishonesty have a cost, but that the trust-based community of readers and researchers is worth defending.


Joyce Johnston teaches at George Mason University and has been writing and speaking on digital intellectual property and virtual instruction for more than 20 years. As a non-librarian, but a proud member of the Virginia Association of School Librarians, she has provided updates on intellectual property at its annual conference for the past 10 years and serves on the Executive Committee for the World Conference on Educational Media and Technology (aka EdMedia).

One thought on “Can This Journal be Saved?

  • I love your final comment, that you should introduce your students to Retraction Watch, because isn’t that the point? No tool is perfect, and they never will be, but our job is to create an information literate society. A society that will know how to look for scams or bad information and move past them. There is just too much publishing for it all to be good or scandal free, that is why our main focus needs to turn towards educating people rather than verifying sources. Great thoughts, great article.

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