A website that has kept track of publications falsely claiming to be peer reviewed has vanished, and many scientists are alarmed. In recent years pseudo-peer reviewed journals have become a growth industry. Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado had been leading the fight back, working to expose such journals. Suddenly, last week, Beall's website was shut down, reportedly because of legal threats and political attacks.
Science relies on evidence and the capacity to replicate research. Peer review acts as a filter, keeping out many of the most unsubstantiated claims from scientific publications, and providing an indication of credibility for those lacking the skills or time to investigate the quality of research. However, the Internet has opened up space for fake journals, which claim to be peer reviewed but allow anyone willing to pay to have their work published.
Beall refers to this as “predatory open access publishing”, allowing bad scientists to pad their CVs and people pushing dangerous pseudo-science to make their claims look credible. The publishers make a profit, while the community that gets taken in by the lies, and honest scientists who won't engage, lose out. The extent of the situation was highlighted when a paper entirely consisting of the words “Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List” repeated 863 times was accepted for two such journals.
Beall recorded more than 1,000 examples of what he considered predatory journals, responsible for more than 400,000 dubious papers a year, on his website. He subsequently extended his efforts to inform people about “predatory meetings”, conferences that are held where bad science can be presented, once again for a fee, to an audience who can't or won't question it. Both the predatory journals and meetings like to choose names misleadingly similar to respected scientific institutions.
Naturally, Beall was hated by the predatory publishers for exposing their game, attracting a lawsuit from a company that was subsequently sued themselves by the US Federal Trade Commission. However, he also faced criticism from genuine scientists who accused him of casting his net too widely, listing some legitimate publications as suspicious simply because he didn't like the look of them.
Nevertheless, the disappearance of Beall's website has aroused anxiety among those who have watched the rise of predatory journals, publications, and pseudo-science with alarm. Many have noted the timing. When Presidential spokespeople call obvious lies “alternative facts”, the idea that anyone with $1,000 to spend can see their claims treated equally as years of painstaking research looks particularly frightening.
Much of Beall's work can be found in archives, but there are questions over whether anyone – particularly in the United States in the current environment – will have the time, resources, and courage to keep it updated.