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Trouble at paper mill

  • 4 July 2023
  • By Roger Watson
  • This guest blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Roger Watson, Academic Dean, School of Nursing, Southwest Medical University, China.
  • For information about HEPI’s remaining events in the 2022/23 academic year, see here.

This is the story of a once great academic publishing house whose reputation is now tarnished among academics, authors and even among the editors who are currently engaged to edit their vast and varied suite of journals.

The academic publishing industry is a significant international employer, with the leading companies having offices in most major cities across the world and with outsourced proof-reading, type setting and printing in many developing countries. Some individual flagship journals in these companies make millions of pounds for the companies, although with journal ‘bundle’ selling to libraries and payment for open access and article downloads it is notoriously hard to pinpoint the profit made by any single journal. For the many highly profitable journals there are many which do not make a bean for their publishers and some which are run at a loss as the companies support scholarship in some niche areas.

The present academic publishing giant Wiley evolved from John Wiley & Sons, a major US publisher and its merger with Blackwell Publishing, a well-established UK publishing company which was still in family hands until the formation in 2007 of Wiley-Blackwell. Eventually, the US partner dominated, the ‘Blackwell’ of Wiley-Blackwell was dropped, and Wiley emerged.

Enter the predatory publishers

A major problem has arisen in recent decades in academic publishing due to the almost simultaneous move to publishing online and the pressure to provide open access publishing which allows anyone to access articles without paying for them. Under open access the author pays an APC (article processing charge) to make their articles freely available. These moves have led to the rise of predatory publishers and hijacked journals. They exploit the online environment to entice academics to publish with them through a wide range of dishonest practices such as creating false websites that clone existing websites of reputable journals or creating journals that claim to have editors, editorial board members and publication metrics, all of which are false. These journals all claim to publish open access and charge APCs to authors.

The purpose of the predatory and hijacked journals is to relieve unsuspecting academics of money for very little return or none. In some cases, the article does not appear and in some cases it appears, very poorly produced and without having undergone peer review. Questionable or non-existent peer review processes are a hallmark of the predatory publishing sector. The other hallmark of the predatory publishers is persistent, obsequious emails inviting you to submit to their journals, claiming false impact factors and other measures of their success at attracting citations. A common tactic is to advertise special issues of journals where a few slots need to be filled and that the recipient of the email is the ideal person to fill it. Inevitably, they offer rapid peer review and rapid publication. Peer review is the rate-limiting step in academic publishing and to be included in the most prestigious databases and journal lists, journals must not compromise on this.

Enter Hindawi

Care must be taken not to describe Hindawi as predatory. They were included in the original list of potentially predatory publishers but took legal action against the creator of the list and were removed. However, in the mid-2010s Hindawi was notorious for persistent and obsequious emails inviting you to submit to their journals, using special issues to attract authors and offering rapid publication. Few self-respecting academics would publish with them, yet they continued to grow, if not in reputation, in size and profits. In 2019, they recorded profits of $3.3 million, small compared with the two giants referred to above but with a profit margin of 52% (for comparison, Elsevier’s was reported to be 36% in 2010).

The Wiley-Hindawi acquisition

To the dismay of the academic community and, especially, to editors working with them Wiley acquired Hindawi in 2021 for $298 million. In addition to owning the Hindawi suite of 200 journals Wiley launched 55 Wiley-Hindawi open access journals moving existing titles which were not open access to be managed by Hindawi.  One of these was the long established and very successful Journal of Nursing Management which created shock waves in academic nursing. Not the least of these was that the editorial team were told they would no longer receive their honoraria—however modest—and would now be expected to provide their services for no remuneration. The Editor-in-Chief has resigned and submissions to the journal have flatlined.

Now, it appears, that the wheels are coming off the Wiley-Hindawi collaboration faster than they can be replaced. Over the past few months, a series of allegations have been made regarding questionable peer review practices in journals under the purview of Hindawi. Earlier this year 1,200 articles were retracted following 500 being retracted last year. Wiley have stopped the publication of special issues and reported a $9 million loss in revenue as a result of the problems that have arisen with Hindawi.

It remains to be seen if Wiley will sever its relationship with Hindawi. While dissociation from Hindawi may restore Wiley’s severely tarnished image it also remains to be seen what happens to the journals that have already been handed over, which have lost submissions and dedicated editors. Many Wiley editors tried to warn Wiley at the time of the Hindawi acquisition. I cannot speak for others, but it gives me little pleasure to say: ‘I told you so.’

Conflict of interest statement

The author was an editor-in-chief with Wiley until 2020 and now works as an editor-in-chief with Elsevier.

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