This week’s update comes to us from Jan Velterop, who asks, “Are ‘predatory’ journals completely negative, or also a sign of something positive?

Veltrop argues that the kind of gatekeeping that occurs in paywalled journals does a disservice to the academy and that the existence of predatory journals might be one sign of a healthy market for scholarly research.

The latter claim is based on the notion that markets are not all good. In any market, there will be illegal, unregulated, improper, or scandalous activity. In this case, predatory journals are an indication that open access publishing is in high demand. So high, in fact, that it is being used to lure people into publishing in venues that are not very rigorous otherwise.

The former point is well taken: scholarly gatekeeping is a real thing. We would like for the academy to be an open place where ideas flow freely, but in fact interest in any given topic is tied directly to availability of funding. The academy is largely white, male, cisgender, and heterosexual still, and the gatekeepers are similarly oriented. Topics and subjects that do not fit into the existing hegemonic, patriarchal worldview held by many in the academy are disregarded, and therefore do not get into publication.

Veltrop’s point is well made in the post linked above, but we still question whether or not that means that we shouldn’t fight to stem the tide of illegitimate publishers and journals posing as legitimate. The people most affected by these ersatz scholarly outlets will be young, non-white, queer, non-Western, and early career scholars who are trying to establish a record of published research. If our goal is to make the academy more open, it doesn’t work in our interest to let the most vulnerable among us to the publishing wolves, only to be ruthlessly scrutinized come interview or tenure review time. Publishing in illegitimate venues can seriously harm the prospects of young scholars in particular as it is taken to indicate a lack of discernment on their part when, in fact, they are being manipulated while under extreme pressure to publish.

While the existence of these journals and publishers may be an indication of a healthy market, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive for better. And that involves a lot of hard and critical work, for everyone, in thinking about peer-review and what its place is, and who benefits from it. In the case of closed journals with closed review, our system clearly only serves the aims of a patriarchal and moribund academy. In the case of open access journals, the case is murkier.

We would like to see a lot more open-review engagement with scholarly literature, but the models for this are still not great. Pre-print servers help a great deal, in that they allow the world to see research and for scholarly communities to interavt through that research well before final publication. But this idea is new to many fields, and fears of research being stolen or scooped often make young scholars (rightly) trepidatious about posting their pre-review drafts. There is also the worry that faculty search committees will judge scholars harshly on what amounts to unfinished work published online.

What we need is a sea change in the way that we think as scholars and academic professionals. We need to be willing to engage with work-in-progress and an open review process. Until we get there, we will remain in the same unfortunately unhealthy market for scholarly publishing, whether predatory journals thrive or not.