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When Journals are driven by profit, not evidence:

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Dr. Kelly Cobey talks about predatory journals

You might not have heard of “predatory journals,” but you might be basing medical decisions on the flawed research they publish. This research is sometimes spread via online blogs and the media, putting anyone at risk of using sketchy science to inform a decision. There are thousands of predatory journals in existence. Many of them are medical journals.

To help raise awareness of predatory medical journals, the problems they’re causing, and the potential solutions, CADTH recently invited Dr. Kelly Cobey to the CADTH Lecture Series. CADTH — an independent agency that finds, assesses, and summarizes research on drugs, medical devices, tests, and procedures — regularly invites prominent scholars and opinion leaders, such as Dr. Cobey, to its CADTH Lecture Series to share their perspectives on pressing issues facing health technology assessment and health care today.

Dr. Cobey is an Investigator at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI) and serves as the institution’s Publications Officer, providing educational outreach on best practice in academic biomedical publishing. She is also actively involved in meta-research topics related to journalology.

After attending her talk, CADTH Knowledge Mobilization officer Barbara Greenwood Dufour

was able to chat with Dr. Cobey to find out more about predatory journals and their impact on health care and our health.

CADTH: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Dr. Cobey. Would you briefly remind us of what predatory journals are? 

KC: Predatory journals use an open-access model of publishing. This model is used by legitimate journals — it gives readers free access over the internet, and research authors pay an article processing charge to have an article published. But the research must withstand a rigorous peer review process first to ensure it meets a high standard. The difference with predatory journals is that they don’t uphold any standards; they just want the article processing charges. Predatory journals seek profits at the expense of scholarship.

CADTH: How do we know that these journals aren’t upholding best practice standards?

KC: There have been at least 15 “sting studies” studies to verify that this is happening. Fake research was submitted to these journals — some of it is obvious nonsense — but it was published anyway. That’s how we know they’re not reviewing these articles. We’ve also surveyed researchers who have published in presumed predatory journals and asked them about their experience; many indicate their work received little or no peer review.

CADTH: Why are they called “predatory” journals? Who is the “prey”?

KC: Researchers are, but the term “predatory journal” is a bit of a misnomer because some seek these journals out on purpose to quickly increase the number of articles they’ve had published. But others don’t realize these aren’t legitimate journals. Getting published should be an endorsement of the value and rigour of your work; but when your work is published in a predatory journal, it’s tainted, and there’s little you can do afterward. My key advice is to researchers is to look for red flags; and you see any, find another journal; there are many legitimate ones.

CADTH: How are clinicians exposed to predatory journal articles?

KC: They use Google to find out about new research like the rest of us. It may be shocking to patients that their doctor is not all-knowing — that they’re unable to spot a junk research study. But learning how to assess research quality hasn’t been integral to their training — if they were trained prior to 2012, predatory publishing wouldn’t have been covered since it is a relatively new phenomenon.

CADTH: What can be done to stop predatory publishing?

KC: It’s an issue that’s not going away without action. The public could pressure governments to conduct audits of the work they support, to ensure that funds are not being misallocated to support work shared in predatory journals. People can also refuse to enroll in clinical trials without assurances that the work won’t be shared irresponsibly. Another strategy is to increase public awareness and provide tools that anyone can use to vet research— a one-stop, web-based resource that will assess research with a few clicks.

CADTH: You’re referring to a tool that your group at OHRI is developing?

KC: Yes. We’re seeking funds to develop an online authenticator tool for research studies, which could be used by researchers, clinicians, and the public — anyone who wants to find out if a research study is legitimate or not.

CADTH:  It sounds like anyone could have a stake in this, including the general public.

KC: My one take-away message is that we underestimate how a single science article can end up informing — or misinforming — a large group of people. Think about how quickly the “chocolate prevents x” or “chocolate causes y” studies spread. Every time a junk study is promoted and then debunked, the public’s perception of science is damaged. The general public needs to understand that they can’t take research at face value, and they need tools to understand and use science.

For more information about the CADTH Lecture Series or to attend the next lecture in person or online you can visit www.cadth.ca and follow us on Twitter: @CADTH_ACMTS (look for the hashtag). You can also follow Dr. Cobey at @KDCobey.

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