David Moher on the problem of journals (both prestigious and predatory)

David Moher wears many hats, but is perhaps best known for his contributions to the world of systematic reviews. A highly cited clinical epidemiologist and senior scientist at Canada’s Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI) and the University of Ottawa’s School of Epidemiology and Public Health, he has published over 70 systematic reviews, including one on the quality of systematic reviews themselves. He spearheaded the development of both the CONSORT and PRISMA statements to improve the reporting of randomised trials and systematic reviews, and is co-editor-in-chief the journal Systematic Reviews to boot. But on a recent visit to Cochrane Australia, David shared his latest thinking on some entirely different terrain. As Director of OHRI’s Centre for Journalology, he explores publication practices and the increasing influence of journals both prestigious and predatory on research and academia today. 

‘Thirty years ago, a journal article was the primary way knowledge was disseminated,’ David says. ‘That’s definitely not the case today. We now have so many other ways to share our findings and data and contribute to public debate and knowledge. Yet this change hasn’t really been reflected within academia in many ways. There’s a continuing fixation on journal impact factors and citations as the principal metrics that count in terms of academic career progression and guarantees of future funding and reputational success. We need to look at the implications this has for us as researchers, as academics and as members of a broader community that our work should really be serving. We need more progressive approaches to assessment and evaluation.’  

‘I think the greatest irony is that we tend to think of universities as places of innovation. Yet as we recently demonstrated in PLOS Biology, when it comes to the way academics are hired, promoted and tenured there’s been very little innovation at all. Almost everything still comes down to these all-important journal citations.’

To illustrate a key problem with this traditional model, David points to influential writers and thinkers whose contemporary contributions to global debate and dissemination is substantial, yet what they publish outside of journals wouldn’t be considered relevant or ‘worthy’ within current university hiring and promotional practices. 

‘Take people like Atul Gawande or Susan Cain for example, who have sparked major debates in health and psychology via best-selling books, articles and TED talks – some of which have been downloaded over 20 million times. It’s difficult to deny they are making a significant contribution to public debate and understanding - but in the context of academia, there’s little if any credit or value ascribed to these kinds of contributions. One publication in a high impact journal would be assessed as much more valuable – but is this really the case? What represents more value to the community?’

‘If you want to be hired, promoted or tenured in academia today you need to publish in a very limited range of high impact journals. And in the course of seeking publication in these journals, you’re highly likely to get multiple rejections and often very unhelpful or demoralising peer review. We’re getting more evidence about the problems and pitfalls about this system and the experience early researchers in particular have with it. Does it foster and draw out the most value from research? Or can we open the door and begin to pave a new way for early career researchers that recognises other kinds of contributions? As it is we’re seeing all kinds of problems arise as a symptom of this flawed system – chief among them the spectre of predatory journals.’

A problem largely unknown a decade ago, there are now an estimated 8,000 predatory journals that collectively 'publish' more than 400,000 papers every year. In an article in Nature, David and his colleagues estimate that at least 18,000 funded biomedical-research studies are tucked away in poorly indexed, scientifically questionable journals. They argue that little if any of this work will advance science as it’s ‘badly conducted, poorly reported or difficult to find’. 

While some people are duped into publishing in predatory journals, others do so knowingly in an attempt to get ahead career-wise in the hyper-competitive world of academia. ‘We know anecdotally from people on university promotion and tenure committees that this is a real and growing problem. With piles of bulky CVs to get through, all with long lists of publications that look impressive, it’s very difficult to screen them and identify which ones are legitimate. And it’s not just a problem in developing countries – we are seeing evidence of this across the board.’ 

‘We’re starting to see many more people writing about the rise of predatory journals now, but what we really need is the evidence. For example, we’re conducting a systematic review at the moment to identify all the checklists out there that are designed to help people identify predatory journals and avoid them. We’ve found 93 of them. The question is, is it useful to have 93 or could we have a single one that could be disseminated? This is something we're working on so that would-be authors have the resources they need to avoid these journals. Universities also need to start ensuring that researchers are properly trained to identify and avoid predatory journals, as we need to cut off the supply of manuscripts if we’re to address this growing problem.’

David also advocates for universities to provide better training not just for those submitting to journals, but also for peer reviewers at legitimate journals. ‘It may seem a surprising revelation that peer review, while a central tenet of the academic process, involves no formal or agreed upon training. If universities really value science, why don’t they mandate teaching of peer review and other positive publication practices? I’m not sure why they don’t, but it seems it’s missing from their value portfolio. Values are something we don’t hear enough about.’ 

‘My own personal value is to try to make change for the better. It’s hard to challenge and change the status quo, particularly given the entrenched place of journals at the centre of the academy. But for me it’s very important to be energetic, to try to make things better for early career researchers coming after me. If I can do this by gathering the evidence and encouraging universities to move away from worshipping the high impact journal and move towards a broader, more open and progressive approach to the way academics are promoted and their outputs are evaluated, so much the better.’

Words: Shauna Hurley
Image: David Moher, image courtesy of OHRI