A scholar for forty years, Franco has followed the rise of junk publishers for about a decade. He has seen them go from anomalous blights on academics’ credentials to widespread additions on scholarly resumés, nearly indistinguishable from legitimate work. Now, he says, “there’s never been a worse time to be a scientist.” Typically, when a scholar completes work they want to see published, they submit a paper to a reputable journal. If the paper is accepted, it undergoes a rigorous editing process—including peer review, in which experts in the field evaluate the work and provide feedback. Once the paper is published, it can be cited by others and inspire further research or media attention. The process can take years. Traditionally, five publishers have dominated this $25 billion industry: Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, Taylor & Francis, RELX Group (formerly Reed Elsevier), and Sage. But, before the turn of the century, a new model of online publishing, “open access,” began opening doors for countless academics—and for thousands of scams in the process.
The new online model created an opportunity for profits: the more papers publishers accepted, the more money they generated from authors who paid to be included—$150 to $2,000 per paper, if not more, and often with the support of government grants. Researchers also saw substantial benefits: the more studies they posted, the more positions, promotions, job security, and grant money they received from universities and agencies. Junk publishers—companies that masquerade as real publishers but accept almost every submission and skip quality editing—elbowed their way in.