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The guest publishing scam

October 26, 2020 5 comments

For years, I have been a staunch opponent of “special issues” which proliferate many good journals. As an editor, when asked by the publisher if we should have some particular guest issue I would always say no, only to be outvoted or overruled by the Editor in Chief. While I always believed there is some kind of scam going on, I never really thought about it. In fact, it’s really on the surface for everyone to see…

What is so special about special issues?

Well, let me explain how this works. Imagine you organized an annual conference and you feel it was a success. Or you organized a birthday/memorial conference in honor of a senior colleague in the area and want to do more. You submit a proposal to a journal: please, please, can we become “guest editors” and publish a “special issue” of the journal? Look, our conference had so many terrific people, and the person we are honoring is such a great mathematician, so famous and so kind to everyone, how can you say no?

And the editors/publishers do say yes. Not always. Sometimes. If one journal refuses, the request is made to another journal. Eventually, like with paper submissions, some journal says “sure”. The new guest editors quickly ask all/some conference speakers to submit papers. Some/many do. Most of these papers get accepted. Not a rule, just social contract. As in “how dare you reject this little paper by a favorite student of the honoree?”

The journal publishes them with an introductory article by guest editors lauding the conference. A biographical article with reminiscences is also included, with multiple pictures from earlier conferences or from the family archive, always showing light side of the great person. The paper version of the journal is then sent to all authors, or is presented with a pomp to the honoree at some retirement party as some kind of math version of a gold watch. None of them will ever open the volume. These issues will be recycled at best, as everyone will continue to use online versions.

Sounds like a harmless effort, don’t you see? Nobody is acting dishonorably, and mathematicians get to publish more papers, journals get to have submissions the wouldn’t otherwise, the conference or a person gets honored. So, win-win-win, right? Well, hear me out.

Why do the journal editors do it?

We leave the publishers for last. For a journal editor in chief this is straightforward. If they work for leading for-profit publishers they get paid. For a good reason in fact — it’s a hard work. Now, say some friends ask to do part of your job for free, and the proposal looks good, and the list of potential authors is pretty reasonable perhaps. You get to help yourself, your friends, and the area you favor, without anyone ever holding you responsible for the outcome. Low level corruption issues set aside and ignored, who wouldn’t take this deal?

Why do the guest editors do it?

Well, this is the easiest question. Some want to promote the area, some to honor the honoree, some just want to pad their CVs. It’s all good as far as I am concerned. They are not the problem.

Why do the authors do it?

Well, for multiple reasons. Here are some possible scenarios based on my observations. Some are honorable, some are dishonorable, and some in between.

Some authors care deeply for the subject or the honoree. They send their best work to the invited issue. This is their way to give back. Most likely they could’ve published that paper in a much better journal. Nobody will ever appreciate their “sacrifice”, but they often don’t care, it makes them feel better, and they have a really good excuse anyway. From the journal POV these are the best papers. Grade A.

Other authors think of these special issues completely differently and tailor make the paper to the issue. For example, they write personal memoir style reminiscences, as in “ideas from my conversations with X”, or “the influence of X on my work”. Other times they write nice surveys, as in “how X’s work changed field ABC”, or “recent progress on X’s conjectures”. The former are usually low on math content but mildly entertaining, even if not always appropriate for a traditional math journal (but why be constrained with old conventions?) The latter can be quite useful in a way surveys are often in demand, even if the timing for these particular surveys can be a little forced. Also, both are quite appropriate for these specific issues. Anyway, Grade B.

Some authors are famous, write many papers a year, have published in all good and even not-so-good journals multiple times already, so they don’t care which journal they submit next. Somebody asks them to honor somebody/something, and they want to be nice and send their next paper whether or not it’s good or bad, or even remotely related to the subject. And why not? Their name on the paper is what matters anyway, right? Or at least that’s what they think. Grade C.

Some authors have problematic papers which they desperately want to publish. Look, doing research, writing papers and publishing is hard, I get it. Sometimes you aim to prove a big deal and just almost nothing comes out, but you still want to report on your findings just as a tribute to the time you spent on the problem. Or a paper was rejected from a couple of journals and you are close to typing up a stronger result, so want to find a home for the paper asap before it becomes unpublishable at your own hand! Or you haven’t published for years, you’re worried your department may refuse you a promotion, so you want to publish anything, anywhere, just to get a new line on your CV. So given a chance you submit, with an understanding that whatever you submit will likely get published. The temptation is just too strong to look away. I don’t approve, if you can’t tell… Grade D/F.

Why do the publishers do it?

That’s where the scam is. Let me give you a short version before you quit reading, and expound on it below. Roughly — publisher’s contracts with libraries require them to deliver a certain number of pages each year. But the editorial boards are somewhat unruly, unpredictable and partly dysfunctional, like many math departments I suppose. Sometimes they over-accept papers by creating large backlogs and lowering standards. Other times, they are on a quest to raise standards and start to reject a lot of submissions. The journals are skittish about increasing and especially about decreasing the page numbers which would lead to their loss of income, creating a desperate need for more pages, any pages they can publish and mail to the libraries. This vacuum is then happily filled with all those special issues.

What made me so upset that I decided to blog on this?

Look, there is always something that’s a last drop. In this case it was a reference to my paper, and not a good kind. At some point Google Scholar informed me about a paper with a curious title citing a rather technical paper of mine. So I clicked. Here is the citation, in its full glory:

“Therefore, people need to think about the principles and methods of knowledge storage, management and application from a new perspective, and transform human knowledge into a form that can be understood and applied by machines at a higher level—the knowledge map, which is realized on the basis of information interconnection to change knowledge interconnection possible [27].”  

Visualization Analysis of Knowledge Network Research Based on Mapping Knowledge, by Hong Liu, Ying Jiang, Hua Fan, Xin Wang & Kang Zhao, Journal of Signal Processing Systems (2020)

And here is [27]: Pak, I., & Panova, G. (2017). On the complexity of computing Kronecker coefficients, Computational Complexity, 26, 1–36.

Now, I reread the above quote three times and understood nothing. Naturally, I know my paper [27] rather well. It is a technical result on computational complexity of computing certain numbers which naturally arise in Algebraic Combinatorics, and our approach uses symmetric functions, Young tableau combinatorics and Barvinok’s algorithm. We definitely say nothing about the “knowledge storage” or “interconnection” or “management” of any of that.

Confused, I let it go, but an unrelated Google search brought up the paper again. So I reread the quote three more times. Finally convinced this is pure nonsense, I googled the journal to see if it’s one of the numerous spam journals I hear about.

Turns out, the Journal of Signal Processing Systems (JSPS) is a serious journal in the area, with impact factor around 1, and H-index of 49. For comparison, the European Journal of Combinatorics has impact factor around 0.9 and H-index of 45.

Now, JSPS has three main editors — Sun-Yuan Kung from Princeton, Shuvra S. Bhattacharyya from University of Maryland College Park, and Jarmo Takala from Tampere University in Helsinki. All reputable people. For example, Kung has over 30K citations on Google Scholar, while Takala has over 400 published papers.

So, in my usual shy and unassuming way, I wrote to them a short email on Sep 25, 2020, inquiring about the fateful citation:

Dear Editors,
I want to bring to your attention the following article recently published in the Journal of Signal Processing Systems.  I personally have neither knowledge nor expertise in your field, so I can’t tell you whether this is indeed a spam article.  However, I can tell when I see a bogus citation to my own work, which is used to justify some empty verbosity.  Please do keep me posted as to what actions you intend to take on the matter (if any). 
Best,  —  Igor Pak

Here is the reply that I got:

Dear Prof. Pak,
thank you for providing feedback about the citation in this article. The article is published in a special issue, where the papers have been selected by guest editors. We will have a discussion with the guest editors on this matter. Sincerely,
Jarmo Takala
Co-Editor-inChief J. Signal Processing Systems

Now you see what I mean? It’s been over a month since my email. The paper is still there. Clearly going nowhere. The editors basically take no responsibility as they did not oversee the guest issue. They have every incentive to blame someone else and drop the discussion, because this whole thing can only lead to embarrassment and bad rep. This trick is called “blame shifting”.

Meanwhile, the guest editors have no incentives to actually do anything because they are not affiliated with the journal. In fact, you can’t even tell from the Editors’ email or from the paper who they are. So I still don’t know who they are and have no way to reach out to them. The three Editors above never replied to my later email, so I guess we are stuck. All right then, maybe the time will tell….

Explaining the trick in basic terms

I am not sure what the business term for this type of predatory behavior, but let me give you some familiar examples so you get the idea.

(1) Say, you are a large very old liberal arts university located in Cambridge, MA. Yes, like Harvard. Almost exactly like Harvard. You have a fancy very expensive college with very low admission rate of less than 1 in 20. But you know you are a good brand, and every time you make some rich kid go away, your treasurer’s heart is bleeding. So how do you make more money off the brand?

Well, you start an Extension School which even gives Bachelor and Master’s degrees. And it’s a moneymaker! It brings over $500 million each year, about the same as the undergraduate and graduate tuitions combined! But wait, careful! You do give them “Harvard degrees“, just not “Harvard College degrees“. And, naturally, they would never include the Extension School students in the “average SAT score” or “income one year after graduation” stats they report to US News, because it’s not Harvard College, don’t you understand?

Occasionally this leads to confusion and even minor scandals, but who cares, right? We are talking a lot of money! A lot of people have afterhours adjunct jobs, rooms have higher occupancy rate aiming to recoup building repairs (well, pre-pandemic), and a lot of people get educated and feel good about getting an education at Harvard, win-win-win…

But you see where I am going — same brand is split into two under one roof, selling two different, highly unequal, almost unrelated products, all for the benefit of a very rich private corporation.

(2) Now, here is a sweet completely made up example. You are a large corporation selling luxury dark chocolate candies made of very expensive cocoa beans. A new CEO comes up with a request. Cut candy weight to save on the beans without lowering candy box prices, and make it a PR campaign so that everyone feels great and rushes to buy these. You say impossible? Not at all!

Here is what you do. Say, your luxury box of dark chocolate candies weights 200 grams, so each is 20 grams. You make each candy a little bit smaller, so the total weight is now 175 gram — for each candy the difference of 2.5 grams is barely noticeable. You make the candy box bigger and put two more rather large 25 gram candies made out of cheap white chocolate, wrapped into a visually different wrap. You sell them in one box. The new weight is 225 grams, i.e. larger than before. You advertise “now with two bonus candies at the same price!”, and customers feel happy to get some “free stuff”. At the end, they might not like the cheap candies, but who cares – they get to have the same old 10 expensive candies, right?

Again, you see where I am going. They created an artificial confusion by selling a superior and an inferior product in the same box without an honest breakdown, so the customers are completely duped.

Back to publishers

They are playing just as unfair as the second example above. The librarians can’t tell the difference between quality of “special issues”, they only negotiate on the number of pages. The journal’s reputation doesn’t suffer from those. Indeed, it is understood that they are not always but often enough of lower quality, but you can’t really submit there unless you are in the loop. I don’t know how the impact factor and H index are calculated, but I bet the publishers work with Web Of Science to exclude these special issues and report only the usual issues akin to the Harvard example. Or not. Nobody cares for these indices anymore, right?

Some examples

Let me just show how chaotic is the publishing of special issues. Take Discrete Mathematics, an Elsevier journal where I was an editor for 8 years (and whose Wikipedia page I made myself). Here is a page with Special Issues. There is no order to any of these conferences. There are 8th French Combinatorial Conference, Seventh Czech-Slovak International Symposium, 23rd British Combinatorics Conference, huh? What happened to the previous 7, 6 and 22 proceedings, respectively? You notice a lot of special issues from before the journal was overhauled and very few in recent years. Clearly the journal is on the right track. Good for them!

Here are three special issues in JCTA, and here are two in JCTB (both Elsevier). Why these? Are the editors sure these have the same quality as the rest of these top rated journals? Well, hopefully no longer top rated for JCTA. The Annals of Combinatorics (Springer) has literally “Ten Years of BAD Math” special issue (yes, I know what BAD Math means, but the name is awful even if the papers are great). The European Journal of Combinatorics (Elsevier again), publishes usually 1-2 special issue per year. Why?? Not enough submissions? Same for Advances Applied Math (also Elsevier), although very few special issues in recent years (good!). I think one of my papers (of grade B) is in one of the older special issues. Ooops!

Now compare these with the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics which stopped publishing special issues back in 2012. This journal is free online, has no page limitation, so it cares more about its reputation than filling the pages. Or take the extreme case of the Annals of Mathematics which would laugh at the idea of a “special issue”. Now you get it!

What gives?

It’s simple, really. STOP publishing special issues! If you are an Editor in Chief, just refuse! Who really knows what kind of scam the guest editors or the publishers are running? But you know your journal, all papers go through you, and you are responsible for all accepted papers. Really, the journal editors are the only ones responsible for journal reputation and for the peer review!

Expensive for profit publishers enjoying side special issue scam — I’ve been looking forward to your demise for a long while. Even more recently I felt optimistic since a lot of papers are now freely accessible. Now that we are all cut off from the libraries during pandemic — can we all agree that these publishers bring virtually no added value??

If you are a potential guest editor who really wants to organize a special issue based on your conference, or to honor somebody, ask publishers to make a special book deal. They might. They do it all the time, even if this is a bit less lucrative business than journal publishing. Individual mathematicians don’t, but the libraries do buy these volumes. And they should.

If you are a potential contributor to a special issue — do what is listed above in Grade B (write a special topic survey or personal reminiscences), which will be published in a book as a chapter. No serious peer review research. These go to journals.

And if you are one of those scam journal publishers who keep emailing me every week to become a special issue editor because you are so enthralled with my latest arXiv preprint — you go die in a ditch!

Final Disclaimer: All these bad opinions are not at all about any particular journal or special issue. There are numerous good papers published in special issues, and these issues are often dedicated to just wonderful mathematicians. I myself admit of publishing papers in a several such special issues. Here I am making a general point which is hopefully clear.