Feds Target 'Predatory' Publishers

The Federal Trade Commission is "marking a line in the sand" with its first lawsuit against publishers that take advantage of scholars wishing to publish in open-access journals.

August 29, 2016

The Federal Trade Commission on Friday filed a complaint against the academic journal publisher OMICS Group and two of its subsidiaries, saying the publisher deceives scholars and misrepresents the editorial rigor of its journals.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada, marks the first time the FTC has gone after what are often known as “predatory” publishers. Such publishers exploit open-access publishing as a way to charge steep fees to researchers who believe their work will be printed in legitimate journals, when in fact the journals may publish anyone who pays and lack even a basic peer-review process.

Ioana Rusu, a staff attorney with the FTC, said in an interview that the commission is responding to a growing number of calls from people in academe for some sort of action to be taken against publishers that take advantage of scholars wishing to publish in open-access journals.

“There was definitely a sense that nobody had done anything about it,” Rusu said. “Now we’re watching.”

OMICS’ business practices have been scrutinized for years. The company, based in Hyderabad, India, publishers more than 700 open-access journals, and has created a number of imprints -- including iMedPub, also named in the complaint -- to expand its presence in the scholarly publishing market. Several of OMICS’ journals have names similar to other, legitimate journals, which critics say is an attempt to confuse scholars.

“If anything is predatory, it’s that publisher,” said Jeffrey Beall, scholarly communications librarian at the University of Colorado at Denver. “It’s the worst of the worst.”

Beall is known for his lists of thousands of “predatory” journals and publishers, and he has for several years written about OMICS and other publishers on his blog. Last month, for example, he published a handful of emails sent to him by researchers caught by surprise by four-digit publication fees or struggling to withdraw their papers from OMICS journals.

Those are the kinds of practices the FTC highlighted in its complaint. OMICS, the commission alleges, does not adequately disclose that authors have to pay a publication fee, falsely claims that its journals are frequently cited and lists academic experts with no connection to the journals as editors.

“As a result, in many instances, consumers only discover that their articles will not be peer reviewed and that they owe fees ranging from several hundred to several thousands of dollars after Defendants inform them that their articles have been approved for publication. Consumers’ attempts to withdraw their articles are frequently rejected, thereby preventing them from publishing in other journals,” the complaint reads. Should the court not take action, it adds, OMICS will continue to “injure consumers, reap unjust enrichment, and harm the public interest.”

The complaint extends to OMICS’ event business, managed through the subsidiary Conference Series. According to the complaint, OMICS regularly advertises conferences featuring academic experts who were never scheduled to appear in order to attract registrants.

OMICS did not respond to a request for comment, but posted a comment to this article this morning denying all charges.

Even if the FTC is successful in its case against OMICS, the commission will only make a dent in the world of “predatory” publishing. One study by researchers at Finland’s Hanken School of Economics found that such publishers flooded the scholarly communications landscape with more than 420,000 articles in 2014, about eight times as many as in 2010.

The FTC does not intend to file thousands of complaints -- nor does it have the resources to do so -- but Rusu said taking action against OMICS represents the commission announcing its interest in a new field. Typically, the FTC will do so by strategically targeting “some of the most recognized and also some of the worst actors” in that space, she said.

“With a lot of our other areas in which there are bad actors, the best you can hope for is that it’s setting a precedent, … marking a line in the sand and telling people that’s not OK,” Rusu said. “We don’t care if you’re marketing debt collection or publishing.”

Rusu stressed that the FTC is not passing judgment on open-access publishing in general. “We take no sides between the traditional subscription model and the open-access model,” she said. “We believe both of them can be done in a fair, open, clear and lawful way. What we have a problem with here is people who are trying to benefit from the open-access model to scam people.”

The FTC is seeking both monetary relief for researchers that have published with OMICS and to prevent the publisher from further violations of the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914.


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