Predatory publisher fined $50 million after scamming thousands of scientists

The scientific method cannot be bought. But that hasn’t stopped some publishers from trying.

By preying on up-and-coming scientists who are desperate to publish or perish, these so-called predatory journals will print just anything for the right price.

It’s a modern threat to the reliability of scientific research, and the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is trying to do what little they can to fix the problem.

This week, the FTC won a case against “the Walmart of predatory publishers“, known as Omics International. The fine? More than US$50.1 million for deceptive practices – the same amount taken from authors between 2011 and 2017.

“These publishing companies lied about their academic journals and took millions of dollars from aspiring researchers and writers,” said Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection in a statement.

“We’re pleased with the court’s strong order holding these companies and its owner responsible for the damage they caused.”

The charges are directed at Srinubabu Gedela, the owner of a thousand predatory journals and thousands more annual conferences, including Omics, iMedPub LLC and Conference Series LLC.

These businesses have been accused of hiding steep publication fees – as high as several thousand dollars - while deceiving both scientists and medical professionals about having a rigorous peer review process when in fact there is little or none at all.

In 2016, for instance, computer scientist Christoph Bartneck submitted a totally nonsensical paper to a nuclear physics conference run by the Omics Group.

Written using the iOS autocomplete function, the article’s opening sentence was: “Atomic Physics and I shall not have the same problem with a separate section for a very long long way.”

It was accepted within three hours.

That’s not even the tip of the iceberg. Gedela’s company is also accused of lying about prominent scientists who will supposedly be attending these conferences, despite never agreeing to any such thing.

The same thing goes for the publisher’s editorial board. According to a 2017 report by Bloomberg Businessweek, Amina Woods of the NIH, for example, was listed as the editor-in-chief of Omics’ Biology and Medicine, even though she’d never agreed to take the position.

Just one day after Gedela was questioned about this, Woods’ name and accompanying photo disappeared from the website.

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Now, the FTC is threatening to take Omics journals offline and to contact the hotels and venues where the company holds its events, unless they change their ways.

After years of artful chicanery, many are celebrating the FTC’s decision, even though Gedela is appealing and it’s unlikely the FTC will be able to collect the full fine.

“It’s great news,” Jeffrey Beall, a former scholarly communications librarian at the University of Colorado Denver told The New York Times.

“There are hundreds of predatory publishers, but Omics is the evil empire.”

Still, this doesn’t fix the problem. According to experts, at least 25 percent of open-access journals can be classified as predatory – far too many for the FTC to go after.

The new charges are just a drop in the bucket.

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