Are our databases letting us down? A case study

February 1, 2013

After my recent posting on Open Access journals  I had a closer look at Jeffrey Beall’s list of predatory publishers and in particular at the list of suspect journal titles.  I had become aware some time ago that at least one very questionable journal was being indexed by the Scopus database so I cross-checked the 123 titles on the list to see whether any of them had made it to Scopus.  The answer was that 11 of them had!  I then checked the (Elsevier) Sciverse website to see what their criteria and standards were for inclusion of journals in Scopus – you can read them here –  where the following are listed as minimum criteria –

  • The title should have peer-reviewed content
  • The title should be published on a regular basis (have a ISSN number that has been registered with the International ISSN Centre)
  • The content should be relevant and readable for an international audience (for example have references in Roman script and English language abstracts and titles)
  • The title should have a publication ethics and publication malpractice statement

So, leaving to one side the sterling work done by Jeffrey Beall in evaluating suspect journals, how did these 11 titles look from the evidence available in Scopus?  Well, not so good.  Here’s a closer look at one title, the Australian Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences.

  • Date of first publication – 2007
  • Date of Scopus coverage – 2009 on
  • Number of records in the database – 3,803
  • Number of records with Iranian affiliation – 1,622
  • Number of records with Australian affiliation – 11

If you find that hard to believe click here to see for yourself – you might have to click the link twice.  Now, this information in itself raises some really disturbing questions about AJBAS’s adherence to the Scopus criteria.  It’s pretty hard to see how a journal that began in 2007 had managed to organise a sufficiently sophisticated operation and a large enough review team to handle the review and editorial work involved in publishing 425 articles in 2009, let alone the massive 2,086 that appeared in 2012.  Unbelievable!  Yes, really, unbelievable. Then there’s the question of the title of the journal.  As I have noted, only 11 of the 3,744 AJBAS records in Scopus have an Australian affiliation and that’s the same number that make any mention at all of Australia in titles, abstracts or keywords.  That’s 0.29%!

Just on the information in Scopus alone we can draw the following conclusions –

  • It is highly unlikely that this journal has a robust peer review process
  • There is no conceivable reason to call this an Australian journal, other than for the purposes of misleading

Taking things one step further I had a look at the Australian Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences website.  Among the 13 listed reviewers is one Australian, but he has not himself published an article in the journal.  In the instructions to authors – is the following statement on ethics – “We do not tolerate any kind of plagiarism or unethical methods in publishing research articles in our journal. we will immediately remove the content from the journal online and blacklist the author, if proved.”  I guess this could just count as the “publication ethics and publication malpractice statement” required by Scopus, but in reality it is just a “we’ll take it down if somebody complains” clause and there is no evidence at all of a proactive ethics policy.  In fact I would go one step further and argue that the title of the journal is so misleading that every article it publishes is automatically in breach of its ethics policy.  Beyond that, the website tells us very little about the journal.  There is no chief editor and no information about where the journal is published.  The only contact address is a yahoo.com email.  However, the fact that the title is indexed in SCOPUS (by Elsevier!) is prominently displayed.

The list of topics covered is equally impressive – Agricultural Sciences, Applied Biology, Civil Engineering, Applied Physics, All fields of Engineering, Applied chemistry, Astronology, Marine Sciences, Applied Mathematics, Artificial Intelligence, Atmospheric Sciences, Automatic Control, Automotive Engineering, Medicine Research, Medical Technology, Medical Sciences, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Civil Engineering, Information Technology, Telecommunication Engineering, Computer Databases & Software, Construction, Electrical Engineering, Electronics Engineering, Control Engineering, Computer Systems Engineering, Animal and Veterinary Sciences, Biomedical Materials, Energy Resources & Research, Environmental Engineering, Fire & Fire Prevention, Food & Food Industry, Geology, Industrial Engineering, Machine Learning, Machinery, Marine Technology, Mechanical Engineering, Metallurgy, Mineralogy, Mining Engineering, Neural Networks, Oceanography, Optical & Neural Computing, Petroleum & Gas, Physics, Robotics, Solid State Technology, Textile Industry & Fabrics, Transportation, Waste Management, Industrial Arts etc, Business Administration, Commerce, Social Science.  The inclusion of Business and Social Science mean that this journal covers almost anything other than the humanities and again raises the question of how its peer review process is resourced and organised.

In a sense there’s nothing unusual about this journal.  One of the downsides of Open Access publishing is that it has become surprisingly easy for entrepreneurs on the fringes of academia to set up impressive-sounding titles and feed large numbers of articles into the system, but usually the matter stops there.  These articles may look impressive on their authors’ CVs but generally they don’t go much beyond there – rarely read and even more rarely cited.  Unfortunately, though, their inclusion in a relatively authoritative database (put out by a leading academic publisher) gives them an aura of credibilty that they do not deserve.  What is worse, the evidence for this is available from within Scopus itself.  Surely any single journal publishing this amount of material over such a wide range of topics should trigger a red flag at the very least.  It is sometimes falsely assumed that misrepresenting the nature of a publication in this way is illegal, but this is not the case.  Anyone can do more or less anything within the law, so what we then rely on are standards and ethics.  And to do this we need monitors and gatekeepers – not Google or Google Scholar infortunately but the academic community itself, reviewers, journal editors, publishers, scholarly societies, librarians and, last but definitely not least, databases. In this case they are letting us down badly.  No cheers for Elsevier, no stars for Scopus.

 

Bruce White

Science Librarian

4 responses to “Are our databases letting us down? A case study”

  1. Katherine Chisholm says:

    Very very interesting, not to mention depressing. It is disappointing given the large sums universities (through their libraries) pay for access to these databases. We librarians often describe Scopus as having a broad coverage compared to Web of Science’s more selective one, but there should be a difference between ‘broad’ and ‘undiscriminating’!

  2. Terry Bucknell says:

    Excellent detective work. I have contacted Scopus to ask them to stop indexing this journal, and I encourage others to do the same.

  3. Robin Hood says:

    I have long been indicating that several key issues of Elsevier itself make Elsevier predatory. Maybe now credence may be lent to those ideas. Science is in absolute crisis. When the hierarchical pyramid has been turned on its head and scientists appear at the bottom of the food chain, then something is seriously wrong. We are the fodder of serious and wide predation. Is a widespread boycott not the solution?

  4. brucewhite says:

    Terry – thanks for your comment and the acknowledgement. Actually it wasn’t really such a great feat of detection, if Elsevier/Scopus had an algorithm they easily could check on 1) journals with high publishing volumes, 2) supposedly “national” journals that bear no relation to their supposed nation and 3) journals with excessively generic coverage. I hope that Elsevier do stop indexing this journal and remove the existing content, but really it shouldn’t be down to us to point this out to them. Libraries pay a lot of money for Scopus, we shouldn’t have to quality check it as well.

    Robin – yes, Elsevier and other similar publishers are a cause of a lot of frustration to researchers and libraries. This is widely acknowledged but the situation seems to change only slowly. Frankly I think if a boycott was going to work it would have happened by now, and I’m personally a little skeptical about the prospects for radical change that would see the Maid Marian of research excellence freed from the clutches of the wicked sheriff and the robber barons. It would be nice to see her living instead with the merry men and women of Open Access, but they may find her rather high maintenance. In the meantime, we need to be constantly on the lookout for poachers and outlaws, as well as corrupt nobles and unscrupulous merchants. Happy hunting!

    Thanks for your comments!

    Bruce

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