By Tom Spears for the Ottawa Citizen
In 2012, a librarian from the University of Colorado presented research in a field so new he had to name it himself: predatory publishing.
Jeffrey Beall discovered thousands of online science journals that were either willing to publish fake research for cash, or just so inept that they couldn’t tell the good from the bad and published it all.
Beall, who became an assistant professor, drew up a list of the known and suspected bad apples, known simply as Beall’s List. Since 2012, this list has been world’s main source of information on journals that publish conspiracy theories and incompetent research, making them appear real.
But on Sunday, his website went blank. Only the headline, Scholarly Open Access, remains.
Beall is a regular on Twitter, but he hasn’t posted anything there in days. He isn’t answering email (including a message from the Citizen) or telling anyone what happened. Beall’s List had just been updated for 2017.
A Texas firm called Cabell’s, which also works with academic publishers, hinted that Beall was threatened somehow.
Its Twitter account said on Tuesday: “@CabellsPublish stands behind close personal friend @Jeffrey_Beall who was forced to shut down blog due to threats & politics #academicmafia.” Cabell’s hinted on Twitter that it may take over a Beall-like service in the spring, but gave no details. Calls to its office went unanswered and the voicemail was full.
Now the academic world is twittering away, realizing that the one individual everyone relied on isn’t there any more, and so far there’s no substitute.
Beall has been a polarizing figure, praised for rooting out fakes but sometimes criticized by people who felt he was too broad in his attacks on “open access” journals. These offer their contents free to readers, and instead charge researchers to publish their work. Most predators use the open access approach, but there are also top-quality open access journals.
He has also been threatened with legal action by publishers he named on his list.
It was Beall who discovered last year that two Canadian science publishers had been purchased by a large Indian company that was on his list for years. In typical fashion he plunged in:
“OMICS International is on a buying spree, snatching up journals and publishers around the world, especially in Canada,” Beall wrote. “It recently purchased Pulsus Group, a firm that publishes (or used to publish) journals for several Canadian medical societies, sending shock waves through the Canadian medical publishing community.
“OMICS International purchases and converts respected journals into rubbish journals, trading on their good reputations to profit from researchers unaware of the change in ownership,” Beall wrote.
He also discovered the phenomenon of “hijacked” journals — imitators set up with titles identical to well-known publications, created to lure the unwary.
Beall’s disappearance is shaking up experts in science publishing, since this is the way for researchers to announce new findings.
“To see Beall’s work disappear would be an absolute disaster,” wrote Roger Pierson, a medical researcher at the University of Saskatchewan and keen observer of the science publishing world.
“From an academic perspective, this represents the absence of an extremely important resource. Beall’s List is/has been so very important in helping those of us interested in communication in science and how science moves forward parse the real from the spurious. This, in a time of turbulence.
“Beall’s work is crucial to the analysis of scientific publication and the information contained within. We need to do everything that we can to ensure that the work continues.”
There are cached copies of Beall’s List for both publishers and individual journals, but these are not being updated. As well, Beall kept busy answering questions from confused researchers around the world almost daily.
In his 2017 update, Beall had identified 1,155 suspicious or fake publishers, most of them putting out dozens or even hundreds of online journals.