The Phantom Academic Publishing Industry

A. J. Liebling famously commented that freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.  “Well, we all own one now,”  said Mike Godwin, legal director of Public Knowledge, a First Amendment group. (See The New York Times,  Sunday, September 25. Page 3.)


An expose in The New York Times covered ‘predatory journals’ put out by publishers that will print anything under the broad designation of “academic writing” for a fee. These publications are not peer-reviewed and have misleading names that sound like recognized journals. For example, the proceedings of Entomology 2013 are well-regarded whereas Entomology-2013 (note the hyphen), is not.

With the advent of web publishing, the overhead for production and distribution of journal literature is minimal. There’s a movement away from the restricted access of formerly high-priced, specialized, low-circulation peer-reviewed publications to low-cost “open” forums employing post-publication review as the process for vetting the literature.

Even the esteemed ivies are caving under the costs of high priced journal subscriptions. As reported on the front page of the Boston Globe on April 28th:

Harvard may be the world’s wealthiest university, but fees for its academic journal subscriptions have gotten so steep–some as much as $40,000 a year–that an advisory council is encouraging faculty to submit their work to “open access” online journals that are available for free.

Academics under pressure to publish or perish seek channels to disseminate their research findings and establish a presence in their fields in order to achieve tenure. Many succumb to naivety or temptation and will submit to any journal that sounds legitimate.

Unfortunately, there is a parallel universe in the phantom publishing industry. There are second and third tier publications that have a modicum of peer review, but the bar is low, and high percentages of submissions get published that are of questionable merit.

The extreme case of a legitimate-sounding computer science paper produced by an MIT artificial intelligence program is telling. The piece was produced in seconds by typing in a few buzz-words and the names of a few luminaries in the field. It was both accepted for publication by a journal and lauded by its editors for an award at a conference, even though the paper made no sense. (See

Any academic professional who has attended a second or third tier academic conference knows that the events are mostly vacation opportunities and have at best a modicum of professional merit. Moreover, one’s article won’t be published in the proceedings unless one both appears to present—giving an air of legitimacy to the event and pays a hefty conference “fee” in order to subsidize it.

Stephen Pinker, the noted Harvard Psychologist, has spoken out against “nefarious academic language”—the use of high hifalutin terminology—to cover the speciousness of journal content. Those outside academic circles and unfamiliar with the vernacular of a discipline, such as those on second-rate review boards of the public at large, are apt to fall prey.

Neil Postman in Informing Ourselves to Death made similar observations, to wit,

The great English playwright and social philosopher George Bernard Shaw once remarked that

all professions are conspiracies against the common folk. He meant that those who belong to

elite trades — physicians, lawyers, teachers, and scientists — protect their special status by

creating vocabularies that are incomprehensible to the general public. This process prevents

outsiders from understanding what the profession is doing and why — and protects the insiders

from close examination and criticism. Professions, in other words, build forbidding walls of

technical gobbledegook over which the prying and alien eye cannot see.

These are the dirty little secrets of the Tier 2/Tier 3 conference publishing industry.

This article presents an expose of the phantom publishing industry and offers a resolution to the debacle.

Here are the dirty little secrets engendered by the “publish or perish” debacle in higher education.



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