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Getting the low down on predatory publishing

01 July 2020

What are predatory journals?

Predatory journals are publications that purport to be from scholarly publishing houses, but have little or no editorial oversight or peer review. They exist in order to extract the Article Processing Charge (APC) that is so ubiquitous in Open Access journals. They continue to exist because publishing is moving towards APCs, and there is little difference between what they do and some supposedly ‘legitimate’ journals. For example, some definitions of predatory journals include that their APCs far exceed their publishing costs, but this can now certainly be said of some legitimate journals (see here).

If the line is so grey, how is it possible to tell whether or not a journal is predatory?

This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Predatory journals have become so sophisticated at what they do, that it can be very difficult to determine whether or not they are legitimate. Moreover, their electronically published journals can create new titles faster than the time that it takes to check that they are legitimate. An example of a publisher in the grey zone is Hindawi, that were once considered predatory but were later removed from Beall’s list (seearticle here). However, Hindawi still have some questionable practices and I’d suggest continuing to avoid them. 

At the same time, legitimate journals have become increasingly predatory in their habits, and it’s difficult to tell them apart from predatory journals. For example, there was a time when it was possible to categorically state that no journal will ever approach you with a general mailshot that invites you to contribute. However, there are now several legitimate journals that do do this. And there are many more predatory journals that also do it: this now constitutes most of my spam! 

Realistically then, in the current publishing world, there is a continuum from predatory to legitimate. It was not always this way, and that means that as an emerging researcher you are facing difficulties not faced by your advisor or other more senior academics. Not only do you need to avoid publishing in predatory journals, but you should also avoid citing their articles.

However, help is at hand. There are some definite ways that you can determine whether you are choosing a legitimate journal. Here are my 5 steps that you can take to safeguard your submission. I suggest that you use the following list in a stepwise fashion. 

  1. Use an index.Web of ScienceandScopusboth curate contents of legitimate journals. If your journal of choice appears in one of these, then it is very likely to be legitimate. Note that Google Scholar includes many predatory journals, so please never use this to determine whether or not a journal is legitimate. Note also that it takes a journal several years to gain enough kudos to get accepted onto Web of Science and/or Scopus. Therefore, it can still be legitimate and not be there. We have previously written about how to choose the right journal for your publication, and I refer you back to this posthere(you could also take a look at thisBot Zoo post). If the journal you want to publish in is not inWeb of ScienceorScopus, then proceed to the next step.
  2. Ask your librarian. Librarians are fantastic sources as well as custodians of information (see here), and journals are one of their key knowledge areas. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with your librarian and ask their advice (here’sa link to ours). They are likely to be very well placed to respond to your request. They may also be guardians of granting APCs at your institution, so it is in their interest to make sure that these valuable monies don’t fall into the wrong hands.
  3. Ask your advisor or an experienced colleague. It’s worth doing this with them so that you can see the steps that they follow. Given that steps 1 and 2 have already come back with uncertain answers, spreading your net more widely will help with step 4. However, be warned that there are increasing numbers of senior scientists that have been caught out by predatory journals, so checking their contributors is now no cut and dry way to differentiate between them and legitimate journals.
  4. Who is on the editorial board?Journals publish names of their editors, associate editors and the editorial board. Look through these lists and see whether there are names that you recognise. If you know any of the people, you (or your advisor) can contact and ask them about the journal (they should be happy to respond). Be warned that it is easy to place someone’s name on a website, so unless they have personally told you, keep away.
  5. Check against a known list.In the past, this might have been the first thing to do, but the number of predatory journals is preliforating so quickly that it’s hard for any list to keep up.Beall’s listretired in 2017. The next best list now has more than 3 times that. Seehere for an interview with the keeper of the new list,Simon Linacre. Sadly Simon’s list isbehind a paywall, so you can’t expect to access it. One of the reasons why Beall gave up is that the new tactic for these publishers is to produce lots of new journals. Curating a list is real work and has implications for the publishers on it, hence you now need to pay to access an up to date list. There are more lists:Cabell's Predatory Journal Blacklistand Jalalian's list of hacked journals.

Take a look at this excellent infographic from Rutgers University library, where they have a whole lot more information about predatory publishing.

If predatory journals are becoming more like legitimate journals, where’s the harm in publishing with them? 

Your reputation is important. As an emerging researcher, your publishing record is what many people will see first. It is all that is shown in your Google Scholar or ResearchGate profile. It’s your shop window or showroom. What prospective employers will want to see is that there are plenty of publications (appropriate for your career stage), and that they are in appropriate journals with good reputations. You might confuse having a good reputation with a high impact factor. The two need not be the same. High impact factor journals don’t accept all types of submission, and you may have data that simply doesn’t fit into one of their mandates. I would say that it’s still important to publish this, and there are many journals with good reputations where you can do so. Let’s leave discussion about the impact factor for another blog post.

The other reason why you would be best to avoid a predatory journal is that they attract very little in the way of scientific impact: few people will read or cite them (see article here). One thing that you definitely want for your work is for people to use it. To do this they must read and cite it. If you publish in a predatory journal, many scientists won’t even consider reading the content as it has not been, nor will it be, peer reviewed. Thus, unlike a preprint, it is not being openly offered to the community for review (seehere for a blog post on preprints). 

Due to the ambiguity of whether or not these papers have been peer reviewed, I would also suggest that youdo not cite publications that you think may be from predatory journals. You can use the same steps (above) to determine whether or not what you want to cite is from a legitimate journal.

What do you do if you have already published in a journal that others consider predatory?

  1. The first step would be to write to the publisher and withdraw the article. Whether or not you paid an APC, having it on their website is not good for your reputation. Beware, these journals don’t adhere to an ethical code, and so they might refuse to withdraw your paper. Or they may want to charge an additional fee to remove it (remember that they are in it for the money).
  2. Do not cite the paper, or put it on your CV. You can easily remove such articles from your Google Scholar profile or ResearchGate. Don’t put it in your showroom.
  3. Prepare a statement that explains how it happened. You may not have been responsible for the submission, or aware that the publication was from a predatory publisher. However, in time you are likely to forget the exact reasons. It would be a good idea to prepare a statement, so that if you are asked (for example in a job interview), you can explain how it happened. People can be very understanding when provided with an explanation, but if you say that you can’t remember or can’t give any details, then you may sound evasive.

The local viewpoint

Predatory publishing is a big problem in South Africa where 4246 papers have been published in 48 predatory journals: take a look at this article (Mouton & Valentine 2017). The NRF has also issued a formal statement on predatory publishing that you might want to look at (see here). And it’s not just publishing where the predators are lurking, they are also waiting to invite you to a conference (see here). Your work is valuable to you and to your advisor, so please try to make sure that it doesn’t end up in the hands of a predator!

Still want to read more? Take a look at this article byMonica Berger: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Predatory Publishing but Were Afraid to Ask

  Lab  Writing

Prize winning Jenicca

26 June 2020

A big congratulations to Jenicca Poongavanan who won best poster at the first virtual International Statistical Ecology Conference 2020

Some of you may remember that Jenicca did her MSc with Res Altwegg, Ian Durbach and myself in SEEC at UCT. Jenicca used aSCR (generated by Marike Louw) to investigate the spatial distribution of densities of the Peninsula Moss Frog, Arthroleptella lightfootii.  To read more about Jenicca's thesis, and aSCR in general see here and here. Jenicca has since moved to a lab in Florida where she now studies sea-birds (see here).

Poongavanan, J., Altwegg, R., Durbach, I. Measey, J. 2020 Modelling the range-wide density patterns of the Arthroleptella Lightfooti using acoustic monitoring data. (Poster) International Statistical Ecology Conference  (virtual): June 22-26, 2020.

  aSCR  Frogs  Lab  meetings  prizes

Writing concisely

17 June 2020

Writing concisely

So far on this blog, I have put an emphasis on a writing formula in order to get started writing. Many students have a problem in knowing where and how to get started with what seems to be a daunting prospect: writing a proposal or writing the entire thesis. I still feel that getting started quickly and efficiently with some confidence is one of your most important steps. But once you've made it through your first draft, you'll begin to find that you need to start refining your writing. That is saying what you need to say in less words and space.

In an ideal world, what goes into your thesis will be of the same quality as the accepted manuscript. The reality is that the thesis is often more wordy, with the result that reviewers and/or editors will ask you to be more concise. How can we achieve this?

I'm prompted to post this blog simply because someone else has written a great essay with 10 top rules to help you be concise. The essay is Open Access, so you can all find it here, and there's no need for me to repeat the words of Scott Hotaling. However, I am going to write some comments of my own on his rules, and I may build on this blog over time. There are some other posts that are also worth a second look along with this one: see here and here.

Here, the rules are Scott's, the comments are mine.

Rule 1. Take writing seriously

It is likely, that like me, you chose to do science at school instead of useful subjects such as English and/or other languages. It might have also occurred to you that it was a really bad idea not to have done more earnest work in languages now that you are expected to write like a professional. Certainly, if you did pay more attention in languages in school, you may not be suffering with the rest of us now. Personally, I never received tuition in the grammatical construction of English. Thus I'm left in the dark most of the time about exactly what is wrong. Instead, I simply try to rework a sentence into what I know is correct [and I often don't achieve that]. The lesson then is that should you come across an opportunity to learn more about writing, do take it. 

Although we talk about writing science here, the grammatical rules of writing (in English) are fairly universal (with some local exceptions), so do practice your writing. Maybe write a letter (or long email) instead of making a call sometimes. It'll also help you to read (see here). If you are a keen reader, then you could do worse than reading some Kurt Vonnegut. Scott provided this link  to an article I hadn't seen before. Go on, give it a read!

Rule 2: Identify and stick to your message

We've talked before about avoiding distracting your reader. Your aim is to be thorough, which will mean including all relevant information, but don't allow your writing to sideline them into taking the wrong direction. When Nitya won the prize for the best popular science article at the ARM, the editor of The Conversation said that he had established his narrative and stuck to it like a highway. The highway analogy is useful as although you will see signs to other places that you can point out, you shouldn't turn off the highway. The best of highways will also be free of traffic jams (think long, complex sentences here). 

This will mean that you may need to delete some of what you've written, and that can be hard (especially when they are the best bits). You can always keep a file with all the best bits that you've never used. Maybe one day you'll use them. Or maybe one day you'll see that they weren't quite as good as you thought they were.

Rule 3: Get to the point

If the highway is 'your message' then getting to the point is the big sign that states the destination. 

Some of the best papers I've read manage to encapsulate the whole point in the first sentence, or better still in the title. Our formula has you getting to the main question in the last paragraph of the introduction, but you should have already 'got to the point' in the first paragraph - i.e. the point that is the bigger picture. 

Rule 4: Keep your Methods and Results contained

You can find a guide to writing your methods here. This rule is about not allowing the methods to creep out of this section and into the results, or even the discussion. Similarly with the Results. There are some specific times when this is permitted (such as a post-hoc test), but generally you shouldn't expect to do this. 

Rule 5: Do not repeat yourself (too often)

Redundancy is often rife in proposals, theses and manuscripts. If you've produced a table with all of the results, then they don't need to be in the text. The same with a figure, especially Figure 1 which is often a descriptive map or diagram of apparatus. Have it once, but you don't need it twice.

Copy and pasting is very easy, and a good way of suddenly producing vast quantities of text. But repeated text is quickly recognised by the reader and appears very boring and cumbersome. This is likely to happen in the Methods and Results sections. If you find yourself deciding that you can simply cut and paste this paragraph while changing the variable names and the numbers, then you are wrong. Don't ever do it. 

Also, please don't cut and paste sections of methods from one part of your thesis to another. Just don't do it.

People also have a tendency to build the abstract by copying and pasting text from the main sections. Don't do it. The reader will quickly see the repetitions and become bored. Similarly, the conclusion/summary section is also often copied from lines above. If it's not worth writing again, then it wasn't worth writing before. Make it fresh, and keep it interesting!

Rule 6: Avoid unnecessary or inefficient “lead‐ins”

Interesting. I'd say that you need some practice and a critical eye to spot these kinds of errors. Having your advisor help or someone who has edited a lot of text. Scott's got some great examples, and so I'll let you peruse them here

Rule 7: Use first‐person, active voice

For some reason, most students avoid this at all cost. There appears to be the idea that saying "I" or "we" isn't correct for scientific writing. In fact, it can be the easiest way to avoid the passive voice. I've written more on this elsewhere... see here.

Rule 8: Remove unnecessary words

This is really getting down to the nitty gritty. It's hard to do this yourself. It's much easier for someone else to show you. Typically I only do this level of word-smithing for abstracts or when the imposed word limit means that you really need to remove excess words. However, Scott is correct that if you can learn to do this yourself, it will improve your writing. 

Personally, I like to slip in the odd 'as well as' instead of 'and', just to ring the changes. Scott would remove them, and you can see where he'd edit out other examples. Do we really have to be so hardline? I'd say that there are times when it helps.

Rule 9: Simplify your language

This is always a good idea. Making three short sentences instead of one very long one is much better. It also helps you avoid complicated grammatical clauses. 

Rule 10: Seek and embrace feedback

If you feel that you've given it 110% and no-one could ever have anything to say, then you're at the wrong starting point. There are very few people who get to the point when their writing doesn't benefit from asking for feedback. Certainly, if you can't take criticism coming from advisor[s], then you are unlikely to fare any better during peer review. 

I spend a lot of my time reading and commenting on the writing of my students. Every comment made is given to improve the document. I get mad when comments are ignored. It could be that you have a really good reason for not changing something, but if you don't explain why you then you aren't embracing the feedback. 

You should have noted by now that it's all about being flexible, and being stubborn about anything you've written isn't going to work (see comments from Kurt!). 

Rule 11: Read it yourself

Here's a rule that Scott didn't have. Perhaps it should have been inserted higher up the list. As I've said elsewhere (here for example), it would help you to have your work read through by one of your colleagues before you give it to your advisor. But above all, you must be prepared to read ALL OF YOUR WORK  yourself. Not just the first time you write it, but for EVERY version. Please don't ever expect me to read something through when you can't be bothered to read it yourself. Or see the next top tip!

***Top Tip***

Do you hate reading your own work? Unless you are very unusual, the answer is probably yes! 

Before handing anything in, or sending it off to examiners or reviewers, you can have your word processor read it back to you. Many word processors (and even browsers) now have this facility. Not only will they find sentences that sound weird (or too long), but they will mechanically respond to your punctuation. This will help you with excessive or missing commas, full-stops, colons, etc. Try it!

This top tip comes to you from the Baxter-Gilbert-Riley school of robotic reading

Being concise is a great way to good writing, and the abstract is a case in point

I've yet to write a blog post about the abstract, but when I do, I'll try to remember to link to these 10 rules of being concise.

Please don't forget to read Scott's 10 rules as written by Scott. You can get them here: 

Hotaling, S. (2020) Simple rules for concise scientific writing. Limnology and Oceanography Letters  doi: 10.1002/lol2.10165

  Lab  Writing

Changing their behaviour

15 June 2020

Behaviour change and a hormonal link

Who could forget the fantastic visit or Carla Madelaire and Adriana Barsotti to the MeaseyLab back in January 2019 (see here)? The two spent only a few months in the lab, but worked super hard on a few experiments that drilled down into the relationship between hormones and behaviour of guttural toads when they are dehydrated.

Today sees the beginnings of all the fruit of their labors with the publishing of Carla's behavioural paper in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology!

This paper represents a significant step forwards as we show that after only 20 years of invasion into the dry conditions of Cape Town, Guttural Toads have changed the way that they think about water. When you find it, you stick with it! In this paper, Carla shows a link between this water finding behaviour and the hormone corticosterone. Adriana has another manuscript (submitted) that further investigates this phenomenon also with Guttural Toads. 

It was a great pleasure working with both of you and we look forward to more work and celebrations in the future (there will be cake & cachaça!). Last January, we celebrated their arrival (see here).

The intrepid duo catching toads in Durban with the all important yoghurt pot!

To read more about Carla and Adriana and their adventures in South Africa, see blog posts here, here, and back in Brazil here.

Madelaire, C.B., Barsotti, A.M.G., Wagener, C., Sugano, Y., Baxter-Gilbert, J., Gomes, F.R., Measey, J. (in press) Challenges of dehydration result in a behavioral shift in invasive toads. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology pdf

Publishing your natural history observations

12 June 2020

Publishing Natural History Notes

Traditionally, all accounts of the world around us were natural history observations. Early biologists had other jobs and practiced their natural history in their spare time. Professional natural historians were very often landed gentry for whom actually earning a living wasn’t a daily occupation. Philosophical clubs where these gentlemen (as at the time they were usually men - a trend that has thankfully changed) met and discussed their observations, and sometimes published the talks in pamphlet form for general circulation. These observations are at the core of the first publications in the first ever journal (see herefor some juicy examples). 

Accumulating natural history observations over time is a very powerful means of conducting science. However, this has largely fallen out of favour, due in part to the professionalisation of science and the proliferation of scientists who need to remain publicly accountable for their work. You can decide whether the demise of the monied classes that used their privilege to observe natural history was a good thing. But you can’t deny the power of the accumulation of many observations over a lifetime, which can be extremely important when you look at what cumulative observations can lead to, such as that of Charles Darwin and “The Origin of Species”. For a longer read on the interaction of ecology and natural history, have a look at this article in American Scientist.

In this series of blogs on writing and publishing, we have been mostly interested in hypothesis driven research (seehereandhere). But when you trace back the literature on which many of the original big ideas are founded (see here), they are almost always natural history observations. Hence, publishing natural history observations is important, and the recognition of this can be seen in the increasing number of journals that are prepared to accept manuscripts to accommodate these. 

What are natural history notes?

Natural history notes are accounts of novel information, once-off or multiple/methodical observations and range from a short paper to a few structured paragraphs. There are some observations that you know do have value, but are not necessarily in your line of enquiry or even direct interest. They expand our natural history knowledge, specifically with biological information not broad or detailed enough for a paper. But by growing the records of these published observations, we increase our understanding of behaviour, biology, and ecology. 

How do you decide whether your observation is worth a note?

Knowing what does and what doesn’t make a natural history note is probably related to your experience in the field, or down to how well read you are on a given topic. If you don’t know, and can’t easily find out (yes, google scholar is a good place to start -see here) whether or not your observation is important to record, then write and ask someone who would know. It is easy to communicate these days, and you might find someone that can help with relevant literature. You can always start by asking your advisor for some names. 

Of course, you may know (as soon as you make the observation) that it is noteworthy. So in this case, what should you record?

What should you record?

  • Time, date, location (preferably with GPS coordinates)
  • The species involved (and any potential interactions with any other species)
  • Environmental data (if you have it - remember that temperature and weather is very important for ectotherms)
  • Context and a description 
  • A picture, video, or sound recording of the observation (if at all possible)

Be aware that especially if you are in the field, it may not be possible to get some of this information again. So it’s really important to save as much as possible, even if you don’t use it all.  

Older biologists will likely tell you that there is no substitute for writing everything down in a field notebook. Actually, there is and you can record everything digitally, including dictating field notes. It’s then up to you to make sure that this is all backed up so that you don’t lose anything and light the touchpaper on the smug notebook holding oldies. Yes, your phone can do all this (and more), but you do need to keep your phone safe.

Whatyou must not do, is to try to remember anything in your head! This simply won’t work. It may be several years before you realise the importance of your observation, and by this time your head will have erased all of the important details. Notebooks are more fun to go back through, especially when they preserve some of your feelings at the time and often (for me) squashed invertebrates between the pages, that remind you of the genuine atmosphere. It becomes a kind of professional diary, and likely something that you’ll only ever be able to share with your future self. But it’s nice to share!

Where to publish your natural history note?

As you should know by now, my preference is for you to publish your work somewhere where it can be found by others. If at all possible, submit to something indexed in Web of Science or Scopus (see why here). 

Here are some ideas of places where you could submit your natural history note. Note that not all are equivalent, and you’ll only get very important observations into American Naturalist or Ecology, while nearly anything goes in Biodiversity Observations! In every case, you’ll need to consult the instructions to authors and make sure that your observation has what it takes. 

Indexed in Web of Science / Scopus

Not indexed

Herpetology Notes

African Herp News

American Naturalist

Herpetological Review

African Journal of Ecology

Urban Naturalist

Austral Ecology

Herpetological Bulletin

The Scientific Naturalist

(within Ecology)

Tropical Natural History

Bioinvasion Records

Biodiversity Observations

Once you’ve decided where you want to submit, I suggest that you download some of the published observations that will give you a good idea of the style that you will need to use. 

What needs to be in your natural history note?

Rather like any scientific publication, your natural history note needs to have some context for the observation. If the total note is only a paragraph, then this might be only a sentence or two. But if your contribution is going to be several pages, then you’ll likely need several paragraphs that provide enough background information for the reader to know why your observation is significant. Include sufficient citations to previously published records where relevant.

The observation itself!Try to include as much of the information that you collected at the time as possible. The journal will likely have specific ways in which each of these is to be provided, so make sure that you follow their instructions. You can include links to videos or recordings that are archived somewhere formally (either at the journal or there are plenty of collections for this stuff). Most journals will allow you to publish a picture if you have one, and for some you will have to have a picture in order to publish. 

Lastly, provide some discussion about why you think the observation is significant. Does it provide new insight into this taxon? Does it allow you to make management recommendations? What further lines of enquiry should be made now that this observation has been recorded? How does your observation fit into the bigger picture?

Some examples

I have published a few natural history observations (certainly not as many as Martin Whiting), and I will publish more. I store these in a special place (see here). 

An example of a favorite isMeasey & Turner (2008):

This is the amusing tale of what happened when Adrew Turner decided to put a live caecilian into his mouth! Yes, sometimes your friends do odd things to amuse you, and it kinda backfires. Andrew suffered greatly, and as soon as he started reacting I got out my notebook and started recording his symptoms. I sat and watched him for several hours as he spat repeatedly out of the taxi window on our way back to the hotel. Yes, there was great mirth in the entire episode, but I knew immediately that there was important significance as there had been no publications on the subject of caecilian toxins at that time.

[once I’m back in the office I’ll upload an image of the notebook page]

According to Google Scholar, this note has been cited 3 times, so it wasn’t all for nothing! However, I still regret not having got to my camera fast enough to get the picture of Andrew with a caecilian in his mouth!

Thanks James!

Many thanks to James Baxter-Gilbert who originally gave a presentation for the MeaseyLab that inspired this blog post. James also edited this post - so thanks again!

  Lab  Writing
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