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The growing Grey Zone of scientific publishing

With the open access market booming and the scientific community clinging to shady (“confidential”) peer review, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between honest and predatory publishers. Grey is the new fashion-colour.

On October 30th, I got a mail from Marina Dusevic, Rijeka, Croatia, the “publishing process manager” at InTech Open, “publisher of the world’s largest collection of open access books” [YouTube video] inviting me to contribute a chapter to Pollination, an open access book edited by Dr Phatlane William Mokwala and Dr Phetole Mangena. The mail – naturally – ended up in my junk folder.
In contrast to the usual shabby mails from self-declared open access science publishers, this one is professionally done and wants to recruit me for a topic that (in a largest sense) was part of my publication portfolio. Well, I’m not a palynologist or pollination biologist, but I have co-authored papers showing pollen like the one published in PeerJ, the paper Marina referred to in her invitation mail. And not for architecture, medicinal plants, creationism, etc., like so many other invitations. InTech Open has also a very professional homepage and praises itself by publishing at least one book per week. And, they have Nobel laureates in their author lists.


So, it must be a proper publisher.

Still, I find the invitation fishy. In the double sense.

Obviously, the publisher tries to fish me to make a quick bug, which could be considered to be predatory. Or just motivated business policy. Motivated she is, indeed, the Croatian manager. Deposing in my junk folder – I did not click the link to register as prospective author or answered the mail – were four email. I (meaning my junk folder) got a reminder a week later (Nov 6th), in “case I missed” the original invitation; one week passed and another “friendly reminder” (Nov 13th; making me wondering, how an unfriendly reminder would look like) joined the junk folder, and – another week passed – the “Final chance to contribute to Pollination” (Nov 20th). Missing out the final chance, there was no further mail.

Fishy are also the circumstances for inviting me.

First, it’s always good to (a) not trust invitations of publishers and journals you never had any business with and (b) anything uninvited enforcing confidentiality: “The information contained in either this email and, if applicable, the attachment, are confidential and are intended only for the recipient. The contents of either the email or the attachment may not be disclosed publicly.” I can understand that this is standard in business transactions (for good and shady reasons) or emails exchanged by Jared K. and the Kremlin, but in open science? When you want to make a book, the usual way is to get the contributors together, before suggesting it to a publisher. InTech's editing book model (like that of other open access book publishers, including indubitably predatory ones) works differently: Pick a topic (anything possible), and then send around emails to randomly selected scientists hoping they need something to dump.
Second, and let alone that I have little to do with pollination biology, I have never heard of Phatlane W. Mokwala or Phetole Mangena. So why me? And what qualifies them to edit such a book?

Nothing, it seems. Google Scholar lists five articles authored by Phatlane, four of those were published in the last 10 years, all dealing with soybeans (nothing about pollination). Phetole, a fellow South African scientist at the University of Limpopo, seems equally productive and interested in soybean, naturally not pollination (Google Scholar lists four articles). Two of the papers are joint publications of the two, prospective pollination-book editors [Fun-fact: soy-beans are a self-pollinating crop. The pollen just drops on the flower, which then seeds, but pollination science typically deals with animal- or wind-pollinated plants, just to make it interesting]:
So, this is how you become an editor for an InTech Open book project: You pay to publish, and then you make others pay to publish.

The books by InTech are open access, i.e. freely accessible for readers. But it’s a company that needs to earn money, so somebody has to pay. Giving the willingness of Mangena and Mokwala to act as editors of a book on an alien (for them and me) topic, they probably will not pay for it. So, it’s the authors who will be charged. Interestingly, Marina doesn’t mention anything regarding this in her friendly invitations and reminders. The price for a book chapter is “most competitive” “starting from 690 €”, including
  • Peer Review (confidential, naturally) – important for (re-)imbursement and credits in many countries;
  • a generous allowance of 14–20 pages to “allow a more comprehensive analysis compared to journal articles” (for comparison, PeerJ, possibly the best open access journals right now and the reason Marina emailed me, starts charging for excess length when you get over 40! pages);
  • finally, indexing in “major scientific databases” – most of which are free of charge for the publisher.
The classic promises of every predatory or other scientific publisher going after the quick, usually tax-payers', bugs.

Officially, to become an editor of one of the books in InTech’s edited books pipe (in Life Sciences, you currently can pick quite a lot topics from “Adenoviruses” to “Wasps”), you fill the application form and send a scientific CV to  editor@intechopen.comIf you are an experienced scientist in the STM field …” (whatever that means, if two scientists with a handful of papers on soybeans can act as editors of a book dedicated to pollination) and it comes with benefits
  • “Greater Visibility” – well, it’s open access;
  • “New Forms of Collaboration” – such as: getting in touch with authors potentially more experienced in the topic of the book you edit that are desperate enough to pay for an allegedly peer-reviewed book chapter (the beauty of confidential peer-review is that third parties can’t check what the reviewers’ said, or whether there was a stringent peer-review at all);
  • InTech’s “Full Support” – i.e. a Marina browsing open access journals and spamming the harvested emails for a start (but likely more support during the process than Elsevier and Springer-Nature provide);
  • and “Printed Book” – get this: two printed books for free (how old-fashioned, probably for the shelf in the office) and the PDF, naturally, plus – a real deal – discounts for “purchasing InTech books”.

Quality publishing in the 21st century. Near-impossible to stop, thanks to the Impermeable Fog.

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