FTC’s complaint alleges that OMICS Group, Inc., along with two affiliated companies and their president and director, Srinubabu Gedela, claim that their journals follow rigorous peer-review practices and have editorial boards made up of prominent academics. In reality, FTC says many articles are published with little to no peer review and a number of prominent stakeholders in the various disciplines the publisher operates in are listed as editors when they have not agreed to be affiliated with the publisher.
According to FTC’s complaint, OMICS does not tell researchers that they must pay significant publishing fees until after it has accepted an article for publication, and often will not allow researchers to withdraw their articles from submission, thereby making the research ineligible for publication in another journal. Academic ethics standards generally forbid researchers from submitting the same research to more than one journal.
“The defendants in this case used false promises to convince researchers to submit articles presenting work that may have taken months or years to complete, and then held that work hostage over undisclosed publication fees ranging into the thousands of dollars,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “It is vital that we stop scammers who seek to take advantage of the changing landscape of academic publishing.”
Practice is proliferating
The enforcement action comes at a time when such journals are proliferating at rapid rate, according to one expert in the field. Jeffrey Beall, an academic librarian and professor at the University of Colorado Denver, has made it his business to detail the activities of these kinds of publishers and to catalogue the extent of this practice. When Beall first spoke with NutraIngredients-USA on this issue in 2013, his “Beall’s List of Predatory Open Access Publishers” listed 225 publishers and 126 standalone journals. In his most recent assessment, released in January 2016, 923 publishers and 882 journals made the list.
“I’m glad that the government is taking action action against these kinds of publishers. OMICS is the worst of the worst. They have more than 700 open access journals, most of them in the biomedical sciences. They victimize researchers not only here in the US but all over the world,” Beall told NutraIngredients-USA.
Beall said that is his time following the activities of these publishers, OMICS has served as the mother cancer cell, so to speak, that has metastasized.
“OMICS has a lot of former employees who have gone on to found their own companies,” he said.
Alex Schauss, PhD, senior director of the scientific and regulatory consultancy AIBMR, said the way in which predatory publishers can hold research hostage is particularly troublesome. If a researcher finds out after signing the contract that all is not as it seems, they have to pony up large fees just to extricate their work. As mentioned above, that means that researchers are stuck unless they can come up with the ransom.
“If you are beginning to get suspicious and decide you may not want to have your paper published in their journal after all and you want to withdraw it, they'll pursue you to collect the bill whether you want it published or not,” Dr Schauss said.
One thing to look for is the time frame a publisher might be advertising. While a quick turnaround might be attractive for any number of reasons, it could be a red flag, Dr Schauss said.
“There are currently hundreds of these kinds of journals soliciting people they’ve identified as potential paper authors,” Schauss said. “They say things like they can get a paper published as as little as two weeks. Most people know that a rigorous peer review process can take from a few months to up to a year.”
Dr Schauss said that it is crucial that experts involved in assembling and citing scientific data have an idea of who these publishers are. In his own business, citing a faulty paper could put a client into hot water in this era in which FTC is looking very hard at the quality of research that is used to back up health claims. In at least one instance, where the commission strongly criticized the quality of a study on green coffee bean extract, the bottom fell out of an entire product category.
“If you have any outcome data on your ingredient or product and you are going to use that data to support a claim you have to be careful where it is published. If you’re not sure, you have to ask yourself these questions before you get this stuff into your database or at your library because you’ll contaminate your own database,” Schauss said.
Schauss said that OMICS’ activities don’t extend just to journals, but also to the organization of bogus conferences. Dr Schauss said he’s seen conferences like these advertised with list of distinguished speakers. Before paying his entrance fee at one such conference, Dr Schauss said he contacted one of the purported speakers only to find that person knew nothing about it.
The FTC’s complaint, which was approved by a 3-0 authorization vote, charges the defendants, OMICS Group Inc., iMedPub LLC, Conference Series LLC, and Srinubabu Gedela, with multiple violations of the FTC Act’s prohibition on deceptive acts or practices. The complaint seeks a permanent injunction against the defendants, the disgorgement of ill gotten gains and restitution to injuries parties. The action did not specify a dollar amount but given that the complaint lists hundreds of journals that OMICS features on its website, the damages would seem to have to run into millions of dollars.