Published in volume 27, issue 7, October 2017

This issue contains two papers. Debugging-Workflow-aware Software Reliability Growth Analysis, by Cinque, Cotroneo, Pecchia, Pietrantuono, and Russo, presents a reliability groth model that is based on data drawn from a project’s bug tracking systems. (Recommended by Michael Lyu.) Prioritizing MCDC Test Cases by Spectral Analysis of Boolean Functions, by Ayav, proposes a method to prioritize the order in which we run tests by using an analysis based on logic test criteria (MCDC). This is less expensive than prioritization strategies based on mutation, and does not lose significant accuracy. (Recommended by Shaoying Liu.)


Beware of Predatory Journals

New journals have proliferated in recent years, as has the models for publication. When I was a student, we had about a dozen software engineering research journals, and all followed the same process. Authors submitted papers (on paper!), an editor sent copies to reviewers, the reviewers replied with letters (on paper!), the editor made a decision, and then sent a letter to the authors. If accepted, we arranged our papers on large ”blue sheets“ to format them for the journal, and eventually the paper was printed in paper copies of the journals and mailed to our offices. Other scientists saw our papers if they, or their universities’ libraries, paid for a subscription.

As usual, the web changed everything. The first change is that individual scientists put preprint versions of our papers on our personal websites, short-circuiting the need for paper copies of journals. Then web applications gave us the ability to handle all of this communication electronically, speeding up the process without changing the process.

Journals started posting “early view” versions of accepted papers on their websites. Between early view and personal website postings, most scientists canceled their paid subscriptions. Not surprisingly, journals started questioning the value of (expensive!) paper copies, and finally stopped putting “ink on paper.”

Thus, the web disrupted the economic model of publishing research papers. In the 1990s, we paid directly to put ink on paper, and indirectly for the editorial and publishing services. This worked because creating and disseminating the paper copies was an obvious cost, and the other costs could be added onto the subscriptions. But by 2010, we were not paying directly for the ink on the paper. We were getting papers through university subscriptions or by finding them online, free.

But the fundamental scientific value of a journal is not making the papers available, whether on paper or electronically. The fundamental scientific value is that volunteer editors and volunteer reviewers filter good papers from bad. We don’t get paid, so the changes in the economic model do not affect us.

The web also allowed other processes to develop. In particular, predatory journals proliferated. A journal is considered to be predatory if it charges fees to authors without providing quality reviewing and editorial services [1]. Authors pay to publish, but if the articles are not properly reviewed by independent experts, the publications are not considered valuable. Hiring committees discount them, promotion committees ignore them, and PhD committees tell students to take such papers off their CVs.

Some journals have pseudo-services, where reviewing and editorial services are very light. They publish papers that are in scope (which is often defined quite broadly) and whose writing roughly approximates English. The standards in well-respected scientific journals, such as novelty, impact, technical correctness, writing, and other issues of scholarship, are not required. Some such journals approximate the definition of predatory by requiring payment but almost no reviewing or editing. Others do not require payment—but are predatory in the sense that they convince authors to publish papers that are not sound science. And thus have no value to the scientific community.

With all these variations, it is confusing for young students and aspiring scientists to know which journals have merit! With the help of editorial staff members from Wiley, I have put together some guidelines, partly with the help of “Think, Check, Submit” [2]. If you aren’t already familiar with a journal, here are some helpful questions to ask:

Sadly, some predatory journals list well-known researchers without permission, so if you have any doubt, you should directly ask the editorial board member. (I have twice found my name listed without permission.)

You should also ask specific questions about the journal’s publisher:

These suggestions are general in nature, and do not cover all possibilities. I urge all young authors to ask experienced mentors about specific journals. And as the impact of the web continues to propagate, keep your eyes and your mind open. New types of predation will be invented, and alternative models that are not predatory will almost certainly be developed.

[1] Predatory open access publishing, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Predatory_open_access_publishing, last access September 2017.

[2] Think, Check, Submit. http://thinkchecksubmit.org/, last access September 2017.

Update November 2017: NY Times take, Many Academics Are Eager to Publish in Worthless Journals.

Jeff Offutt
George Mason University
19 September 2017