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Academic publisher fined $50 million for deceptive practices

10 April 2019

A federal court finds that OMICS International deceived customers by failing to disclose fees and misrepresenting the rigor and prominence of its journals and conferences.

Federal Trade Commission headquarters
The Federal Trade Commission, headquartered in Washington, DC, demonstrated to a federal judge that OMICS International deceived consumers about its academic journals and conferences. Credit: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress

A trio of scientific publishing companies have been fined $50.1 million for engaging in deceptive business practices. Gloria M. Navarro, chief judge of the US District Court for the District of Nevada, ruled on 29 March that allegations by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) were sufficiently compelling to forgo trial and issue a summary judgment against OMICS Group, iMedPub, and Conference Series, along with owner Srinubabu Gedela.

Gedela’s companies, which together make up OMICS International, are the highest-profile examples of publishers that make dubious claims about the peer review, impact, and rigor of their academic journals and conferences. OMICS publishes several hundred journals, including titles in the physical sciences such as Advances in Robotics & Automation and the Journal of Lasers, Optics & Photonics, and hosts hundreds of conferences annually across the world. The companies collectively pulled in about $50.7 million between August 2011 and July 2017. Navarro ruled that there was “no genuine dispute as to any material fact” that OMICS violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting its journals and meetings and failing to adequately disclose its publishing fees; the judge had previously issued a preliminary injunction against the companies in November 2017.

Navarro agreed with the FTC that despite OMICS’s boasting of more than 50 000 experts serving as board members and reviewers, the publisher employed a “sham” system of peer review. Out of 69 000 journal articles analyzed by the FTC, more than half did not appear to have been reviewed. Many purported reviewers said they had never agreed to participate. The companies publicized false claims about the journals’ impact factors and inclusion in prominent indexes. Study authors often didn’t know about the publication fees until their articles were accepted; the companies would continue demanding payment even if the authors asked to have their articles withdrawn.

Beyond imposing the fine, the court order requires the OMICS companies to accurately represent their journals’ policies, prominence, and fees; to secure consent from researchers to have their names included on publicized lists of reviewers, editorial board members, and conference participants; and to supply the FTC, upon request, with customer information for investigating complaints. “We don’t expect compliance on day 1,” says Gregory Ashe, a senior FTC staff attorney who worked on the case. “We’ll give them a reasonable amount of time.”

The charges focused largely on OMICS’s journals. Last year Physics Today took an in-depth look at another deception that was covered in the ruling: falsely advertised conferences. Navarro cited the FTC’s finding that of 100 academic meetings organized by Conference Series, about 60% “advertised organizers or participants who had not agreed to serve in such capacity.”

In its report last year, Physics Today found similarly deceiving practices. One of the promoted speakers for last August’s International Conference on Planetary Science and Particle Physics, director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs Simonetta Di Pippo, said she had withdrawn from the meeting in April. None of the listed conference organizers returned repeated emails and phone calls over a period of months, save for one who wrote that he was on a business trip with limited internet access. Many of the meeting websites included a seal of certification from the European Scientific Institute, which never replied to inquiries about its endorsement process.

On the other hand, some researchers report that the dishonesty leading up to a conference doesn’t necessarily lead to a poor event. Ivan Božović, a condensed-matter physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Yale University, says he found Conference Series’ Fifth International Conference on Theoretical, Materials and Condensed Matter Physics, held in Los Angeles last November, to be “reasonably useful.” He says he got new ideas and talked shop with several colleagues. “Altogether, the meeting was not very different from many others that have been going on,” he adds.

Gedela and his businesses are based in India but have mailing addresses in Nevada and, in the past, held funds in a bank account registered in California. The FTC’s Ashe says that his colleagues are working to collect the fine by identifying US bank accounts tied to Gedela’s businesses.

An attorney for Gedela, Kishore Vattikoti, says his client will appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals; he has until late May to do so.

The ruling may not make much of a dent in the barrage of emails academics receive from publishers and conference organizers. OMICS International is still publishing articles and organizing conferences, albeit under increased scrutiny. Ashe says he is aware of other alleged predatory publishers but can’t confirm any ongoing investigations.

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