Indies, Vanity, and Predators: Helping Faculty and Students Find Publishers

How many times have you or your faculty received this message?

Dear Dr. Colleague,

We at Intellectual and Smart Publishers would love to talk to you about publishing “INSERT PAPER TITLE HERE” in our issue of Smart Things in Science. We offer expedited review!

So and So, 

Intellectual and Smart Publishers

When the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education approached “Authority is constructed” little did we know the importance that our work would play in ongoing discussions on the national level about “fake news.” But the contextual and constructed nature of information was given a deeper hold within our field with news of the shut down of notorious Beall’s List.  The list, which black-listed publishers deemed by Beall as predatory, was a tool which I used (with a necessary grain of salt) to counsel faculty and student interested in publishing their work. Beall’s enemies, and there were many, celebrated while his supporters, again many, wondered about how libraries and librarians will spread the news about the predators in our wake without his list.

How do we define predatory publishers? Predatory publishers (or vanity publishers as they were once known) are publishers with very little, if any, editing or peer review process. Maura Smale wrote a piece several years ago responding to an uptick of press about predatory open access publishers. Any presenter at any national conference will know these predators as their form letters seek to publish your presentations often without knowledge of what you even spoke about. They tout “expedited publishing process” and high impact values, while giving very little in return for your investment of dollars for publishing. Slate writer Joseph Stromberg has an excellent piece on publishing his thesis with a notorious publisher.

Writing in 1958, Howard A Sullivan explained that “the very use of the term vanity publishing implies contempt for the book produced and a judgement on the author and publisher—on the former because he has chosen an unorthodox way of attempting to achieve a recognition his talent does not merit, and on the latter because he has pandered to another’s weakness for his own profit.” (Sullivan, Howard A. “Vanity press publishing.” Library Trends 7, no. 1 (1958): 105-115. )

Weakness is an incredibly loaded term, but we are naturally suspicious of the merit of books published under such circumstances and of the scholar themselves for their unwillingness to be judged by a jury of their peers. Would books published this way merit publishing through traditional processes? Perhaps but also perhaps not.

Overwhelmingly, these predatory publishers target our most vulnerable university community members, who are driven to “publish or perish” to continue the cliché. (Lud?k Brož, Tereza Stöckelová, Filip Vostal do a nice overview of “bloodsuckers” in publishing) Students and new faculty are often pressured to publish at any cost and these emails fill that need to publish anywhere and everywhere. Yet, we know that Howard Sullivan’s view is the norm rather than an exception; the scholar caught publishing without peer-review is scorned in the university community.

A quick search online for “vanity press” or “predatory publisher” and “tenure” see many a frustrated new academic weighing the decisions between not publishing and publishing with a less desirable press. Karen Kelsky, the “professor is in” advice columnist, has approached this topic several times. Summing up that “Putting a book out with an obscure press is not much different than having no book out at all, in terms of gaining a tenure track job or tenure.” ( While not specifically talking about vanity presses, but merely unknown presses, it is clear that the quality of the press is a significant focus of tenure committees and the angst of new professors.

So, what can Libraries do?

If anything, this is an information literacy issue. Determining which presses are worthy of your work is something that should be taught in new faculty seminars by librarians whose expertise in the fields of publishing should help guide those led astray. Just as how we feel condescending when we teach searching to our students, it will feel just the same, if not worse, when teaching faculty where to publish. Teaching how we determine the value of information (another hallmark of the 2016 framework) will help our faculty in choosing where to publish, and in the end make them more successful in their career. Even if we assume that our colleagues in faculty positions are experts in their fields and highly educated, the intersection of need to publish and the predatory nature of these publishers “tricks” even the most brilliant into giving their work to them. But the researcher is not the only one tricked by these publishers.

The other thing we should consider is who buys these materials. I’m sorry to say that the primary purchasers of these books are libraries, given their price and often microscopic academic viewpoints. We might be the only institutions or persons capable of purchasing such expensive books. We must make an effort from a collection development standpoint to not purchase these books for our collections. In the past month or so I’ve worked with our collection development experts to create policies to prevent Utah State University from purchasing books from suspected predators.

There is a huge problem in proclamations like this because the disgust over predatory publishers and vanity presses bleeds into ongoing discussions over the merits of indie publishers and self-publishing. Self-publishing and indie publishing are not straight line indications of lower quality or predatory materials, but it is often difficult to see the differences. In an account of self-publishing in OCLC records, Juris Dilevko and Keren Dali write, “as large mainstream publishers become focused on profit-and-loss statistics (Schiffrin, 2000) and as the demands of bookstores stoke the corporate emphasis on bestsellers (Epstein, 2001), librarians should remember that self-publishers often release titles that would not typically find a home with a profit-oriented publisher. Self-publishers may be one of the last frontiers of true independent publishing.” (Dilevko, Juris, and Keren Dali. “The self-publishing phenomenon and libraries.” Library & information science research 28, no. 2 (2006): 208-234.)  This complicates an already muddled picture of what a library should collect; where questions of authority and how to deem a book worthy of our dwindling dollars, are becoming more and more difficult.

If faculty ask students to use peer-reviewed sources, should we not ask the same for the books we purchase? The end result would be a world devoid of the divergent voices that appear in indie and self publishing, yet save us from the troubles caused by predatory and vanity presses. A policy, perhaps, where fiction from self-publishing is acceptable but non-fiction is unacceptable? A change in how we value information and published works is in order, yet who will lead that charge?

There are no concrete solutions to these issues, but I know if I need to publish on it I’ve already got several offers.


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