Are our databases letting us down? Some reflections

February 11, 2013

My last posting on the appearance of a highly questionable journal in the Scopus database has raised a few eyebrows and has also given rise to the question of whether I may have singled out Scopus, and its parent company Elsevier, unfairly.  To clarify the situation here’s a little more detail on what I did and on what exactly I’m saying.

On 4 December 2012 Jeffrey Beall published his 2013 Predatory Publishers list  on the Scholarly Open Access  blog.  The second part of that list consists of 126 individual journal titles, and it was this list that I checked against both the Scopus and Web of Science databases to see if any of the titles were, or had been, indexed by them.  This search was carried out on 1 February 2013 and revealed that eleven of the titles appeared in Scopus.  In one case indexing appeared to have ceased early in 2012, but in the other cases there was substantial  2012 content which led me to conclude that indexing was probably ongoing.  None of the 126 titles appeared to have been indexed by Web of Science.  Of the 11 titles I then  singled out the Australian Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences because it appeared to be a particularly egregious case, and one in which the problems were so obvious as to be virtually beyond debate – the evidence was right there in the database.

In drawing Web of Science into the discussion I want to be absolutely clear that I am not endorsing Web of Science or saying that it is a better database than Scopus.  As it happens I am a considerable fan of the functionality of Scopus and also of their attempts to be more inclusive in their coverage.  What I am saying, though, is that this greater inclusiveness carries with it certain risks, the greatest of which is that work of questionable provenance finds its way into that part of the literature which is presumed to be carefully moderated.  This risk needs to be managed carefully if we don’t want to find that sand has been mixed into our flour.  Scopus is not the only database that appears to have issues in this area – Business Source Complete indexes something called Australian Journal of Business and Management Research which has no apparent connection with Australia beyond a kangaroo on their masthead – but as a widely used and respected source emanating from a major academic publisher it does carry a responsibility to uphold standards of good scholarly practice.

Last week I attended the Open Research Conference in Auckland.  It was a stimulating two days, and several of the speakers made a strong case that the current “gatekeeper” system of scholarly publishing is irretrievably broken and that an open system of peer review and a less hierarchical and more inclusive model of scholarly research and publishing would produce better results.  I expressed reservations about this, largely because I am cautious by nature and have concerns about the downsides of Internet openness – specifically spam, fraud and manipulation, as well as even more information overload – making further inroads into the scholarly domain.  I did, however, feel at something of a disadvantage in arguing this point, because although the present system may not be totally broken it is also subject to these exact same weaknesses to a significant degree.  Librarians, under the rubric of Information Literacy, spend considerable time pointing students away from Google and Wikipedia and towards so-called “trusted sources” , but if this is to continue then this trust needs to backed up by positive signs of vigilance on the part of our gatekeepers.

These views are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer, and I am grateful that Library Out Loud offers a platform for reflections on practice.

Bruce White
Science Librarian

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