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U.S. judge rules deceptive publisher should pay $50 million in damages

A U.S. federal judge has ordered the OMICS International publishing group to pay $50.1 million in damages for deceiving thousands of authors who published in its journals and attended its conferences. It’s one of the first rulings of its kind against one of the largest publishers accused of so-called predatory tactics.

But because it’s a U.S. judgment and OMICS is based in Hyderabad, India, it’s not clear that any money will be collected or shared with researchers who claim OMICS deceived them.

Judge Gloria Navarro of the U.S. District Court in Las Vegas, Nevada, granted summary judgment without a trial, accepting as uncontroverted a set of allegations made in 2016 by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in Washington, D.C., in its capacity as a consumer watchdog. The ruling also bars OMICS from similar future conduct.

In her 29 March ruling, Navarro ruled that FTC had submitted enough evidence to prove that:

  • OMICS, which publishes about 700 journals in scientific and other fields, advertised deceptively that it provided authors with rigorous peer review overseen by editorial boards. Instead, its journals approved many articles for publication in a matter of days with no substantive feedback to authors, FTC alleged. The judge relied in part on the findings of an investigation published by Science in 2013; its author, journalist John Bohannon, submitted a deposition to the court. Of 69,000 manuscripts published by OMICS from 2011 to 2017, the publisher provided evidence that only half had been sent out for peer review.
  • Despite this lack of actual peer review, OMICS’s solicitations to authors didn’t make it clear enough that it would charge them to publish articles in its open-access journals. Some authors complained and asked OMICS to withdraw their articles, but OMICS refused, preventing authors from submitting them to other publications.
  • OMICS advertised its 50,000 reviewers as experts, but some never agreed to serve, and OMICS continued to publicly list some scientists as reviewers even after they asked to be removed.
  • The publisher advertised that its journals had high impact factors, a measure of their editorial quality. But it didn’t sufficiently reveal that OMICS itself generated its own “unofficial impact factor” for some of its journals based on citations in Google Scholar. OMICS also incorrectly stated that its journals are indexed in the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Medline and PubMedCentral.
  • OMICS organized scholarly conferences and advertised that prominent academics would attend. But a sampling of 100 conferences indicated that 60% named organizers or participants who had not agreed to serve in that capacity.

Navarro said she based the $50.1 million judgment on the company’s total revenues from 2011 to 2017, less chargebacks and refunds. Under the relevant consumer law, FTC didn’t have to prove how many authors were misled by OMICS, which published its first journal online in 2008.

“Defendants did not participate in an isolated, discrete incident of deceptive publishing, but rather sustained and continuous conduct over the course of years,” she wrote.

The case was heard in Nevada because OMICS is legally incorporated there, despite its physical headquarters in India. Besides OMICS, other defendants included two subsidiaries incorporated in Delaware; and OMICS’s founder and owner, Srinubabu Gedala, a former biomedical researcher.

OMICS plans to appeal, wrote its lawyer, Kishore Vattikoti of Hyderabad, in an email. He called the summary judgment without trial “unjustifiable.”

It remains to be seen whether any researcher deceived by OMICS will receive money from the judgment. FTC knows of and will investigate U.S. financial accounts of OMICS, but does not yet know whether they contain any money, said Gregory Ashe, its staff attorney on the case, in an interview Wednesday with ScienceInsider. FTC has an international office that works with other nations to collect judgments from overseas accounts, but that work for this judgment is only now beginning, he said.

FTC has a database of authors who submitted manuscripts to journal articles whom it will contact if it recovers funds to share, Ashe said. Scholars who want to ensure that FTC knows of their claims can file a complaint through the agency’s website. Anyone worldwide can submit a claim.

“The FTC is closely monitoring this industry,” Ashe said, “and we’re hoping that the decision sends a warning shot across the bow of would-be predatory or deceptive publishers to tread carefully. Re-evaluate the claims that you’re making [so] you’re not making claims that are not true.”

Ashe wouldn’t say whether FTC is actively investigating other predatory publishers. But OMICS appears to have plenty of company: A 2015 study in BMC Medicine estimated that questionable publishers issued nearly half a million articles in 2014 and took in about $75 million.