Hyderabad-based OMICS fined $50 million for ‘unfair, deceptive business practices’

OMICS photo-Optimized

A court in the U.S. has slapped a $50 million fine on Hyderabad-based OMICS International, which publishes over 700 questionable scientific journals, many of which appear predatory, for “unfair and deceptive business practices”. The fine comes along with permanent injunctions against most of its activities that are highly objectionable. The company says it will go for an appeal against the impugned order.

In a body blow, the Hyderabad-based OMICS International, which publishes over 700 “scientific journals”, many of which appear predatory, has been ordered to pay over $50 million to the U.S-based Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for unfair and deceptive business practices. The over $50 million fine is enforceable against any asset, real or personal, by the defendant whether located within or outside the U.S. This amount has been calculated using OMICS’ gross revenue during the period August 25, 2011 and July 31, 2017 and deducting the refunds made by the company.

In a March 29, 2019 order, Gloria M. Navarro, Chief Judge of the US District of Nevada has also permanently restrained the company from carrying out several questionable practices adopted by most predatory journal publishers.

The March 29 order comes after the Court had on November 22, 2017, granted a preliminary injunction temporarily halting the deceptive business practices of OMICS.

In August 2016, the FTC had alleged that OMICS made false claims about manuscripts being peer-reviewed, using the name of prominent researchers as editors of journals without their consent or knowledge, using misleading impact factor for journals which have not been calculated by Clarivate Analtics, false claims about being indexed by PubMed, and for not being transparent about the publication fees charged per manuscript until after it has accepted an article for publication, and often not allowing researchers to withdraw their articles after submission.

The OMICS Group was included in Jeffrey Beall’s list of “potential, possible, or probable” predatory publishers. Beall was a librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver who maintained a list of predatory journal publishers and predatory journals. The list is no longer available.

OMICS location-Optimized
OMICS location in the U.S. as shown on its website.

OMICS’ counter

But OMICS lawyer Kishore Vattikoti who has been dealing with this case for the last four years has completely different version to tell. In an email to me, Mr. Vattikoti says: “It’s quite surprising for us that court has passed order against defendants in this case without calling for a trial, which is unjustifiable and violation of natural justice.”

He adds: “The founders of the defendant companies were not permanent residents in the United States nor there had been any physical presence or operations commenced from United States.”

And in a counterattack, Mr. Vattikoti says: “My client had already [sought] $3.1 billion damages from FTC during [its] motion for Summary Judgement. FTC might have expected that if trail was scheduled and happened in my client’s presence, the defendant would have [sought] for $3.1 billion damages because of FTC’s alleged unfair activity. This might be the reason [the] final order has been announced without a trail.”

“The defendant will go for an appeal against the impugned order,” he concludes.

Contrary to the claims by Mr. Vattikoti, the website of OMICS has listed
2360 Corporate Cir #400, Henderson, Nevada 89074, U.S. as its address in the U.S. with the following phone numbers: 001-650-618-9889 and 001-213-204-5002.

What FTC can do next

The New York Times quoted Gregory Ashe, a senior staff attorney at the FTC as saying that the court had granted summary judgment because “there are no material facts in dispute that warrant a trial.”

On whether the FTC can collect the fine, Mr. Ashe told The New York Times: “We will be as aggressive as we can to track down assets in the U.S..” The agency has already started contacting OMICS’ American banks.

The FTC says it will initiate steps to remove online all the journals published by OMICS if the company does stop its deceptive business practices, and also contact hotels and other venues where the company holds fancy but sham conferences saying that they are “helping the company violate a court order”.

Charges against OMICS

The FTC had taken OMICS to the court on five main charges: Sham peer-reviewing, including the names of researchers as editor without their consent or knowledge, misleading researchers using fancy, imaginative impact factors calculated using question methods, false claim about indexing the papers, and not informing researchers of the publication fees till the manuscript is accepted for publication.

Soon after the court issued a preliminary injunction in November 2017, CEO of OMICS International in an email to me said: “Papers published in OMICS journals are peer reviewed as per international standards.” He then added: “FTC has failed to prove any allegations or deceptive practices of OMICS even after two years’ of investigation. We are not misrepresenting anything. The court has given a preliminary injection order to remove any misrepresentation or misleading claims. OMICS is following that and not [putting out] any misleading information or claims.”

1) Sham peer-reviewing

The FTC had submitted evidence indicating the OMICS had indulged in “sham” peer-reviewing. The FTC had stated according to researchers, manuscripts submitted to OMICS journals were approved for publication within just several days of submission. In others, consumers reported receiving no comments or proposed revisions from peer reviewers. And those who did receive feedback from reviewers have noted that the feedback was not substantive.

In support of its claim, the FTC had cited two instances where John Bohannon, a scientist and writer for Science magazine had in 2012 submitted two articles to OMICS journal with “intentionally egregious scientific flaws”. Despite these flaws, the manuscripts were accepted “without any substantive comments or review”. Likewise, in 2016, an Ottawa Citizen journalist had submitted an “unintelligible article containing invented words”. The OMICS journal accepted and published the paper “without any edits and without contacting the author prior to publication”.

2) Editors included without consent

OMICS has listed as many as 50,000 reviewers and editors with their names, photographs, and biographies. When contacted, the FTC learnt that several of the listed editors had never agreed to be affiliated with OMICS. And some of them never succeeded in getting their names removed from the list. According to the FTC, OMICS has been able to produce a list of only “14,598 unique editors and evidence of an agreement to serve as an editor for only 380 individuals”.

3) Misleading Impact Factor

The company has been known to give their journals imaginary Impact Factor calculated using very questionable methods. “Defendants admit that their journals do not have Thomson Reuters impact factors,” the order says.

4) Indexing

Even as OMICS claim to have their journals indexed in Medline and PubMed Central, and have used their logos, “defendants admit that none of their journals are indexed in PubMed Central or Medline” says the March 29 order.

5) Publishing fees remain opaque

While OMICS does not mention any publication fees while soliciting for manuscripts, the homepage in many instances do not contain any clear reference to fees associated with publishing papers. And if the fees is listed, it is on the “secondary webpages and lack specificity”. As a result, researchers learn about publication charges only when their manuscript is accepted for publication.

And when researchers try to withdraw their manuscript on learning about the charges, they requests are “ignored” and the demand for payment continues. Apparently, in some cases, the papers were removed only when threatened with legal action.

Published in The Hindu on April 3, 2019

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