An Introduction to: STEM Training in Ethics of Publication Practices

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Dr Amy Koerber, Texas Tech University

Amy Koerber is Professor in Communication Studies and Associate Dean for Administration & Finance in the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. Dr. Koerber’s most recent book, From Hysteria to Hormones: A Rhetorical History, was published by Penn State University Press in April 2018, and was recently awarded Texas Tech University’s President’s Book Award. Her previous book, Breast or Bottle: Contemporary Controversies in Infant-Feeding Policy and Practice, was published by University of South Carolina Press in 2013, and was awarded the NCTE Award for Best Book in Scientific or Technical Communication. Dr. Koerber is PI on a National Science Foundation grant, STEM Training in Ethics of Publication Practices.

STEM Training in Ethics of Publication Practices

STEM Training in Ethics of Publication Practices (STEPP) is a research and training program funded by the National Science Foundation. The research component of the STEPP program will advance scholarly understanding of the ethical challenges that arise from predatory publishing, through empirical research that solicits input from key stakeholders in the situation. Next, in the training component of STEPP, we will design, deliver, and assess evidence-based training that is broadly relevant across the STEM disciplines but can also be customized according to norms and epistemological assumptions that differ across these disciplines.

Predatory publishing first caught the attention of the research community in 2008 when Jeffrey Beall, a librarian, coined the term predatory to characterize a small number of open access journals and publishers that he included on a blacklist he had published on his website. The open access movement—which began in the 1990s as the Internet made it easier for academic journals to publish online content and distribute it freely to wide audiences—had also ushered in new practices, such as “gold” open access, meaning that the cost of an article’s publication is shifted partially or fully to authors instead of subscribers. Beall used the word predatory to characterize journals and publishers that he believed were exploiting this publishing model to accept more articles, purely for the sake of increasing profits, often without adequate (or any) peer review. He started his list to help scholarly authors avoid predatory journals and publishers in the context of a rapidly changing publishing landscape. Although Beall’s list was taken offline in 2017, amidst great controversy, predatory practices continue to cause concern. Indeed, the core of the academic mission—to generate credible knowledge—is only fully realized through ethically sound communication of this knowledge, both to peer scholars and society at large. 

Experts who have previously addressed predatory publishing agree on the need to develop some standards in the face of new ethical questions arising as open access publishing takes hold. However, they disagree on who is authorized to develop such standards. In joining these previous efforts, the STEPP program strives to acknowledge and sustain the successful outcomes of open access publishing while ensuring that stakeholders have a reliable means of distinguishing legitimate journals from those that may be “predatory.” After we complete the research phase of the program, we will develop training modules that will be pilot tested, and then final versions will be made available to a diverse global audience through partnerships with organizations such as the Online Ethics Center for Engineering & Science, Think. Check. Submit., and AuthorAid.

Project Timeline

The STEPP project has three phases, detailed below:

  1. Phase 1: January – May 2020
    1. Phase 2: May 2020 – May 2021
    1. Phase 3: May 2021 – December 2022 

Phase One

Phase Two

Phase Three




  • Thematic Analysis of “Whitelists”, “Blacklists”, Ethical Codes and Standards of Relevant Professional & Scholarly Organisations
  • Review Disciplinary Differences
  • Identify Common Elements
  • Draft Interview Guide for Phase Two
  • Finalize IRB Approval
  • In-depth interviews at professional conferences with key stakeholder groups
  • In-depth interviews via Skype with Senior & Junior Emerging Scholars; Academic Administrators; Science Journalists
  • Target N=50/60
  • Construction of Beta Reusable Learning Objects for Project Website
  • Pilot Testing and Assessment of Beta RLOs via Implementation within courses/research lab groups at Teas Tech University
  • Refinement of RLOs based on Assessment Results
  • Distribution of RLOs via Partner Organisations




  • Curated list of Lists, Standards, & Codes of Ethics for Project Website
  • Synthesis of Common Themes and Identification of Disciplinary Differences
  • Scholarly Publications Summarizing Results of Qualitative Analysis
  • Transcripts of Interviews and Focus Group Discussions to be archived on Project Website
  • Curated Project Website to contain RLOs, Data Files/Transcripts, All Scholarly Products

Project Background

The concept behind the STEPP program began in 2018, when our interdisciplinary team began conducting research on predatory publishing. In February 2019, we submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation’s “Cultivating Cultures for Ethical STEM” program, and in August 2019, we were awarded $345,702 to fund the project. We are just beginning Phase 2 of the research, so we are conducting interviews with librarians, scholars in STEM disciplines, administrators, science journalists, and other stakeholders in the STEM scholarly publishing domain.

If you would like to contribute to the project by being interviewed about your perceptions of Open Access, predatory publishing, and ethical publishing practices, please follow the link below and provide your contact information. A STEPP team member will reach out to schedule a virtual interview.

Link to Google Form:


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