Jocalyn Clark, MSc, PhD, Executive Editor, The Lancet, and Former Executive Editor, icddr,b (International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh)
The growing availability and marketing of “predatory journals” – fake or fraudulent journals with questionable or no quality control standards – raise challenges for the scientific community. It can be difficult to distinguish predatory journals from established journals, making it important for researchers, institutions, and medical publication professionals to know about their existence and practices.
Predatory journals present dual problems for which better awareness and accountability are needed: researchers wanting to publish their work in credible journals may inadvertently publish in predatory journals, and researchers wanting to artificially pump up their publication record may purposely publish in predatory journals.
The visibility of the predatory journal problem has been heightened recently, with news of legal action by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against the OMICS publishing group for deceptive practices, including lack of peer review and hidden publication fees – but will this be enough to stop the growing problem of predatory journals?
What Are Predatory Journals and Why Are They a Problem?
The term “predatory journals” was first coined by American librarian Jeffrey Beall, who has tracked them on his Scholarly Open Access blog since 2008. His site has recently become inactive, but archives are available.
Predatory journals are fake or scam journals that send phishing emails offering “open access” publication in exchange for payment, without providing robust editorial or publishing services. There is little, if any, quality control and virtually no transparency about processes and fees. The motive for predatory journal publishers is financial gain, and they are corrupting the communication of science.
The number of predatory journals appears to be growing. In 2011, Beall’s List contained 18 predatory publishers. In 2015, the number was 693. In 2015, in one of the first comprehensive surveys of predatory journals, Shen and Bjork estimated that there were 53,000 articles published in predatory journals in 2010, rising to 420,000 articles across 8,000 active predatory journals from 966 publishers by 2014. The scale of the predatory publishing market is staggering: an estimated $75 million.
Researchers, and the institutions and funders that support their work, normally look to journals for quality control; with predatory journals, they cannot be assured of the quality of either the peer review process or the publication process. Predatory journals are not indexed in standard databases, such as PubMed or the Web of Science, so any research published in them is effectively lost, unavailable for literature searching, as well as for systematic reviews and meta-analyses.
Funds paid to publish are also lost. Because of the lack of sufficient editorial services, and the ability to publish fake or fraudulent research in predatory journals, they ‘pollute’ the scientific literature. Predatory journals are thus both a corruption of the legitimate open access publishing model and a corruption of the funds (often public) invested in health research around the world.
Who Typically Publishes in Predatory Journals?
In fact, as I have argued in a recent editorial in The BMJ, it is a problem disproportionately affecting researchers in the Global South. While the pesky phishing emails received from dubious looking journals might be seen as a mere nuisance for experienced researchers based in rich countries, they are a serious problem for developing world scientists. In developing countries, where research and innovation are nascent but growing, there are also relatively low levels of publication literacy, training, and support among scientists.
Researchers in developing countries may not have sufficient education, supervision, or mentorship to recognise a scam journal offer when it appears in their email inbox. Yet, the demands to publish are just as present: They increasingly face the same pressure to publish (or perish!) as other researchers around the world, and funding agreements often require publication, usually open access. Predatory journals actively court new researchers, offering quick and seemingly easy publication – it may not seem too good to be true.
Predatory journals, especially among relatively inexperienced researchers, are not easily distinguished from those of the 20,000 or so genuine journals. The names of the journals often look similar or mimic established journals. Predatory journals appear to be mostly based in low and middle income countries, particularly India, Pakistan, and Nigeria, although they often claim addresses in the US or UK. A recent analysis by Xia and colleagues of the authors of articles in biomedical journals found that authors in predatory journals are more likely to be junior and based in developing countries, especially South Asia, compared with authors of articles in reputable open access journals.
Shared Responsibility for More Accountability
But while the predatory journal problem disproportionately affects developing country researchers, the solutions are a shared responsibility. Everyone must be held more accountable for their journal choices, and provide evidence that the journal is appropriate. For some researchers, the cash-for-easy-publication option will be too tempting, even if they suspect that the journal is not legitimate. The temptation will be exacerbated when the research lacks quality. Others will uncritically accept claims from journals about the robustness of their peer review processes and the credibility of the journal. Many will balk at the legwork needed to ensure a chosen journal is legitimate and the best place for the research to be published.
This seems no longer acceptable. For institutions and funders, who appear still largely unaware of the predatory journal problem, they too need to be held accountable to the highest standards of quality and integrity for the research they support. For medical publication professionals supporting authors and institutions, a key role to counter the predatory journal problem exists.
Key Messages for Medical Publication Professionals
- Insist your authors undertake due diligence to discern the legitimacy of journal, especially if it’s new
- Justify journal choice
- Is the journal on Beall’s ‘black-list’? If so, do not submit
- Is the journal on the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)? This ‘white-list’ vets the quality of journals for inclusion on its database
- Delete solicitous emails (assume journal is predatory)
- Develop among research and writing teams a “List of Key Journals” in the field that are known to have credibility and provide legitimate peer review and publishing services
- Raise awareness among your community about the predatory journal problem – publish articles in member journals or newsletters
- Take a strong stand against dubious journals – especially in collaboration with academics, research institutions, donors/funders
- Use and share the “principles of best practice in publishing,” developed by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), DOAJ, Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), and World Association of Medical Editors (WAME)
Characteristics of Potential Predatory Journals
Reproduced from Shamseer L, Moher D, Maduekwe O, Turner L, Barbour V, Burch R, Clark J, Galipeau J, Roberts J, Shea B. Potential predatory and legitimate biomedical journals: can you tell the difference? A cross-sectional comparison. BMC Medicine 2017; DOI 10.1186/s12916-017-0785-9 (in press)
- Scope of interest includes non-biomedical subjects alongside biomedical topics
- Spelling and grammar errors
- Images are distorted/fuzzy, intended to look like something they are not, or which are unauthorized
- Language targets authors
- Promotion of the Index Copernicus Value
- No description of the manuscript handling process
- Manuscripts are requested to be submitted via email
- Promises rapid publication
- Absence of a retractions policy
- No information on whether and how journal content will be digitally preserved
- Very low article processing/publication charge (eg, <$150 USD)
- Those claiming to be open access either retain copyright of published research or fail to mention copyright
- Non-professional/non-journal email address (such as @gmail.com or @yahoo.com) provided as contact