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What is a predatory journal and why is it a threat?
In 2012, Jeffrey Beall introduced the term ‘predatory journals’ to refer to fake journals exploiting the open-access model (which ensures the free dissemination of publications worldwide as the authors pay article-processing charges) and ‘preying’ on researchers for financial gain. Publishers of these predatory journals charge publication fees, but these are usually not mentioned upfront and may come as a surprise for the duped researcher. In 2019, a consensus definition was proposed defining predatory journals and publishers as “entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterized by false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial and publication practices, a lack of transparency, and/or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices.”
Publishers of predatory journals do not adhere to good publication practices as promoted by the World Association of Medical Editors (https://www.wame.org/), the Committee on Publication Ethics (https://publicationethics.org/), the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (http://www.icmje.org/), and the Council of Science Editors (https://www.councilscienceeditors.org/) as they do not perform the traditional peer-review process. They are willing to accept any scientific paper, regardless of the quality, if the authors pay for the publication. The purpose of these journals is thus not to disseminate high quality research but to make profit.
Publishers of predatory journals often send out emails with requests for manuscript submissions, promising a fast peer-review and publication. Legitimate open-access publishers therefore experience pressure to reach shorter publication times, weakening the peer-review process. As the websites and names of predatory journals may be nearly identical to legitimate journals, also called hijacked journals, it can be difficult for inexperienced researchers to recognize them.
These questionable practices undermine the quality, integrity, and reliability of published scientific research and may hinder scientific advancement.
The rapid increase in the number of predatory journals is therefore of concern and it has been estimated that there are about 8000 active predatory journals. Moreover, some researchers are willing to publish in these journals to obtain tenure, a promotion or visibility. They often do so at the expense of researchers adhering to ethical standards. This unethical practice is also detrimental for scientific publishing as good quality articles published alongside these poor quality (or even plagiarized) papers become tainted by association. Predatory journals are thus a threat to the scientific advancement and to the duped researchers publishing their work in these journals.
How can we recognize a predatory journal?
It is important for all members of the scientific community to be able to recognize predatory journals as papers published in these journals are not of enough quality to contribute to scientific advancement.
To help researchers recognize predatory journals, certain typical characteristics have been identified (of note: if a journal meets a characteristic listed below, it does not necessarily mean that it is a predatory journal as journals of low quality may also meet some criteria):
- Aggressively soliciting publications via (repeated) emails
- Journal name closely resembles a legitimate journal name
- Unprofessional website (e.g. poor graphics and language, dead links, aggressive advertising)
- No or fake contact information on the website
- No indexing in a recognized citation system (e.g. PubMed) or in a legitimate online directory (e.g. the Directory of Open Access Journals [DOAJ])
- Unrealistically quick peer-review or no information about the peer-review process
- No transparency about article processing charges or charges to be paid upon submission
- Members of the editorial board from outside the discipline or country of publication or unknown board members to experts in the discipline
- An overly simple submission system (no conflict of interest or authorship contribution requested) or submission via email.
What can we do to avoid publishing in predatory journals?
Attempts have been made to help researchers, as more than 90 checklists were developed to help recognize predatory journals. Only a few of these are free of charge, such as Beall’s List (which was discontinued in 2017, but is still up to date [https://beallslist.net/#update]) and the DOAJ (https://doaj.org/). Although Beall’s List was a good starting point to identify predatory journals, it also listed legitimate journals from low and middle income countries as predatory journals, and it was suggested that Beall was biased against the open-access way of publishing. The DOAJ, on the other hand, identifies legitimate open-access journals, but it should be noted that this list is not exhaustive and some legitimate journals may not be included. The ‘Think. Check. Submit.’ website (https://thinkchecksubmit.org/) may also be a helpful resource, although it does not guarantee the identification of legitimate journals. Researchers should also review the journal’s website to try and identify red flags and further assess the legitimacy of a journal (see the list above).
To address this threat, researchers should be made aware of the existence of predatory journals and trained on how to recognize them. Additionally, the scientific community should invoke repositories for the identification of predatory journals or provide a list of vetted journals. These measures may starve the predators and help scientific advancement.
Beall, J., Predatory publishers are corrupting open access. Nature, 2012. 489(7415): p. 179.
Laine, C. and M.A. Winker. Identifying Predatory or Pseudo-Journals. 2017; Available from: http://www.wame.org/identifying-predatory-or-pseudo-journals.
Grudniewicz, A., et al., Predatory journals: no definition, no defence. Nature, 2019. 576(7786): p. 210-212.
American Medical Writers Association – European Medical Writers Association – International Society for Medical Publication Professionals, AMWA–EMWA–ISMPP joint position statement on predatory publishing. Current Medical Research and Opinion, 2019. 35(9): p. 1657-1658.
Cobey, K.D., et al., What is a predatory journal? A scoping review. F1000Res, 2018. 7: p. 1001.