By Ewelina Paclawska
This paper aims to examine how the emergence of predatory journals affects contemporary academic publishing. The analysis of how these journals operate is based on the case study of a researcher from the Women’s Journal of Dermatology. This article discusses the advantages and disadvantages of the Open Access (OA) model, and how it is exploited by bogus publishers to deceive academics. Many scholarly institutions attempt to raise awareness amongst researchers of this deception risk by presenting clear warning signs. However, the future of predatory journals remains inconclusive as there are no hard means to prevent their proliferation.
Key words: predatory journals, fake journals, hijacked journals, academic publishing, developing countries, Open Access, publication fee, acceptance rates, librarians
Open Access (OA) academic publishing developed from concern about inequality in the accessibility of knowledge (Gilchrest, 2017). Students, academics and professionals in specific fields may benefit from OA, especially in developing countries where research resources are limited. OA also improves the visibility of academics’ research and increases the number of citations (Gilchrest, 2017), thus making a positive impact on their careers and on the reputations of their institutions. Papers published via the OA model are released sooner than they are in the traditional way and reach a much broader audience.
Today, however, one of the biggest concerns around the OA model is the rise of so-called predatory journals. Generally, these journals target younger, inexperienced researchers, often from developing countries, and offer ‘a low barrier to publication’ (Pamukcu Gunaydin & Dogan, 2018). These factors might prove tempting to researchers struggling to publish in legitimate journals, where the process of getting work accepted is much more restrictive and time-consuming. Predatory journals thus pose a significant threat, not only to legitimate publishing institutions but also to the reputations of respected academics and esteemed universities. Unfortunately, some researchers exacerbate this issue by agreeing to the publication of their work aware that the journal is illegitimate.
There are several approaches to combatting the rising threat posed by predatory journals while also increasing academics’ awareness in order to prevent money extortion and damage to researchers’ reputations. This article aims to examine briefly the advantages and disadvantages of the OA model with emphasis on the impact of predatory journals.
The Case of Open Access
According to research conducted by Dr Alma Swan (2010), former senior editor of Elsevier Science, there are significantly more quotations in articles published under the OA model. Dr Swan reviewed studies analysing citation numbers, and found that, on average, they showed a decisive 87% citation advantage for OA in comparison to traditional journals.
The accessibility of digitally published OA journals permits anyone with access to the Internet to see the newest data and findings. This is significant, especially for medical practitioners in developing countries with low-budget healthcare systems (Heller, 2013). Also, fast distribution and enhanced visibility due to both digital access and a proven increase in the number of citations reduces the risk of research duplication (Heller, 2013).
Despite these undeniable benefits, the most significant threat to the reputation of OA is the emergence of predatory journals. While these journals differ depending on their business model, their primary goal is to ‘exploit the pay-to-publish system [of OA]’ (Pamukcu Gunaydin & Dogan, 2018) and to extort money from researchers. Unfortunately, their papers are often never published or are kept in the journals’ databases for only a short period of time. They are also invariably indexed incorrectly, which makes them invisible, thus removing the possibility of citation or peer review.
Case Study – International Journal of Women’s Dermatology
Professor Dedee Murrell, Co-Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, was asked by a predatory publisher to write a case report. She did not initially spot the danger signs because the editorial board was made up of well-known names in the field of dermatology, making the journal appear legitimate and trustworthy. Professor Murrell therefore submitted her paper for publication, and, a few hours later, received an email confirming that her report had been approved. Professor Murrell was also charged a $3,000 fee on her credit card for publication, even though the submission fee was only $50. All attempts to contact the journal were unsuccessful, and it later transpired that the journal’s New York address was merely a post office box. Professor Murrell immediately contacted the colleagues listed on the journal’s editorial board, only to discover that they were unaware that their names were being used as bait to extort money from other scholars.
Illegitimate journals are not the only danger for academics. Fake conference organisations invite scholars to speak without providing travel expenses reimbursement. For the many scientists who are never invited to make speeches at prestigious meetings, these invitations appear to be a chance to enhance their resumés. Organisers of these conferences then profit from selling tickets to other scientists.
Professor Murrell’s view is that predatory journals and ‘bogus textbook publishers and conference organisations’ (2016) have a negative impact on the reputation of legitimate bodies. To address the problem, Professor Murrell believes it should be compulsory for every student or junior academic to read the publications of Jeffrey Beall, who pursues predatory activities targeted at scholars and explains in detail how to avoid becoming a victim. For many reasons, however, the so-called ‘Beall’s List’ has become somewhat controversial.
In 2008, Jeffrey Beall, a librarian and researcher at the University of Colorado, started a private investigation that eventually led to the creation of a ‘journal blacklist’. Beall began his review after receiving an increasing number of emails from journals asking him to submit papers for publication or become a member of an editorial board (Butler, 2013). Beall was well aware of the difficulties experienced by researchers in getting their work published, and he thought the volume of these invitations to be unusual. On closer examination of the emails, Beall noticed several grammatical errors and so he began a detailed scrutiny of the journals’ websites. Some of these websites appeared authentic, except for a lack of transparency surrounding the organisations behind them, although some used fake addresses. It is understandable that young researchers, who are naturally eager to publish, may not notice the warning signs straightaway.
Since then, Beall has spent approximately 20 hours per week of his own time evaluating potentially predatory journals and listing them on his private blog. Many scholars appreciate Beall’s crusade. Some, on the other hand, take the opposite view, claiming that Beall does not put enough effort into ensuring that the ‘fake’ journals he stigmatises are actually a scam.
In December 2012, the year the issue of predatory journals ‘exploded’ as a topic of concern, online commenters claimed that Beall used his blacklist to obtain money from genuine publishers wishing to have their names removed from his blog. In 2013, OMICS Publishing Group threatened Beall with a lawsuit for the damaging effect of defaming them on his website. Three years later, however, OMICS was accused by the US Federal Trade Commission of ‘deceiving academics and researchers about the nature of its publications and hiding publication fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.’ (Federal Trade Commission, 2016)
Lars Bjørnshauge, founder of the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), argues that Beall has failed to establish valid criteria for the evaluation of journals, discriminating particularly against journals from developing countries. Beall’s response is that, ‘… when I discover a new publisher from Nigeria, I admit I am more suspicious than I would be were the publisher from, for example, the Vatican.’ Many view this approach as inappropriate; for example, Berger and Cirasella (2015) took the view that, ‘Imperfect English or a predominantly non-Western editorial board does not make a journal predatory.’
It is also thought that Beall has shown a challenging attitude and scepticism towards the OA model, views which have discredited him in the eyes of many. Walt Crawford, a researcher of technology-linked issues in the library sector, feels that Beall misrepresents the situation by suggesting that the issue of predatory journals is only linked with the OA model (Berger & Cirasella, 2015).
Nevertheless, despite all controversy, Beall’s blacklist has served a useful purpose in raising awareness in the academic world and has made scholars more conscious of the dangers posed by predatory journals. Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), such as the DOAJ, agree the need to create a set of criteria for the evaluation of every journal. Also, instead of running the potential risk of defaming genuine journals by adding their names to a blacklist, there should be a ‘whitelist’ accessible to anyone who is unsure of the legitimacy of a particular publisher.
How to recognise legitimate journals from predatory ones?
Jeffrey Beall, the DOAJ, and other institutions that aim to protect the good name of academic publishing, have established indicators to help researchers avoid illegitimate journals. For instance, it is unlikely that a genuine publisher will approach a scholar and invite them to write an article. Beall also warns scholars about journals with a broad scope of disciplines and those promising short publication lead-times, as these journals do not usually include a peer review process. Lack of revision may also result in a damaging effect on someone’s career, especially in sciences, if there are found to be serious inaccuracies in their research.
Professor Mehmet Dorak, Head of School of Life Sciences, Pharmacy and Chemistry at Kingston University in London, believes that, ‘There has to be a list like Beall’s list’ (Dorak, 2019). He also suggests that the main indicators of a legitimate journal are it having a reputable editorial board and its presence in established databases, e.g. PubMed. Journal Impact Factor (IF), which specifies the average number of citations of a journal, is another good indicator. According to Professor Dorak, a journal’s IF should be at least 2.5, and most respectable journals generally have an IF of 8 or above.
Unfortunately, checking a whitelist or blacklist is not the perfect solution, as new fake journals appear on a daily basis and often disappear shortly afterwards, so are not detected and listed (Pamukcu Gunaydin & Dogan, 2018). It is therefore vital for a researcher to complete a thorough investigation before deciding to publish in any journal. Checking a journal’s website and verifying content is as important as examining articles published by the journal to check for quality and authenticity.
It is also worth making the distinction between predatory, hijacked or fake journals. These have the same aim but operate slightly differently. Predatory journals charge authors processing fees, but do not provide either peer or editorial review. They often publish the authors’ articles for only a short period of time and do not include them in digital archives (Pamukcu Gunaydin & Dogan, 2018). Hijacked journals create actual websites to impersonate legitimate publishers. Academics submit their work to the hijacked journals and also pay fees believing they are submitting their work to a respected organisation. Fake journals operate in much the same way, except that they are completely unregistered and have false ISSN numbers (Pamukcu Gunaydin & Dogan, 2018).
Academic institutions need to raise awareness amongst researchers of the dangers of predatory journals. This includes training on how to recognise legitimate publishers from bogus publishers by following the suggestions offered by Jeffrey Beall, the DOAJ, and other institutions that endeavour to monitor predatory journals. The emergence of predatory journals is closely linked to the Open Access movement. Many argue, however, that the dangers and disadvantages of OA do not outweigh its benefits to the worldwide spread of knowledge and increase of citations. Unfortunately, there are currently no effective means of preventing the spread of false journals, only a way of distinguishing false from legitimate ones. However, it is important not to claim that a publisher is fake simply on the basis of apparent warning signs, but also to check it thoroughly before making such claim. The reality could be that unknown publishers might simply be new and as yet unrecognised journals from developing countries which do not have the resources to improve their online presence. Unfair stigmatisation of authentic but unknown publishers is then just another aspect of the damage brought to the academic world by predatory publishers.
Berger, M. and Cirasella, J. (2015) Beyond Beall’s List: Better Understanding Predatory Publishers. College & Research Libraries News, 76(3), pp.132-135.
Butler, B. (2013) Investigating Journals: The dark side of publishing. Nature, 495(7442), pp.433-435.
Dorak, M. (2019) Conversation with Professor Mehmet Dorak, 19 February 2019.
Federal Trade Commission (2016) FTC Charges Academic Journal Publisher OMICS Group Deceived Researchers. Available at: https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2016/08/ftc-charges-academic-journal-publisher-omics-group-deceived [Accessed: 1 February 2019].
Gilchrest, B. (2017) Open Access: One Editor’s Perspective. Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 137(2), pp.265-267. doi: 10.1016/j.jid.2016.09.001
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Murrell, D. (2016) A lesson learned about predatory journals and their difference from peer-reviewed open-access publishing. International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, 2(4), pp.113-114. doi: 10.1016/j.ijwd.2016.08.004
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