The problem of predatory journals

The number of illegitimate journals is exploding — and they could hurt your career. Here’s how to avoid falling prey.

Roughly 12 times a day, Kurt Albertine, PhD, deletes emails from suspicious journals inviting him to submit articles. The invitations are from predatory journals: Publications that charge authors steep fees for publishing, use deceptive solicitation tactics, and sidestep or shortcut the peer-review process. Some of the emails are obviously bogus — Albertine, editor-in-chief of The Anatomical Record, says they occasionally bear the grammatical errors of phishing scams — but others are more convincing. One of Albertine’s colleagues, a renowned and well-published physician at the University of Utah School of Medicine, where Albertine is a pediatrics professor, recently shared his fear that he had inadvertently submitted a manuscript to a predatory journal.

The frightening lesson: If an experienced professor can fall prey, anyone can.

“It’s getting harder to distinguish a legitimate journal from a predatory journal that isn’t peer reviewed,” says Ross McKinney, MD, AAMC chief scientific officer. “They have professional looking websites and people on their editorial board who look legitimate.” Yet in some cases, members are assigned to editorial boards without their consent, and authors frequently learn about fees — which can range from $1,000 to $10,000 — only after their paper has been accepted.

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors published an editorial on the issue in 2017. It damningly described the problem: “These journals accept and publish almost all submissions, are not transparent about article processing (or publication) fees, often mimic the names and formats of legitimate journals to mislead authors and readers, and may collect fees but never publish the accepted work. In short, they subvert the peer-review publication system for the sole purpose of making money.”

What's more, concerns are only growing. The AAMC’s Academic Medicine published an article on the topic in December 2018, noting “the explosion in the number of predatory journals and publishers that deceive and prey on naive academic authors.”

And on April 3, 2019, the Federal Trade Commission won a $50 million court judgment against one publisher based on charges that it misled academics, hid steep publication fees, and refused to allow authors to withdraw articles, making it impossible to submit those studies to reputable publications.

So just how big is the problem?

“It’s enormous,” says Albertine. “Out-of-control enormous.”

How we got here

The term “predatory journals” was coined less than a decade ago by then-University of Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beall, who has worked extensively to track suspicious journals. In the years since, such publications have steadily increased, in part because of the growth in open-access journals.

The upside of open access: Readers can obtain articles without a subscription or fee, which makes sharing information easier, particularly in the developing world. But without subscriptions, publishers need another revenue stream, which is one reason many open-access journals charge authors to publish their work.

That pay-to-publish model opens the door to journals possibly accepting marginal papers to increase their income — and makes it hard to distinguish between legitimate journals that charge and those that are predatory. Some lower-quality journals may have a legitimate academic interest but lack the significant resources necessary for peer review, notes David Sklar, MD, editor-in-chief of Academic Medicine. Others are only focused on profit.

Questionable research standards aren't the only issue. Some predatory journals charge fees to serve on their boards, taking advantage of scientists’ need for prestigious-sounding positions. Others purposely lower their standards for accepting board members. In a study published in Nature, scientists created a “dismally inadequate” fake scientist and used her persona to apply to journals’ editorial boards. They selected 360 journals, some of which met the researchers’ criteria for legitimacy, and some they considered predatory. Thirty-three percent of the predatory journals offered the fictitious scientist a position — some within hours (four even named her editor-in-chief) — compared to 0% of journals categorized as legitimate. 

“It’s getting harder to distinguish a legitimate journal from a predatory journal that isn’t peer reviewed. They have professional looking websites and people on their editorial board who look legitimate.”

Ross McKinney, MD

A key factor fueling less reputable journals is the pressure on researchers to get published and the intense competition among authors submitting their work to journals. Academic Medicine, for example, accepts only about 14% of the submissions it receives.

“A lot of people have work that is marginal, or maybe even decent, that gets rejected, and they’re looking for other ways to get published,” says Sklar. Others are naive junior faculty members who are anxious to submit articles.

McKinney compares the process to vanity presses in the book world, only on steroids. But whether people are tricked or are willingly publishing their work in these journals, their careers may suffer. “When it comes time to be promoted,” says McKinney, “the predatory journal article may as well have been printed on mimeograph paper and sent around to their friends, because it will have no standing in the peer review process or the promotion process.”

Eroding science

Open access could soon become more prevalent. For example, in September 2018, 11 agencies that award around $8.8 billion in annual research grants announced that they would require the scientists they fund to make their papers free to read upon publication, starting in 2020. The initiative, called Plan S, comes from funders in 11 different European countries. And the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation initiated an open-access policy in 2015 providing unrestricted access to and reuse of all peer-reviewed published research funded by the foundation.

“This is causing a massive shift in the way journals work,” McKinney says of the push for open access. “Now the incentive for journals is to publish more articles, and sometimes to lower their standards so that they can publish more and get more revenue.” There's also an increasing movement toward the use of preprint servers, where drafts of articles are placed online before they’re peer reviewed.

“Scientists could be looking at a lot of landmines in terms of their personal career development.”

Kurt Albertine, PhD
University of Utah School of Medicine

Such changes concern editors like Albertine. He worries about journals that cut corners and about researchers who may be tempted to sidestep the time-honored process of peer review.

“[I]f you do that, you’re not going to get hired, you’re not going to get promoted, you’re not going to get tenure, you’re not going to get invited to be on an editorial board. Scientists could be looking at a lot of landmines in terms of their personal career development.”

But the impact extends far beyond the medical profession. When journals don’t have high standards, inaccurate or poor-quality work circulates on the web. “That throws doubt into the material published by everybody,” says Sklar. And when bogus publications are frequently cited, it’s difficult not just for scientists, but also for the public, to know what’s real.

“It erodes the integrity of science,” says Albertine. “If we don’t believe in data and evidence, how can we move forward?”

Staying safe

Want to avoid being conned by a predatory journal? Here are some steps for spotting illegitimate journals and protecting your reputation (and your bank account):

Check out lists and online resources
The Directory of Open Access Journals features 12,851 journals that show “a commitment to quality, peer-reviewed open access.” Albertine also recommends resources offered by groups such as the Committee on Publication Ethics and the Enago Academy, which focuses on manuscript preparation and includes advice on identifying predatory journals. Some universities are publishing guides for faculty. For example, University of California, Santa Barbara library has a web page titled, “Should I Publish in an Open Access Journal?,” which offers tips for authors and resources for identifying suspicious journals. Yale University’s library offers a similar page for faculty. Albertine also suggests a site, and a strategy, called Think Check Submit. “Those three steps get you to think critically about what you are doing,” he says. 

Look beyond the name
Don’t be fooled by a journal’s prestigious-sounding title. “Many of the predatory journals have names that are almost indistinguishable from a legitimate scientific journal,” says McKinney. Take time to read the articles, review the website, and check if the journal is indexed by services such as MEDLINE and PubMed. Also find out who’s on the editorial board. “Are these legitimate researchers and scholars, or are they unknowns who have not done any work?” says Sklar. And research the editor: Has she served in an academic position? Where has her work been published? “Ask your colleagues if they’ve heard of the journal and where they publish,” says Albertine.

Download a journal evaluation tool
Library staff at Loyola Marymount University and the Loyola Law School have developed a simple yet detailed tool for evaluating journals. Step one involves grading the journal and the publisher on 16 criteria, ranging from its business model to where it appears on web searches. You apply a rating-point system to the criteria. Once you’re done, you add up the points on a scoring sheet, which suggests whether the journal is legitimate or fishy.