Beware of predatory journals

Yes, predatory journals are out there, and their aim is to try to cash in on a potentially lucrative publication market by extracting fees from authors anxious to publish. Jeffery Beall, professor and librarian at the University of Colorado, began his investigations into “predatory open access publishing” (his term) in 2008 when he began receiving emails from unfamiliar journals asking him to serve on editorial boards. A major tip-off was the fact that these emails had numerous grammatical errors. He developed a list of ‘potential, possible or probably predatory scholarly open-access publishers.” The list went from 18 in 2011 to 923 in 2016. He estimated that such journals publish about 5-10 percent of all open access articles. 

The entire content of his website was removed on 15th January 2017, along with his faculty page.  After much speculation on social media as to why the list was removed, the University of Colorado declared that the decision was a personal one by Beall himself.  Academics regarded this as a disaster, because this list represented an extremely important resource. However he had made a considerable mark on the scientific community and publishing houses who undertook their own investigations.  For many years open access was regarded as a thorn in the side of publishers, while researchers welcomed the concept as it seems exorbitant to pay for access to articles funded by research grants. However this has been the arena in which these predatory journals have flourished.

In 2013 Science published the results of a sting operation where a paper of essentially ‘fake’ science written by a fictitious author at a non-existent research institute was submitted to 304 open-access journals. More than half of the journals accepted the paper without noticing glaring experimental flaws including material that a high-school chemistry student would spot. Beyond this, the operation uncovered the convoluted schemes in place to conceal the identity, location and financial paper trails of these publishing companies that prey upon researchers. More worrying was the fact that some reputable journals hosted by industry giants such as Sage and Elsevier accepted this fake paper!!

The question of fake editors and reviewers have also been recently investigated and published in Nature in March 2017.  A fake application for the position of editor was submitted to 360 journals, both legitimate and suspected predatory journals.  Along with the application, the sting operation included accounts created for the applicant on academia.edu, Google+ and Twitter, and a profile and CV that included experience and interests that were hopelessly inadequate for the role of an editor. The operation included sufficiently stringent criteria for coding a journal’s response to the fake application as ‘accepted’, ‘rejected’ or ‘no response’. None of the 120 journals with an official impact factor as indexed on Journal Citation Reports accepted this fake application, compared to 7% of journals listed on the Directory of Open Access Journals, and 33% of predatory journals on Beall’s list who accepted this application.

In May of 2017 Science published some astounding statistics of papers retracted by Tumor Biology, a former Springer journal, citing evidence of a journal editorial board consisting of fake reviewers.  Springer tried to scape-goat agencies specializing in manuscript editing by suggesting that these agencies were proposing fabricated reviewer names. But as later discovered, seven members of the editorial board could not be contacted, some did not work at the listed institute, and one who recognized the scam and tried to remove his name as a board member continued to be listed until the journal was recently taken over by Sage. Even if an author or agency proposes reviewers for their manuscript, which is not uncommon, it is the responsibility of the journal to evaluate potential reviewers, and if necessary, engage a ‘real’ one, as most reputable journals will. Springer has since publicly stated they will develop tools for its remaining journals to ensure the peer-review process is more robust.

At SugarApple Communications we believe ethical publication practice is of paramount importance to scientific endeavours in all fields. We make journal recommendations to our clients based on whether journal policies and author fees are available on the journal website.  We also check that editorial board members are listed with their affiliations, and are recognised experts in the relevant scientific discipline.

In our next installment in this series, we will provide additional details on this ongoing problem and ways to identify and avoid these predatory journals.

Please feel free to contact us with additional thoughts on this topic. We welcome your comments and suggestions.

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