I recently published an article in a scientific journal. Within a few days of publication of the article, the invitations started coming. Scientists I had never heard of before wrote to tell me about how they read my article, thought it was very good, and wanted me to publish in the journals for which they serve as editors. One of these persons who claimed to be an “assitant editor” stated he was “impressed deeply by the novelty, advance, and potential extensive use” of my research and was “deeply honored” to also extend me an invitation to join their team as an editor or a reviewer. I did not recognize the names of any of these journals, and when I checked the links, I found they were all exclusively open access (online) journals. What had just happened to me is something that most scientists who publish nowadays face. I had been targeted by predatory journals.
Predatory journals are journals that masquerade as legitimate scientific journals but charge authors for publication without providing any editorial and publishing services. One of the cornerstones of scientific publishing is peer-review. This means that articles containing research results are submitted to scientific journals where other scientists with comparable knowledge of the field (a peer) review them. These reviewers make recommendations to the authors and/or the journal’s editor regarding revisions or publication of the research. A so called “predatory journal” makes a mockery of the peer review system by indiscriminately publishing any submission it receives with minimal review.
In addition, unlike mainstream journals, predatory journals often hide their publishing fees. The editors of predatory journals target scientist by sending flattery-laden invitations to publish with them without spelling out that there will be a fee involved. The scientist goes through all the work of putting together an article and sending it for review. Once the article has been accepted, an e-mail is sent to the scientist informing them that there is a publication fee involved and the scientist is not allowed to withdraw their article until the fee is payed.
Predatory journals have been made possible by the advent of the internet. Most predatory journals are open access journals (online journals) that have no print version. There are legitimate open access journals such as PlosOne that have a rigorous editorial review process, and their editorial team includes scientists of renown. Predatory journals, on the other hand, have editorial teams either made up of low caliber scientists that often review articles outside their area of expertise, or bona fide scientists that the journal has duped into joining as editors, or even scientists that have been included as editors without their consent! Many predatory journals sport names and websites that are similar to those of mainstream journals, and they report fraudulent metrics with regards to how often the articles published in the journal are cited to make that journal look good.
To illustrate the problem that predatory publishing can cause, consider the sting operation carried out by the mainstream scientific journal Science. Several members of its team put together a spoof article with glaring scientific errors that would be picked by an average competent reviewer, and they sent them to a few hundred open access journals that had been identified as predatory. They found that 62% of the journals accepted the spoof article for publication. Of those journals that conducted any discernible kind of review of the article (most often limited to details not involving the science), 70% accepted it. Here consider not only that the acceptance rate for legitimate articles sent to bona fide scientific journals is between 20 and 30%, but that this particular spoof article described research designed to be easily identifiable as bad science. What this indicates is that predatory journals are highly likely to contain shoddy science that can mislead scientists searching for clues to solve their research problems, leading to wasted time and resources.
By 2014, about 400,000 scientific articles had been published in 8,000 journals regarded by some metrics as predatory. Today the number of such journals has increased to more than 10,000. If predatory journals were readily identifiable, this would not be as much of a problem, but for the average researcher with limited time on their hands, the process of weeding out the good journals from the bad can prove daunting. The scientist Jeffrey Beal elaborated and maintained a public list of predatory journals for a few years, but due to harassment from the publishers of the journals he was forced to take his list down.
Many people believe that scientists that publish in predatory journals are usually inexperienced young scientists who are deceived into publishing in these journals. After all, what possible value can be obtained from accumulating publications in unknown, low-quality journals? One would expect that at the time the researcher’s credentials are evaluated, this would be considered a big negative, right? As it turns out, the problem is much worse than previously thought. I have published a post about several ways by which scientists game the system to advance their career. Well, add publishing in predatory journals to the list! In what is turning out to be not quite predation but a twisted interdependence, many scientists from developing countries, and from institutions with few resources where the metric for academic promotion relies more on the total number of publications, are flocking to predatory journals to beef up their publication numbers.
So what is there to be done? The issues concerning predatory journals as they relate to the criteria for faculty promotions will have to be addressed at the institutional level. The practices of predatory journals of misrepresenting themselves to scientists can be addressed at the judicial level. However, at the individual level there are several guidelines that researchers can follow to avoid not only publishing in predatory journals, but also taking seriously the science contained in them. I myself, for example, view with suspicion anything published in a journal not included in reputable bibliographic databases such as MEDLINE. And, of course, if you get a message in your e-mail describing what a wonderful first class researcher you are and inviting you to publish in a journal you’ve never heard of before and to join its editorial board, leave your ego aside and ignore it!
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