What is Predatory Publishing?
In 2019, Predatory publishing was finally defined. This comes after years of confusion about a practice that duped thousands of scholars across the world.
“Predatory journals and publishers are 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.”
The term ‘predatory publishing’ was coined in 2010, by a then University of Colorado librarian, Jeffery Beall (more on him later). Nine years before it was defined. The practice existed for more than a decade earlier. So, why did it take so long?
Why does Predatory Publishing persist?
Predatory publishing only exists because of the deficiencies present with traditional publishing. These are inadequacies that established publishing groups couldn’t (or more likely wouldn’t) address.
At its core, Predatory Academia is a business. And where there is a demand, there is a supply. Failure of reputed journals and educational institutions to evolve with the time has generated a need for an alternative option. This vacuum created is now being served by predatory journals. So, what are those deficiencies? And why does that demand exist?
1. Need for publications
Research is broadly divided into two categories: Academic and Industry. Theoretically, Academic research is done in university labs, is presented at conferences, and is published in associated journals. Industry research is generally proprietary and is hence not generally published.
In reality, these two sectors are extremely intermingled with each other. And that is where it gets murky. Academic research is often funded by the industry and the institutions that receive those grants expect results to justify further funding. Everyone in academia, right from an undergrad to a professor is expected to publish a certain number of papers every year. The pressure is immense.
Traditional journals simply cannot accommodate the volume of papers being written every year. Additionally, they believe most research is not ‘groundbreaking’ enough to warrant a publication in their journals. This drives up the need for alternative publishing.
2. Lack of openness in non-predatory publishing
Established journals are headed by older professors and scholars, while they may be experts in their fields, they are also traditional in their thinking. They are likely to dismiss research as subpar or ‘impossible’ if it explores avenues different than previously thought. While this practice is changing, it’s not changing fast enough to remove the need for other means of publishing.
3. Structural discrimination in established publishing
Established journals have a long and documented history of unethical behavior. They have been accused of rejecting articles based on preconceived notions of country, race, gender, or age. It is not uncommon for an individual to find a journal publishing a similar article to the one it rejected. Journals also favor publishing articles written by their own editorial board over others.
4. Time taken toward publication
Today, the world is extremely fast-paced. And publishing has been unable to keep up. If it takes a year to complete a research project, it takes a year to publish. This is simply not constructive in a highly competitive environment where research is easily stolen or copied. Your career depends on showing results. Predatory journals offer a faster means of publishing. Some journals take as little as two weeks to accept a paper.
5. Lack of academic neutrality. The world is currently more polarized than ever before and the effect of that is also seen in academia. Most articles, especially letters to editors, published today lack academic neutrality. To make things worse, politics or religion influence academic integrity. This makes it extremely difficult to publish legitimate research in established journals, simply because it does not align with the editorial board’s principles or opinions.
6. Stolen articles
There have been instances where an emerging researcher submitted a paper to a journal and during the long review and publication process (months), the same article with a different author and title appears in a journal associated with the same publisher. This eroding trust between emerging authors and traditional publishing has made the acceptance of alternative publishing easy.
Difficulties tackling Predatory Publishing
We have witnessed multiple cases of ‘interesting’ publications from reputable high-profile journals. British journal Nature’s infamous publication on ‘Memory of Water’ is a cautionary tale. More recently, JAMA had to retract an article titled “Experimental Assessment of Carbon Dioxide Content in Inhaled Air With or Without Face Masks in Healthy Children: A Randomized Clinical Trial”, which recommended that children not wear masks. These instances are symptoms of a much bigger problem.
John Bohannon, a journalist at the journal Science (which itself has been accused of shoddy publishing) conducted a sting to assess the extent of predatory publishing.
He simultaneously submitted a mundane scientific article to 304 different open-access (OA) journals, 167 from the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), 121 from Beall’s list, and 16 that were listed by both. According to Bohannon, the article had so many ‘… grave errors that a competent peer reviewer should easily identify it as flawed and unpublishable’.
Out of 304 journals, 157 accepted the paper, 98 rejected it, and the remaining 49 did not complete their evaluation by the time Bohannon wrote his article. Of the 255 papers that underwent the entire editing process to acceptance or rejection, about 60% of the final decisions occurred with no sign of peer review. I.e., They were either accepted or rejected by the editor themselves. For rejections, that’s good news: It means that the journal’s quality control was high enough that the editor examined the paper and declined it rather than sending it out for review. But for acceptances, it likely means that the paper was rubber-stamped without being read by anyone.
Of the 106 journals that discernibly performed any review, 70% ultimately accepted the paper. Most reviews focused exclusively on the paper’s layout, formatting, and language. Only 36 of the 304 submissions generated review comments recognizing any of the paper’s scientific problems. And 16 of those papers were accepted by the editors despite the negative reviews. The result was, over 50% of the journals accepted the article.
Damningly, journals belonging to well‐known publishers, such as Elsevier, Sage, and Wolters Kluwer, also accepted the bogus article.
The definition uses the words ‘self-interest’. This begs to question, aren’t all established publishers working based on a ‘for-profit’ aka ‘self-interest’ model? Scholarly publishing is a lucrative industry. Dominant players like RELX Group’s Elsevier unit, which has about 2,500 journals, including Cell and the Lancet, made more than $2.6 billion in 2016, while John Wiley & Sons journals subdivision, which publishes Cancer, among others, earned $853,000 in 2017. Their business model allows for operating margins of about 30 percent: They procure free content based on government or privately funded research, get academics to peer-review the papers for free, and sell it back to students, university libraries, and other institutions at high prices.
This brings us to an unsavory conclusion: Most (‘All’?) publishers and their editorial boards, established or otherwise, regardless of their ‘expert acumen’, are pretty pathetic.
Jeffery Beall’s List (Blacklist)
Jeffrey Beall, an American librarian and library scientist, in addition to coining them ‘predatory publishing’, is also credited for creating what is now widely known as Beall’s list, a list of potentially predatory open-access publishers.
Beall’s list of criteria included five major points:
- Editor and staff
- Business management
- Poor journal standards/practices
Beall has been criticized by many journals, publishers, and scientists.
1.The methodology Beall used to classify a journal or a publisher as predatory was weak as it was mainly based on Beall’s subjective impression and lacked transparency.
2. Publishers complained that Beall did not contact them directly when issues about the editorial process or peer review process arose.
3. Critics said that Beall added newly started journals too quickly to his list. One of the challenges faced by editors of newly launched journals is their inherent lack of experience regarding the proper management of a scientific journal, which results in the creation of inferior websites. For this reason, these new journals match a multitude of criteria of Beall’s list and are placed on the list before they are given the chance to improve.
4. Beall has been accused of having a general problem with the OA movement and therefore might not be the neutral party needed to create and maintain such a list.
5. However, after receiving criticism, pressure, and multiple legal threats, Beall decided to remove his lists from his blog in January 2017, and therefore it hasn’t been updated since.
Directory of Open Access Journals List (Whitelist)
Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) is an independent, third-party, not-for-profit organization that vets a wide variety of open-access journals. It has been designed to act as a whitelist, whereby it has defined a list of criteria that a journal has to fulfill to be included in the DOAJ.
- The type of journal that can apply
- The type of open access
- Journal website
- Quality control process
- Additional criteria for some journal types
It has additional procedures for appeals and reapplication.
1. A major conflict of interest is that DOAJ is funded by a specific group of publishers. Factor in professional rivalry, politics, and prejudice, and the organization’s integrity is open to questions.
2. The Index has been criticized for not being inclusive enough. According to its own statistics, it seems to favor European, North, and South American journals.
3. The Directory has poor coverage. It assesses only a fraction of the open-access journals that exist. If a journal, for whatever reason, does not apply to be classified, the DOAJ does not independently vet it.
4. Fails to classify journals as predatory. If a journal is not indexed in DOAJ, it does not mean that it is predatory.
5. Only fully open-access journals are indexed. High-quality journals that have a traditional publishing (not open access) route cannot be indexed by DOAJ, even if they have an additional open access route to publication.
In conclusion, no list that is both updated and perfect is currently available, and there are still some ways to go around these lists.
Is Cureus predatory?
It has been widely accepted that while Cureus uses an innovative publishing method, it still thoroughly assesses the quality of the articles before publication.
Why are Predatory Journals dangerous?
1. Hostage Articles: This is a practice where the submitted articles or preprints are ‘tentatively’ published without notifying the author. After publication, a hefty bill is sent to the researcher. Now the author cannot rescind his paper nor can he submit it elsewhere. Essentially, the author’s hands are tied.
2. Lack of standardized peer-review process: This leads to the quick publication of erroneous, substandard papers that are not vetted but are easily available to the public.
3. Poor editing: Most publishers may not apply any editing to the article. Occasionally, the published articles are typo-ridden and grammatically incorrect.
4. Bulk publishing: Lack of peer review means a high volume of articles can be published in a relatively short period of time.
5. Lack of indexing: While these journals claim to be indexed under multiple platforms, that is simply not true. PubMed or even google scholar very rarely have such papers on record. This leads to a fall in individual cite-factor.
6. Pseudoscience: They are more likely to publish fake or hoax papers due to their poor quality control.
7. Exorbitant fees: The easiest way to identify a predatory journalist is by its Article Processing Charges (APCs). Predatory journals charge from $1000 to $3000 in exchange for offering very little in review, formatting, or service.
8. Loss of research: Your paper eventually will no longer be accessible if the publisher doesn’t have a long-term storage policy or unprofitable journals might get closed and all published articles in that journal might be lost.
9. Damage to individual credibility: Your position as an academic scholar can be unfairly damaged by publishing in these journals. A publication record in predatory journals is anything but helpful in finding and attracting research grants or academic positions.
How to spot a Predatory Journal
Note that this list is not perfect and only includes suggestions. There are legitimate journals that may be guilty of a few points listed and predatory journals without the concerning details.
1. Wide scope of interests: The scope of interest is wide and includes tangential non-biomedical subjects alongside biomedical topics.
2. Subpar website: The website contains spelling and grammar errors, images are distorted/fuzzy, with a distinct lack of specific contact information.
3. Author inviting language:
a. The homepage language targets authors
b.The Index Copernicus Value is promoted on the website
c. Description of the manuscript handling process is lacking
d. Manuscripts are requested to be submitted via email
e. Rapid publication is promised
4. Red flags
a. There is no retraction policy
b. APCs are hidden
c. Information on whether and how journal content will be digitally preserved is absent
d. Journals claiming to be open access either retain the copyright of published research or fail to mention copyright
e. The contact email address is non-professional and non-journal affiliated (e.g., @gmail.com or @yahoo.com)
f. Contact is established using WhatsApp instead of email
5. Questionable editorial board
a. Members of the editorial boards are unrelated to the research area
b. Editorial board members have no idea about the journal and their names are used without their knowledge
c. Made-up names of editorial board members or authors
6. Spam emails (images below): Authors receive multiple generic emails from a wide range of publications, some of which are unrelated to their research area, asking them to contribute to the journal. Newly, journals are now promising awards to encourage submissions.
7. Hijack established journals: Set up journals with identical names and similar websites to well-known journals. Or piggyback on journals with a traditional publishing route.
8. Fraudulent advertising
a. Inappropriate or fraudulently use ISSN. ISSN may be stolen.
b. Made-up or fake journal metrics such as impact factors or cite scores
c. State wrong or misleading information about the size and the location of the publisher
The establishment of an independent control body over all areas of publishing is of utmost importance to tackle the challenges of academia. Including but not limited to predatory publishing.
The following points must be addressed:
1. The need for structured guidelines that must be followed to correctly start and recognize a journal.
2. More importantly, it is necessary to make extensive changes to established publishing to remove prejudice, promote transparency and improve inclusivity.
3. Are we putting unnecessary importance on impact factors and cite scores?
4. Influence of questionable ethics of older professors over younger academics. (Stolen articles, order of author names, biased institutional review boards, etc)