Editor’s Note: This post is by Rick Anderson, Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro and as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno. Rick serves on numerous editorial and advisory boards and is a regular contributor to the Scholarly Kitchen. He has served as president of the North American Serials Interest Group (NASIG), and is a recipient of the HARRASSOWITZ Leadership in Library Acquisitions Award. In 2015 he was elected President of the Society for Scholarly Publishing. He serves as an unpaid advisor on the library boards of numerous publishers and organizations including biorXiv, Elsevier, JSTOR, and Oxford University Press.


This morning I had an experience that is now familiar, and in fact a several-times-daily occurrence—not only for me, but for virtually every one of my professional colleagues: I was invited to submit an article to a predatory journal.

How do I know it was a predatory journal? Well, there were a few indicators, some strong and some merely suggestive. For one thing, the solicitation addressed me as “Dr. Rick Anderson,” a relatively weak indicator given that I’m referred to that way on a regular basis by people who assume that anyone with the title “Associate Dean” must have a doctoral degree.

However, there were other elements of this solicitation that indicated much more strongly that this journal cares not at all about the qualifications of its authors or the quality of its content. The strongest of these was the opening sentence of the message:

Based on your expertise & research on Heart [sic], it is an honour to invite you to submit your article for our Journal of Cardiothoracic Surgery and Therapeutics.

This gave me some pause, since I have no expertise whatsoever “on Heart,” and have never published anything on any topic even tangentially related to medicine. Obviously, no legitimate journal would consider me a viable target for a solicitation like this.

Another giveaway: the address given for this journal is 1805 N Carson St., Suite S, Carson City, NV. As luck would have it, I lived in northern Nevada for seven years and am quite familiar with Carson City. The northern end of Carson Street—a rather gritty stretch of discount stores, coffee shops, and motels with names designed to signal affordability—didn’t strike me as an obvious location for any kind of multi-suite office building, let alone a scientific publishing office, but I checked on Google Maps just to see. I found that 1805 North Carson Street is a non-existent address; 1803 North Carson Street is occupied by the A to Zen Thrift Shop, and Carson Coffee is at 1825. There is no building between them.

Having thus had my suspicion stoked, I decided to give this journal a real test. I created a nonsense paper consisting of paragraphs taken at random from articles originally published in a legitimate journal of cardiothoracic medicine, and gave it a title consisting of syntactically coherent but otherwise randomly-chosen terms taken from the discipline. I invented several fictional coauthors, created an email account under the assumed name of the lead author, submitted the manuscript via the journal’s online system and settled down to wait for a decision (which was promised within “14 days,” following the journal’s usual “double blind peer review process”).

***

While we wait for word from this journal’s presumably distinguished team of expert peer reviewers, let’s talk a little bit about the elephant in the room: the fact that the journal we’re testing purports to publish peer-reviewed research on the topic of heart surgery.

The problem of deceptive or “predatory” publishing is not new; it has been discussed and debated at length, and it might seem as if there’s not much new to be said about it: as just about everyone in the world of scholarly publishing now knows, a large and apparently growing number of scam artists have created thousands upon thousands of journals that purport to publish rigorously peer-reviewed science, but will, in fact, publish whatever is submitted (good or bad) as long as it’s accompanied by an article processing charge. Some of these outfits go to great expense to appear legitimate and realize significant revenues from their efforts; OMICS (which was subject to a $50 million judgment after being sued by the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive practices) is probably the biggest and most famous of predatory publishing outfits. But most of these outfits are relatively small; many seem to be minimally staffed fly-by-night operations that have invested in little more than the creation of a website and an online payment system. The fact that so many of these “journals” exist and publish so many articles is a testament to either the startling credulity or the distressing dishonesty of scholars and scientists the world over—or, perhaps, both.

But while the issue of predatory publishing, and its troubling implications for the integrity of science and scholarship, is discussed regularly in broad terms within the scholarly-communication community, I want to focus here on one especially concerning aspect of the phenomenon: predatory journals that falsely claim to publish rigorously peer-reviewed science in fields that have a direct bearing on human health and safety.

In order to try to get a general idea of the scope of this issue, I did some searching within Cabell’s Journal Blacklist to see how many journals from such disciplines are listed in that database. My findings were troubling. For example, consider the number of predatory journals found in Cabell’s Blacklist that publish in the following disciplines (based on searches conducted on 25 and 26 November 2019):

Disciplinary Keyword # of Titles
Medicine 3,818
Clinical 300
Cancer 126
Pediatrics 64
Nutrition 88
Surgery 159
Neurology 39
Climate 25
Brain 24
Neonatal 16
Cardiovascular 51
Dentistry 44
Gynecology 44
Alzheimer’s 10
Structural Engineering 10
Anesthesiology 21
Oncology 74
Diabetes 51

Obviously, it’s concerning when scholarship or science of any kind is falsely represented as having been rigorously reviewed, vetted, and edited. But it’s equally obvious that not all scholarship or science has the same impact on human health and safety. A fraudulent study in the field of sociology certainly has the capacity to do significant damage—but perhaps not the same kind or amount of damage as a fraudulent study in the field of pediatric anesthesiology, or diagnostic oncology. The fact that Cabell’s Blacklist has identified nearly 4,000 predatory journals in the general field of medicine is certainly cause for very serious concern.

At the risk of offending my hosts, I’ll just add here that this fact leads me to really, really wish that Cabell’s Blacklist were available to the general public at no charge. Recognizing, of course, that a product like this can’t realistically be maintained at zero cost—or anything close to zero cost—this begs an important question: what would it take to make this resource available to all?

I can think of one possible solution. Two very large private funding agencies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, have demonstrated their willingness to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to supporting open access to science; both organizations require funded authors to make the published results of their research freely available to all, and allow them to use grant funds to pay the attendant article-processing charges. For a tiny, tiny fraction of their annual spend on research and on open-access article processing charges, either one of these grantmakers could underwrite the cost of making Cabell’s Blacklist freely available. How tiny? I don’t know what Cabell’s costs are, but let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it costs $10 million per year to maintain the Blacklist product, with a modest amount of profit built in. That would represent two tenths of a percent of the Gates Foundation’s annual grantmaking, or 2.3 tenths of a percent of Wellcome’s.

This, of course, is money that they would then not be able to use to directly subsidize research. But since both fundmakers already commit a much, much larger percentage of their annual grantmaking to APCs, this seems like a redirection of funds that would yield tremendous value for dollar.

Of course, underwriting a service like Cabell’s Blacklist would entail acknowledging that predatory publishing is real, and a problem. Oddly enough, this is not universally acknowledged, even among those who (one might think) ought to be most concerned about the integrity of the scholcomm ecosystem and about the reputation of open access publishing. Unfortunately, among many members of that ecosystem, APC-funded OA publishing is largely—and unfairly—conflated with predatory publishing.

***

Well, it took much longer than promised (or expected), but after receiving, over a period of two months, occasional messages telling me that my paper was in the “final peer review process,” I finally received the long-awaited-for response in late January: “our” paper had been accepted for publication!

Journal Blacklist entry for Journal of Cardiothoracic Surgery and Therapeutics

Over the course of several subsequent weeks I received a galley proof for my review—along with an invoice for an article-processing charge in the amount of $1,100. In my guise as lead author, I expressed shock and surprise at this charge; no one had said anything to me about an APC when my work was solicited for publication. I received a conciliatory note from the editor, explaining that the lack of notice was due to a staff error, and further explaining that the Journal of Cardiothoracic Surgery and Therapeutics is an open-access journal and uses APCs to offset its considerable costs. He said that by paying this fee and allowing publication to go forward I would be ensuring that the article “will be available freely which allows the scientific community to view, download, distribution of an article in any medium (provided that the original work is properly cited) thereby increasing the views of article.” He also promised that our article will be indexed “in Crossref and many other scientific databases.” I responded that I understood the model but had no funds available to pay the fee, and would therefore have to withdraw the paper. “You may consider our submission withdrawn,” I concluded.

Then something interesting happened. My final communication bounced back. I was informed by a system-generated message that my email had been “waitlisted” by a service called Boxbe, and that I would have to add myself to the addressee’s “guest list” in order for it to be delivered. Apparently, the editor no longer wanted to hear from me.

Also interesting: despite my nonpayment of the APC, the article has now been published and can be seen here. It will be interesting to see how long it remains in the journal.

We need to be very clear about one thing here: the problem with my article is not that it represents low-quality science. The problem with my article is that it is nonsense and it is utterly incoherent. Not only is its content entirely plagiarized, it’s so randomly assembled from such disparate sources that it could not possibly be mistaken for an actual study by any informed reader who took the time to read any two of its paragraphs. Furthermore, it was “written” by authors who do not exist, whose names were taken from famous figures in history and literature, and whose institutional affiliations are entirely fictional. (There is no “Brockton State University,” nor is there a “Massapequa University,” nor is there an organization called the “National Clinics of Health.”)

What all of this means is that the fundamental failing of this journal—as it is of all predatory journals—is not its low standards, or the laxness of its peer review and editing. Its fundamental failing is that despite its claims, and despite charging authors for these services, it has no standards at all, performs no peer review, and does no editing. If it did have any standards whatsoever, and if it performed even the most perfunctory peer review and editorial oversight, it would have detected the radical incoherence of my paper immediately.

One might reasonably ask, though: if my paper is such transparently incoherent nonsense, why does its publication pose any danger? No surgeon in the real world will be led by this paper to do anything in an actual surgical situation, so surely there’s no risk of it affecting a patient’s actual treatment in the real world.

This is true of my paper, no doubt. But what the acceptance and publication of my paper demonstrates is not only that the Journal of Cardiothoracic Surgery and Therapeutics will publish transparent nonsense, but also—more importantly and disturbingly—that it will publish ­anything. Dangerously, this includes papers that may not consist of actual nonsense, but that were flawed enough to be rejected by legitimate journals, or that were written by the employees of device makers or drug companies that have manipulated their data so as to promote their own products, or that were written by dishonest surgeons who have generally legitimate credentials but are pushing crackpot techniques or therapies. The danger illustrated by my paper is not so much that predatory journals will publish literal nonsense; the more serious danger is that they will uncritically publish seriously flawed science while presenting it as carefully-vetted science.

In other words, the defining characteristic of a predatory journal is not that it’s a “low-quality” journal. The defining characteristic of a predatory journal is that it falsely claims to provide quality control of any kind—precisely because to do so would restrict its revenue flow. This isn’t to say that no legitimate science ever gets published in predatory journals; I’m sure quite a bit does since there’s no reason why a predatory journal would reject it, any more than it would reject the kind of utter garbage this particular journal has now published under the purported authorship of Jackson X. Pollock. But the appearance of some legitimate science does nothing to resolve the fundamental issue here, which is one of scholarly and scientific fraud.

Such fraud is distressing wherever it occurs. In the context of cardiothoracic surgery—along with all of the other health-related disciplines in which predatory journals currently publish—it’s terrifying.

Or it should be, anyway.

Rick Anderson

8 thoughts on “Guest Post – Why Should We Worry about Predatory Journals? Here’s One Reason

  1. Racial stereotypes are reinforced by using compound words containing ‘black’ such as ‘black mail’ and ‘black list’ to mean bad and compound words containing ‘white’ such as ‘white list’ and ‘white knight’ to mean good.

  2. You write: “predatory publishing is real, and a problem […] is not universally acknowledged”. Could you please cite a relevant source? The blog post you refer to includes the following statement: “Yes, ‘predatory’ publishing practices are a problem.” Its authors just think that the problem is often overestimated (for instance concerning the number of papers), and that there are more pressing problems in scholarly publishing. They also suggest ways to address this problem (education, open peer review). This seems to me the prevalent view among OA advocates. I find a bit awkward your idea of funders paying (10?!) millions to Cabell’s, including a “modest” profit (not the norm in commercial scholarly publishing), even if it’s only a small part of their budget (the funders’, not Cabell’s). I’d rather see them support (not-for-profit) DOAJ.

    1. Well, for examples of OA advocates downplaying the significance of predatory publishing, you need look no further than the Twitter conversation in which you and I participated right after my blog post was published.

      Direct quotes from Ashley Farley, of the Gates Foundation: “I do not think PP is a huge threat”; “To me if ignored this will die quietly on the internet like a lot of other misinformation on the internet.” Also on Twitter, I’ve been told by another OA advocate that predatory publishing is a non-issue, and that “everyone in scholarly publishing understands this.”

      For more examples, go to the Scholarly Kitchen blog, search the phrase “predatory publishing,” and look at the comment threads following any posting on that topic. I would also recommend looking up the various sting operations that have been carried out against predatory publishers, and then examining the public response to those from the likes of Björn Brembs, Ross Mounce, etc.

      For just one example of a formally published argument downplaying the actual harm done by predatory publishers, see https://openaccess.city.ac.uk/id/eprint/18007/1/3C%20-867-3743-1-PB.pdf.

      The bottom line: whenever I write about the problem of predatory publishing I can expect furious responses, some of them dishonest or downright counterfactual (cf. Ashley Farley’s tweets about having “no insight into [Cabell’s] criteria” and saying that “most librarians I know struggle to gain any transparency into their lists,” and the subsequent silence when I provided a link to Cabell’s completely public and very transparent list of criteria), and all of them from OA advocates.

      I want to be very clear here: I have no problem with OA. I think it’s great. However, I frequently have issues with the OA advocacy community. This is one of them.

  3. One additional note is that when misinformation starts to circulate within an information ecosystem, it tends to poison trust in all the information in that ecosystem. It becomes difficult to sort out who is real and who is not making all information suspect.

  4. As I was mentioned here, a reply to the comment where I was mentioned (without having read the article itself).

    First, it is far from universally accepted what ‘predatory’ actually means.
    – The current “official definition” includes Elsevier, for instance:
    http://bjoern.brembs.net/2019/12/elsevier-now-officially-a-predatory-publisher/
    and probably a whole host of other legacy publishers
    – The historical understanding of the term means journals who pretend to perform peer-review and then either do not send all manuscripts out for review or the reviewers are not competent. This is a very difficult definition as it is near impossible to test as peer-review is anonymous and only few journals make their reviews available.
    – The colloquial meaning is more closely described as “fake journals” (or “journals with fake peer-review”) that aim to publish as much as possible with a minimum of investment. That lack of investment usually entails that their websites are low-quality, their English often riddled with errors, their articles are often by authors unknown even in their most narrow research fields, their corporate addresses lead to residential housing, there is next to no information about the publisher and there often are only very few articles per journal, sometimes none.

    Mostly, the term ‘predatory’ today is used in the last, colloquial way. As these fake journals are so easy to spot, authors there are either not yet qualified to be academics, or publish there for nefarious reasons. Given that these journals are both easy to spot and don’t really have any effect on authors’ CVs as they don’t have any name recognition, the risk they pose is real, but relatively minor.

    Thus, compared to the “official” predatory publishers such as Elsevier et al., the problem is smaller, both in volume and in scope. Arguably, the problem legacy publishers pose can be considered a threat for all publicly funded science:
    http://bjoern.brembs.net/2019/10/scholarship-has-bigger-fish-to-fry-than-access/
    I would thus order the current problems in scholarly infrastructure as follows:

    1. Reliability (current infrastructure rewards unreliable science)
    2. Affordability (current infrastructure is 10 fold too expensive, stifling innovation)
    3. Functionality (current infrastructure ~20 years antiquated)
    4. Fake journals
    5. Access (we currently have access to almost all scholarly journals, but it is neither convenient, nor stable, nor fully legal)

    If we fixed 1-3 by implementing a modern infrastructure, 4+5 were fixed automatically in the process (because 4-5 are actually a consequence of 1-3).

    So if 1-3 were a melanoma on the back of your hand and therefore needed to be treated with utmost urgency, 4-5 would be like a broken fingernail: painful but manageable. That being said, I’m not sure what the English adjective would be for worrying more about a painful fingernail, than about a melanoma on the same hand. Anyway, amputating the hand to save the patient and replacing it with a robotic prosthetic, also fixes the painful fingernail problem.

    1. It’s important to note up front here that although the folks at Nature characterized their definition as a “consensus” one doesn’t mean that it is in any sense “official.” That’s a word that Björn himself has adopted here and put (misleadingly, I think) in quotes.

      In fact, of course, there is no “official” definition of predatory publishing, and that’s precisely what makes it so important that any attempt to monitor or police the practice be based on a clear and publicly-stated set of criteria. Beall made his criteria public, but they weren’t particularly well defined and his application of those criteria in specific cases was never transparent. One of the primary reasons that I’ve been willing to recommend Cabell’s Blacklist is that Cabell’s does a much better (though not perfect) job of transparency in that regard.

      As long as one know what criteria are being applied, and how they’re being applied, then one can decide for oneself whether a particular blacklist is defining “predatory publishing” appropriately and applying its criteria fairly. This allows the reader to make her own decisions about how serious the problem is, and how much effort to invest in fighting it.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.