The Art of Research: How Journal Covers Influence Readers and Research

When you think of a research journal, what do you picture? Is it a vivid, detailed art spread, or a simplistic and minimalist design? Journal cover art is a surprisingly polarized medium—most journals feature either highly graphic, detailed, and aesthetically pleasing art or subdued, uniform designs, but there aren’t many journals that fall somewhere in-between. Each style of journal covers communicates a different subtextual message and can play an important role in signaling the target audience of the publication.

Vivid and Graphic Journal Cover Art

Some journals feature highly graphic covers for each issue, similar to the magazine approach of drawing a potential reader’s attention by using vivid, striking design to stand out among its many competitors. As such, we’ll call these ‘magazine-style’ covers for the purpose of this article. Pioneers in the use of magazine-style journal covers are Science, Nature, and the Lancet. Magazine-style cover art must fulfill several critical roles to be successful:

Simplistic and Uniform Journal Cover Art

On the other end of the spectrum is the minimalistic cover art. For these journals, issue covers typically look nearly identical and feature no images at all, with only the text changing from issue to issue; we’ll call these ‘uniform’ cover designs. It may be surprising to see that the journal with the highest impact factor across all of academia—CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, with a whopping 2022 journal impact factor of 254.7—uses a uniform cover art style. Many smaller journals will also use uniform cover art, as this strategy is more cost-effective. With uniform cover design, the journals are aiming to achieve a distinct set of goals:

  • Enhance readability. By using a uniform template for each issue, readers know exactly where to look to gain the information they need. It’s typically quicker to identify the journal issue number or key articles.
  • Prioritize content, not appeal. These articles aren’t aiming to draw in readers—they can trust that readers will read the issues due to the intrinsic content without needing to be drawn in by cover art.
  • Express academic rigor. Some readers may interpret a uniform cover design as a signal of its focus on scientific content rather than mass appeal, improving their impression of the journal’s research value.
  • Build a brand. Similar to highly graphic cover art, these covers still play a large role in establishing a journal’s brand. Even minimalistic covers will be used to establish a journal’s typography, color palette, logo, and other features that will be consistent across all of the journal’s materials, including their website, presentation materials, and more.

What Cover Art Says About the Journal

Ultimately, the most important task that cover art performs is establishing the brand of a journal. Branding is a vital tool for establishing a journal’s reputability, respectability, and target audience (Gringarten et al., 2011). Branding can also be used to align a journal with its publisher or connected organization—for example, some journals published by Harvard University use the University’s distinct red and white colors and Proxima Nova/Merriweather fonts to align with the University’s established brand.

Cover art can play a key role in subconsciously communicating the publication’s target audience. Many journals that focus on a narrow target audience of researchers within the journal’s field of study use uniform journal covers. For these journals, cover designs don’t have to entice readers—they rely on their readers having an established pattern of reviewing every issue or being brought to the publication to read a specific article, not by the issue cover. On the other hand, many journals with magazine-style cover art aim to attract a wider audience of lay people or scientists outside of the specific discipline the journal publishes in. Because they can’t rely on readers independently seeking out research articles, they invest more resources in attracting attention. Having a wider scope also means that they’re up against more competition for attention, so there’s more emphasis on catching readers’ eye.

Which Cover Art Style is Better?

There’s no clear-cut better or worse cover art style. Magazine-style and uniform cover art serve separate purposes and communicate distinct brand identities to the reader. Regardless of cover art style, a journal should be evaluated on the merits of its scientific content; however, the art can serve as a shortcut toward understanding the journal’s intentions.

Predatory Editing: A New Face of Predatory Publishing

In the ever-evolving conversation about predatory publishers, journals, and conferences, here’s a term you may not have heard yet: predatory editing.

Predatory editing is a rarely discussed but rapidly spreading exploitative academic publishing practice. In parallel with the 2019 Nature consensus definition for predatory publishing, editorial agencies are generally considered predatory if they “prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship,” and predatory editing practices are often “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.”

Predatory editing practices tend to be disproportionately targeted toward non-Anglophone authors or countries, and just like with journals’ article processing charges or open access fees, prices for these services can range dramatically. Services performed by these agencies are often substandard and, dangerously, may inadvertently alter the scientific content. This can lead to authors unknowingly making false claims or incorrectly reporting data in their manuscripts.

Predatory editing services fall under the wider umbrella of ‘predatory author services.’ This umbrella can also include predatory brokering services, which are often inextricably linked to predatory editing. With predatory brokering services, agents acting as a liaison between authors and journals to facilitate a smooth publication process can exploit authors and the publish-or-perish culture of academia. One example of such a service would be offering to add researchers to a manuscript’s author list even if they don’t meet the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICJME) authorship criteria. Though predatory brokering services are a separate problem from predatory editing, the two services are often packaged together.

As a scientific editor who assists authors throughout the process of publishing manuscripts in peer-reviewed medical journals, I generally see two primary types of suspicious editing practices to watch out for: predatory commercial editing firms or agents and disputable editing requests from respected journals.

Predatory commercial editing firms or agents

These entities are predatory through and through, and their behaviors largely mimic those of predatory journals. When acting independently, predatory editing agencies will often reach out to individual academicians to advertise their services. Like predatory journals, these agencies typically advertise high-quality or respectable services but have unethical standards and insufficient qualifications.

Alternatively, these entities sometimes directly partner with predatory journals. With this mutually beneficial relationship, the predatory journal will typically require authors to pay for English language editing services from their partnered predatory editing firm before their manuscript can be published. Additionally, agencies that combine editing and brokering services may pay journal editors to accept manuscripts represented by the agency. A first-hand example of this was provided in the blog Retraction Watch, in which Richard Holt (editor-in-chief of the journal Diabetic Medicine) was approached by a predatory editing agency offering to pay Holt to “…utilize his/her position to help us publish our manuscripts quickly and successfully.”

Disputable editing requests from respected journals

This practice enters a liminal space of uncertain intentions and tricky situations. More and more often, completely credible and respected journals have begun partnering with third-party editing agencies, typically ones that are also credible and respected. This practice is completely acceptable, as many manuscripts truly do have issues with English language quality; by partnering with a specific agency, journals often can offer authors discounts on legitimate editing services— no problems so far.

However, things become more complicated when the English language quality of the manuscript is already at an acceptable level but the journal still requests further editing. It’s currently unclear whether a kickback is typically sent to the journal for each manuscript they send to their partnered agency, which would potentially explain why many papers receive unnecessary requests for language editing— and would further complicate the ethical ambiguity of this situation.

My experiences with this practice are anecdotal, but other scientific editors and authors have noticed similar practices. Manuscripts that I’ve already edited have been returned to the author with a request for English language editing. Manuscripts have also been sent to me following a journal’s request for English language editing, but when I start to work on the project, I’ll find that the language is generally already sufficient for publication. I’ve even seen a managing editor request for a paper to undergo English language editing even though the peer reviewers have complimented the quality of the writing!

These practices don’t meet the criteria of being predatory, so I consider these to be disputable publishing practices. These disputable practices often are requested by the journal editor (as opposed to the peer reviewers) in the decision letter for a manuscript that’s been conditionally accepted or has received a request for major or minor revisions. Additionally, the editors sometimes require authors to submit a Certificate of Editing before the journal will reconsider their manuscript for publication.

Red flags for predatory editing practices

Of course, many editing services are completely ethical and can substantially improve the quality of a manuscript! Keep an eye out for the following warning signs of potentially unethical or suspicious practices while choosing an editorial agency:

  • Promises to get your research published, especially within a certain timeframe.
  • Lacks transparency for terms and fees.
  • Offers different pricing levels depending on the target journal.
  • Violates Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) and ethical publishing guidelines. (A notable example of this is ghostwriting! Ghostwriting is considered to be an unethical scholarly practice, so we suggest against working with any agency that offers this service.)
  • Lists journal partnerships on their website but are not reciprocally mentioned on the partner journal’s corresponding website.
  • Includes a false or illegitimate address as their location/headquarters.
  • Has poor webpage quality, especially one with grammatical flaws. (Note: many predatory agencies have begun updating their websites with advanced software and features, so this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule!)
  • Reaches out to you via an email solicitation, especially one with poor grammar or incorrect information about you (e.g., an incorrect field of study or name spelled wrong).

How Predatory Journal Citations Affect Legitimate Medical Publications and the Phenomenon of Citation Contamination

As predatory publishing has become increasingly common throughout the medical publication landscape, knowledge about these practices have increased in turn. Though a majority of researchers are now aware of the threat that predatory publishers pose, this education typically focuses on how researchers can avoid publishing their own research in predatory journals. There’s another threat from predatory publishing that isn’t talked about nearly as often: the complicated ethics and acceptability of citing a paper published in a predatory journal. Here, we’ll evaluate the two primary perspectives on this issue and explore the related phenomenon of citation contamination.

Defining the Problem

One of the primary hallmarks (and dangers) of predatory journals is their insufficient peer review process. To reduce costs and advertise short manuscript decision times, predatory journals will often send manuscripts to unqualified or biased peer reviewers, or they may not send them for peer review at all. As a result, manuscripts published in predatory journals do not undergo the peer review standards that are fundamentally expected within published medical literature.

Research that’s published in a predatory journal isn’t necessarily flawed; many of these articles would have been accepted by legitimate medical journals. However, the fact remains that paper hasn’t undergone the extent of peer review that’s deemed sufficient by the medical community. This creates a dilemma: is it acceptable to cite these sources?

Perspectives on the Issue

Some academicians argue that individual papers with scientific merit should still be citable. Common discussion points in favor of permitting citations of articles in predatory journals include:

  • Individual basis for evaluation. Across the board, experts agree that authors must be much more careful about citing research from predatory journals than legitimate ones. Informal forum conversations between academicians typically support citation after a thorough evaluation of the individual paper’s methods, results, and potential errors.
  • Leeway for publications in the ‘gray zone’ of predatory journalsThis increasingly common term describes journals that display some predatory qualities but are not wholly dismissed by the scientific community. Discussing citations for papers in these journals creates a whole new layer of confusion, as the overall community doesn’t yet agree whether these journals should be avoided at all. In these cases, individual evaluation remains central to the discussion.

In contrast, some academicians take a hard-and-fast approach barring citation to any predatory journals. Supporting arguments for this perspective include:

  • Refusal to support predatory venues. Citations are a primary way by which a journal can continue functioning. By refusing to cite research published in predatory journals by principle, authors can avoid supporting the mechanisms that allow these journals to exist at all.
  • Lack of peer review is fundamentally unacceptable. Regardless of how an author perceives the quality of an individual paper, the fact that it did not undergo peer review from multiple qualified experts means that the paper has not met the community standard for evaluation to determine its quality. Thus, articles in predatory journals must be avoided, regardless of a paper’s individual merit.

Understanding Citation Contamination

Discussions about citing articles published in a predatory journal cannot be separated from the overarching concept of citation contamination. This phenomenon, also called citation pollution, describes the degree to which papers from predatory journals have been cited in legitimate scientific literature, thereby contaminating overall medical knowledge. This can also include citation networks, or informal agreements between authors or editors to cite one another’s papers regardless of whether the citation is scientifically necessary or justifiable, and excessive self-citation practices. There are ongoing debates regarding the extent and severity of the overall medical literature’s contamination.

Across 250 papers published in predatory journals, Björk et. al (2020) found an average of only 2.6 citations per article (compared to an average of 18 citations for peer-reviewed publications in legitimate journals). Similarly, in a small, independent research project, Anderson (2019) identified seven journals with verifiably predatory practices and found these journals had, overarchingly, relatively few citations.

However, Rice et. al (2021) explicitly disagree with the conclusion that predatory journal articles have minimal effects on the overall literature. The authors state that predatory articles distract readers from legitimate research through location bias and that predatory research can pose a significant danger to patients by influencing physicians’ decision-making, especially when articles from predatory publishers are included in systematic reviews.

Key Takeaway: Best Practices for Citations

For the time being, the acceptability of citing a study published in a predatory publisher is unclear. As such, it’s generally better to avoid the problem entirely by not using or citing research from predatory journals in your paper. Overarchingly, industry shifts are needed to counteract the problem, and citation evaluation strategies, such as the proposed HYDRA citation review workflow, should be explored as a standardized practice during manuscript evaluation.