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).