Beware the known unknowns

Following a recent study showing an alarming lack of knowledge and understanding of predatory journals in China, Simon Linacre looks at the potential impact of the world’s biggest producer of research succumbing to the threat of deceptive publications.

That China has achieved something remarkable in its continued growth in research publications is surely one of the most important developments in modern research and scholarly communications. It passed the US in 2018 and all indications suggest it has increased its lead since then, propelled by huge investment in research by the Chinese government.

Cabells sought to reflect on this success when it published the list of top Chinese-language management journals in December 2020 following a collaboration with AMBA. However, research on that project also highlighted the significant risk for Chinese scholars in publishing in the wrong journals. Until last year, academics tended to be pushed towards – and recognised for – publishing in Impact Factor journals. This policy has, however, now changed, with more of a focus on Chinese-language journals as well as other international titles. The concern then arises, that some scholars may be lured into publishing in predatory journals with the shift in policy.

This thought has been fortified by the publication of the article ‘Chinese PhD Students’ Perceptions of Predatory Journals’ (2021) by Jiayun Wang, Jie Xu and DIanyou Chen in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing. Their study looks at the attitudes of over 300 Chinese doctoral students towards predatory journals, making three key findings:

  1. In STEM subjects, students regularly confused predatory journals with Open Access (OA) journals
  2. In Humanities and Social Science subjects, students tended to only identify predatory journals in the Chinese language, but not in English
  3. While the majority of respondents said they had no intention of submitting to predatory journals (mainly due to the potential harm it could do to their reputation), the few that would do so cited quick publication times and easy acceptance as motivating factors.

While there are limitations to the Wang et al article due to its relatively small sample and restricted scope, it is clear there is at least the potential for widespread use and abuse of the predatory publishing model in China, in parallel to what has been observed to a greater or lesser degree around the rest of the world. In conclusion, the authors state:

“PhD candidates in China generally have insufficient knowledge about predatory journals, and also generally disapprove of publishing in them.” (2021, pp. 102)

This lack of knowledge is referred to time and time again in articles about predatory publishing, of which there is now a small library to choose from. While there is considerable debate on how to define predatory journals, how to identify them and even score them, there is a gap where a better understanding of how to prevent publication in them can be engendered, particularly in the PhD and early career scholar (ECR) communities. Some studies on this aspect of predatory publishing would be very welcome indeed.