The rise and rise of predatory journals and conferences

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Tracey Elliott, Ph.D. Dr. Elliott is the Project Director at InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), currently overseeing Combatting Predatory Academic Journals and Conferences.


Predatory academic journals and, even more so, predatory conferences have been given surprisingly little attention in academic circles, despite their rapid growth and sophistication in recent years.  Juxtaposed with the pervasive “publish or perish” research assessment culture, where quantity trumps quality, the research community risks sleepwalking into a perfect storm.  Predatory academic practices are one manifestation of a surge in online scams and deceit that are deluging many sectors, fuelled further by changes in (post-) pandemic lifestyles, but their impact on the knowledge economy, research enterprise, and public policy is potentially profound. 

The InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) – the global network of over 140 academies of science, engineering and medicine – is leading an international project “Combatting predatory journals and conferences” which seeks to better understand the growing menace of these practices, gauge their extent and impact, what drives them and what actions are required to curb them.  With the number of predatory journals now estimated to be at least 14,500 (Cabells) and predatory conferences believed to outnumber legitimate ones (THES), this project is imperative and our recent survey of researchers all over the world is illuminating.

Conducted in November-December 2020, the survey gives concerning insight into the extent and impact of predatory practices across the world.  Based on the 1800+ respondents, two headlines are particularly striking:

1. Over 80% of respondents perceived predatory practices to be a serious problem or on the rise in their country.
2. At least a quarter of respondents had either published in a predatory journal, participated in a predatory conference, or did not know if they had.  Reasons cited for this included a lack of awareness of such scams and encouragement by their peers. Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the use of predatory journals and conferences is embedded, or at least tolerated, in some institutions/networks.

Contrary to some studies citing that early career researchers are especially vulnerable, we found no correlation between a researcher’s career stage, or their discipline, with their likelihood to publish in a predatory journal or participate in a predatory conference.  However, there is a small correlation with the economic status of the country in which they work, with those in lower- and middle-income countries more likely to participate or publish than those in high-income countries. If left unchecked, the research gap between higher- and lower-income countries risks widening. Putting definitive guidance on predatory journals behind paywalls, whilst sometimes unavoidable, risks exacerbating this further.

A challenge for such essential services, whether paywalled or not, is how to distinguish fraudulent, deceitful journals from low quality but well-intentioned and legitimate ones. Whilst bringing the clarity researchers crave, journal safelists and watchlists force an in or out binary decision that is increasingly inadequate and unfair.  In reality, there is a spectrum of fast-evolving and highly nuanced publishing practices that makes Cabell’s and its counterparts’ work very difficult. IAP is currently exploring a subset of Cabell’s-listed predatory journals using internet scraping and spidering techniques for data on predatory publishing.

Our project report, anticipated by early 2022, will include recommendations for all key stakeholder communities – researchers, research funders, publishers, academies and universities, libraries, and indexing services. With IAP as a conduit to academies and research communities throughout the world, we will focus on awareness-raising, training, and mentoring resources, and mobilising governments, multilateral and intergovernmental organisations.

Industrial disease

It’s almost four years since Cabells launched its Predatory Reports database, but the battle to overcome predatory journals shows no signs of abating. As a result, Cabells is constantly developing new ways to support authors and their institutions in dealing with the problem, and this week Simon Linacre reports from the virtual SSP Annual Meeting on a new collaboration with Edifix from Inera, which helps identify articles and authors published in predatory journals.

A common retort heard or read on social media whenever there is a discussion on predatory journals can go something like this: “is there really any harm done?”, “some research is only good enough for those kind of journals,” or “everyone knows those journals are fake.” For the latter rejoinders, there is some justification for taking those perspectives, and if recent global events have taught us anything it is that we need a sense of proportion when dealing with scientific breakthroughs and analysis. But the former point really doesn’t hold water because, when you think it through, there is a good deal of harm done to a number of different stakeholders as a result of one article appearing in a predatory journal.

Predatory journals do researchers and their institutions a huge disservice by claiming to be a reputable outlet for publication. Legitimate journals provide valuable services to both promote and protect authors’ work, which simply doesn’t happen with predatory journals. Essentially, there are three key reasons why authors and their employers can suffer harm from publishing in the wrong journals:

  • Their work may be subject to sub-par peer review, or more likely no peer review at all. The peer review system isn’t perfect, but papers that undergo peer review are better for it. Researchers want to make sure they are publishing in a place that values their work and is willing to devote time and resources to improving it.
  • Versions of record could disappear. One of the advantages of publishing with a reputable journal is that they make commitments to preserve authors’ work. Opportunists looking to make a quick buck are not going to care if your paper is still available in five years – or even five weeks.
  • Published articles will be hard to find. Some predatory journals advertise that they are included in well-known databases like Web of Science, Scopus, or Cabells when they are not. Predatory journals invest nothing in SEO or work to include journals in research databases, so research won’t be easily discoverable.

So, it is in the interests of authors, universities, societies, funders and society itself that research is not lost to predatory publishing activities. Checking against a database such as Predatory Reports will help those stakeholders, but to augment their capabilities Cabells is collaborating with Atypon’s Inera division, and specifically its Edifix product to help prevent ‘citation contamination’. This is where illegitimate articles published in predatory journals find their way into the research bloodstream by being referenced by legitimate journals. With Edifix, users can now vet bibliographic reference lists for citations to predatory journals, as identified by Predatory Reports.

This new Edifix web service with the automated Cabells Reference Checking Tool was showcased at SSP’s Annual Meeting (meeting registration required) this week (and previewed in an SSP sponsored session in October 2020) with a host of other new innovations, collaborations and product developments from the scholarly communications industry. While it would have been great to see old friends and colleagues in person at the event, the virtual format enabled much wider, international engagement which contributed to an undoubtedly successful event.