Recently, while conducting investigations of suspected predatory journals, our team came across a lively candidate. At first, as is often the case, the journal in question seemed to look the part of a legitimate publication. However, after taking a closer look and reading through one of the journal’s articles (“Structural and functional brain differences in key opinion journal leaders“) it became clear that all was not as it seemed.
With a submission date of August 22, 2018, and a publication date November 13, 2018, the timeline suggests that some sort of peer review of this article may have been carried out. A closer examination of the content makes it evident that little to no peer review actually took place. The first tip-off was the double-take inducing line in the “Material and methods” section, “To avoid gender bias, we recruited only males.” Wait, what? That’s not how that works.
It soon became clear to our team that even a rudimentary peer review process (or perhaps two minutes on Google) would have led to this article’s immediate rejection. While predatory journals are no laughing matter, especially when it comes to medical research in the time of a worldwide pandemic, it is hard not to get a chuckle from some of the “easter eggs” found within articles intended to expose predatory journals. Some of our favorites from this article:
Frasier Crane, a listed author, is the name of the psychiatrist from the popular sitcoms Cheers and Frasier
Another author, Alfred Bellow, is the name of the NASA psychiatrist from the TV show I Dream of Jeannie
Marvin Monroe is the counselor from The Simpsons
Katrina Cornwell is a therapist turned Starfleet officer on Star Trek: Discovery
Faber University is the name of the school in Animal House (Faber College in the film)
Orbison University, which also doesn’t exist, is likely a tribute to the late, great musician Roy Orbison
And, perhaps our favorite find and one we almost missed:
In the “Acknowledgments” section the authors thank “Prof Joseph Davola for his advice and assistance.” This is quite likely an homage to the Seinfeld character “Crazy Joe Davola.”
Though our team had a few laughs with this investigation, they were not long-lived as this is yet another illustration of the thousands (Predatory Reports currently lists well over 13,000 titles) of journals such as this one in operation. Outlets that publish almost (or literally) anything, usually for a fee, with no peer review or other oversight in place and with no consideration of the detrimental effect it may have on science and research.
A more nuanced issue that deceptive publications create involves citations. If this was legitimate research, the included citations would not ‘count’ or be picked up anywhere since this journal is not indexed in any citation databases. Furthermore, any citation in a predatory journal that cites a legitimate journal is ‘wasted’ as the legitimate journal cannot count or use that citation appropriately as a foundation for its legitimacy. However, these citations could be counted via Google Scholar, although (thankfully) this journal has zero. Citation ‘leakage’ can also occur, where a legitimate journal’s articles cite predatory journals, effectively ‘leaking’ those citations out of the illegitimate scholarly publishing sphere into legitimate areas. These practices can have the effect of skewing citation metrics which are measures often relied upon (sometimes exclusively, often too heavily) to gauge the legitimacy and impact of academic journals.
When all is said and done, as this “study” concludes, “the importance of carefully selecting journals when considering the submission of manuscripts,” cannot be overstated. While there is some debate around the use of “sting” articles such as this one to expose predatory publications, not having them exposed at all is far more dangerous.
In his latest post, Simon Linacre looks at some new stats collated from the Cabells Predatory Reports database that should help inform and educate researchers, better equipping them to evade the clutches of predatory journals.
In recent weeks Cabells has been delighted to work with both The Economist and Nature Index to highlight some of the major issues for scholarly communication that predatory publishing practices represent. As part of the research for both pieces, a number of facts have been uncovered that not only help us understand the issues inherent in this malpractice much better, but should also point researchers away from some of the sadly typical behaviors we have come to expect.
So, for your perusing pleasure, here are Cabells’ Top 7 Palpable Points about Predatory Publishing Practices:
There are now 13,500 predatory journals listed in the Predatory Reports database, which is currently growing by approximately 2,000 journals a year
Over 4,300 journals claim to publish articles in the medical field (this includes multidisciplinary journals) – that’s a third of the journals in Predatory Reports. By discipline, medical and biological sciences have many more predatory journals than other disciplines
Almost 700 journals in Predatory Reports start with ‘British’ (5.2%), while just 50 do on the Journalytics database (0.4%). Predatory journals often call themselves American, British or European to appear well established and legitimate, when in reality relatively few good quality journals have countries or regions in their titles
There are over 5,300 journals listed in Predatory Reports with an ISSN (40%), although many of these are copied, faked, or simply made up. Having an ISSN is not a guarantee of legitimacy for journals
Around 41% of Predatory Reports journals are based in the US, purport to be from the US, or are suspected of being from the US, based on information on journal websites and Cabells’ investigations. This is the highest count for any country, but only a fraction will really have their base in North America
The average predatory journal publishes about 50 articles a year according to recent research from Bo-Christer Björk of the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, less than half the output of a legitimate title. Furthermore, around 60% of papers in such journals receive no future citations, compared with 10% of those in reliable ones
Finally, it is worth noting that while we are in the throes of the Coronavirus pandemic, there are 41 journals listed on in Predatory Reports (0.3%) specifically focused on epidemiology and another 35 on virology (0.6% in total). There could be further growth over the next 12 months, so researchers in these areas should be particularly careful now about where they submit their papers.
One of the most common questions Cabells is asked about its Predatory Reports database of journals is whether it has ever “changed its mind” about listing a journal. As Simon Linacre reports, it is less a question of changing the outcome of a decision, but more of a leopard changing its spots.
This week saw the annual release of Journal Impact Factors from Clarivate Analytics, and along with it the rather less august list of journals whose Impact Factors have been suppressed in Web of Science. This year there were 33 journals suspended, all of which for “anomalous citation patterns found in the 2019 citation data” which pertained to high levels of self-citation. Such a result is the worst nightmare for a publisher, as while they can be due to gaming citation levels, they can also sometimes reflect the niche nature of a subject area, or other anomalies about a journal.
Sometimes the decision can be changed, although it is often a year or two before the data can prove a journal has changed its ways. Similarly, Cabells offers a review process for every journal it lists in its Predatory Reports database, and when I arrived at the company in 2018, like many people one of the first things I asked was: has Cabells ever had a successful review to delist a journal?
Open for debate
The answer is yes, but the details of those cases are quite instructive as to why journals are included on the database in the first place, and perhaps more importantly whey they are not. Firstly, however, some context. It is three years since the Predatory Reports database was first launched, and in that time almost 13,500 journals have been included. Each journal has a link next to the violations on its report for anyone associated with that journal to view the policy and appeal the decision:
This policy clearly states:
The Cabells Review Board will consider Predatory Journal appeals with a frequency of one appeal request per year, per journal. Publications in Predatory Reports, those with unacceptable practices, are encouraged to amend their procedures to comply with accepted industry standards.
Since 2017, there have been just 20 appeals against decisions to list journals in Predatory Reports (0.15% of all listed journals), and only three have been successful (0.02%). In the first case (Journal A), the journal’s peer review processes were checked and it was determined that some peer reviews were being completed, albeit very lightly. In addition, Cabells’ investigators found a previous example of dual publication. However, following the listing, the journal dealt with the problems and retracted the article it had published as it seemed the author had submitted two identical articles simultaneously. This in turn led to Cabells revising its evaluations so that particular violation does not penalize journals for something where an author was to blame.
In the second review (Journal B), Cabells evaluated the journal’s peer review process and found that it was also not completing full peer reviews and had a number of other issues. It displayed metrics in a misleading way, lacked editorial policies on its website and did not have a process for plagiarism screening. After its listing in PR, the journal’s publisher fixed the misleading elements on its website and demonstrated improvements to its editorial processes. In this second case, it was clear that the journal’s practices were misleading and deceptive, but they chose to change and improve their practices.”
Finally, a third journal (Journal C) has just had a successful appeal completed. In this case, there were several problems that the journal was able to correct by being more transparent on its website. It added or cleared up confusion about the necessary policies and made information about its author fees available. Cabells was also able to evaluate its peer review process after it submitted peer review notes on a few articles and it was evident the journal editor was managing a good quality peer review, hence it has now been removed from the Predatory Reports database (it should be noted that, as with the other two successful appeals, journals removed from Predatory Reports are not then automatically included in the Cabells Journalytics database).
Cabells’ takeaway from all of these successful reviews was they were indeed successful – they showed that the original identification was correct, and they enabled improvements that identified them as better, and certainly non-predatory, journals. They also fed into the continuing improvement Cabells seeks in refining its Predatory Reports criteria, with a further update due to be published later this summer.
There are also things to learn from unsuccessful reviews. In one case a publisher appealed a number of its journals that were included on Predatory Reports. However, their appeal only highlighted how bad the journals actually were. Indeed, an in-depth review of each journal not only uncovered new violations that were subsequently added to the journals, but also led to the addition of a brand new violation that is to be included in the upcoming revision of the Predatory Reports criteria.
Today’s post was written by Simon Linacre, Director of International Marketing and Development at Cabells, and Irfan Syed, Senior Writer and Editor at Editage Insights.
How do you identify a predatory journal? Easy, look up your spam folder – say seasoned researchers.
Actually, this ‘initial indicator’ is often the key to identifying a predatory journal. Predatory publishers send researchers frequent emails soliciting manuscripts and promising acceptance – messages that, thanks to the email service provider’s parameters, usually go straight to junk mail. Some cleverly disguised ones do make it to the inbox though, and sometimes, unwary researchers click one of these mails, unleashing the predator and an all-too-familiar sequence of events: Researcher sends manuscript. Receives quick acceptance often without a peer review. Signs off copyright. Receives a staggeringly large invoice. Is unable to pay. Asks to withdraw. Receives equally heavy withdrawal invoice – and threats. The cycle continues, the publisher getting incrementally coercive, the researcher increasingly frustrated.
What makes a predator
The term predatory journal was coined by Jeffrey Beall, former Scholarly Initiatives Librarian at the University of Denver, Colorado, in 2010, when he launched his eponymous list (now archived) of fake scientific journals, with an aim to educate the scientific community. The term was supposed to mirror the guile of carnivores in the wild: targeting the weak, launching a surprise ambush, and effecting a merciless finish.
A more academic definition might be: “Entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are 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.” In other words, journals that put commerce before science.
Dubious scientific journals have existed since the 1980s. They were born to lend an easy passage out of the arduous road to acceptance laid by top-rung journals. Recently, they have received a boost from the rise of the open access (OA) movement, which seeks to shift the balance of power towards the researcher. However, with revenues now accruing from the author side, new researchers pressured by a ‘publish or perish’ culture have proved easy targets for predatory publishers that exploit the OA publishing model.
The new face of predation
Today, academia faces another threat, a new predator in scientific communications – predatory author services. The dangers of using predatory author services can be just as acute as those of predatory journals. Authors who pay for such services are risking the abuse of any funding they have received by in turn funding potentially criminal activity. Such predatory author services may not be equipped to make quality edits to an author’s paper – incorrect edits, changes in the author’s intended meaning, and unidentified errors may adversely affect the author’s manuscript. Many authors choose such services to improve their articles and increase their chances of acceptance in high-quality journals, but they are very likely to be disappointed in light of the quality of services they receive.
So, the issue of predatory author services is just as problematic as it is with predatory journals. Despite the efforts of industry bodies such as COPE, it seems there are new players entering the market and even advertising on social media platforms such as Facebook. More worryingly, examples of these predatory services seem to include a veneer of sophistication hitherto not seen before, including well-designed websites, live online chat features, and direct calling.
Spotting a predatory author service
The good news is that these services bear many of the traits of predatory journals, and can be identified with a little background research. Here are some tips on how to separate predatory author services from professional operations such as Cactus’ Editage:
Check the English: For a legitimate journal to have spelling or grammar errors on its site or published articles would be a heinous crime, but this should go double for an author services provider. So, beyond the slick graphics and smiling model faces, check if everything is as it should appear by a thorough check of the English
Click the links: Dead links, links that loop back to the homepage, or links that don’t match the text should further raise your suspicion
Research the partnerships: If a provider genuinely works with Web of Science, Scopus, and The Lancet, there should be evidence of that rather mere logos copied and pasted onto the homepage. Search online for these publicized partnerships to know if they are genuine
Look up the provenance: Many predatory operators leave no address at all. Some though will choose to include a fake address (which turns out to be a long-abandoned dry-cleaning store on a deserted high street or a legitimate address that’s also home to 1,847 other registered companies). A quick search on Google Maps will show whether the address does map
Run if you spot a ghost: The surest giveaway of a predatory author service is the offering of ghostwriting as a service. Ghost authorship, the act of someone else authoring your entire manuscript, is a violation of research integrity. And when even ghostwriting doesn’t suffice, these services are happy to plagiarize another author’s work and pass it off as the client’s own
Ask your peers: Before deciding to use a service, double-check any testimonials on the provider’s homepage or ask around in your peer network.
Taking on the predator – collectively and individually
The scientific predator will no doubt continue to evolve, getting more sophisticated with time. Ultimately, all anyone can do to eradicate predatory author services or journals is to increase awareness among authors and provide resources to help them identify such predators. Cabells, Cactus, and many other industry players continually work to provide this guidance, but a good deal of the burden of responsibility has to be shared by academic researchers themselves. As the Romans might have said, caveat scriptor – author beware!
For any authoring service ad or mail you come across, look it up. Search on the net, ask your fellow researchers, pose a query in a researcher forum, go through recommended journal indices of quality and predatory publications such as those of Cabells. If it’s genuine, it will show up in several searches – and you will live to publish another day.
One of the consequences of the all-consuming global interest in the coronavirus pandemic is that it has catapulted science and scientists right onto the front pages and into the public’s range of vision. For the most part, this should be a good thing, as there quite rightly has to be a respect and focus on what the facts say about one of the most widespread viruses there has ever been. However, there have been some moments where science itself has been undermined by some of the rather complex structures that support it. And like it or not, scholarly communication is one of them.
Let’s take the perspective of, say, a mother who is worried about the safety of her kids when they go back to school. Understandably, she starts to look online and in the media for what the science says, as many governments have sought to quell fears people have by saying they are ‘following the science’. But once online, they are faced with a tangled forest of articles, journals, jargon, paywalls and small print, with the media seemingly supporting contradictory statements depending on the newspaper or website you read. For example, this week’s UK newspapers have led on how the reduction of social distancing from 2m to 1m can double the infection rate, or be many times better than having no social distancing – both factually accurate and from the same peer reviewed study in The Lancet.
Another area that has seen a good deal of coverage has been preprints, and how they can speed up the dissemination of science… or have the capability of disseminating false data and findings due to lack of peer review, again depending on where you cast your eye. The concerns represented by media bias, the complexity of information and lack of peer review all combine into one huge problem that could be coming down the line very soon, and that is the prospect of predatory journals publishing erroneous, untested information as research in one of the thousands of predatory journals currently active.
Around a third of journals on both the Cabells Journal Whitelist and Blacklist focus on health, with predatory journals in subjects such as maths and physics number more than legitimate journals
Geography plays a significant role, with many more English language predatory journals based in India and Nigeria than reliable ones
The average output of a predatory journal is 50 articles a year, although 60% of these will never be cited (compared to 10% for legitimate journals)
Despite the like of peer review or any of the usual publishing checks, an estimated 250,000 articles each year are cited in other journals
Most common severe behaviors (which are liable to lead to inclusion in the Blacklist) are articles missing from issues or archives, lack of editor or editorial board on the website, and journals claiming misleading metrics or inclusion in well-known indexes.
Understandably, The Economist makes the link between so much fake or unchecked science being published and the current coronavirus threat, concluding: “Cabells’ guidelines will only start to catch dodgy studies on COVID-19 once they appear in predatory journals. But the fact that so many “scholars” use such outlets means that working papers on the disease should face extra-thorough scrutiny.” We have been warned.
Recent studies have shown that academics can have a hard time identifying some predatory journals, especially if they come from high-income countries or medical faculties. Simon Linacre argues that this is not surprising given they are often the primary target of predatory publishers, but a forthcoming product from Cabells could help them.
A quick search of PubMed for predatory journals will throw up hundreds of results – over the last year I would estimate there are on average one or two papers published each week on the site (and you can sign up for email alerts on this and other scholarly communication issues at the estimable Biomed News site). The papers tend to fall into two categories – editorial or thought pieces on the blight of predatory journals in a given scientific discipline, or original research on the phenomenon. While the former are necessary to raise the profile of the problem among researchers, they do little to advance the understanding of such journals.
The latter, however, can provide illuminating details about how predatory journals have developed, and in so doing offer lessons in how to combat them. Two such articles were published last week in the field of medicine. In the first paper ‘Awareness of predatory publishing’, authors Panjikaran and Mathew surveyed over 100 authors who had published articles in predatory journals. While a majority of authors (58%) were ignorant of such journals, of those who said they recognized them nearly half from high-income countries (HICs) failed a recognition test, while nearly a quarter from low-income to middle-income countries (LMICs) also failed. The result, therefore, was a worrying lack of understanding of predatory journals among authors who had already published in them.
The second article was entitled ‘Faculty knowledge and attitudes regarding predatory open access journals: a needs assessment study’ and authored by Swanberg, Thielen and Bulgarelli. In it, they surveyed both regular and medical faculty members of a university to ascertain if they understood what was meant by predatory publishing. Almost a quarter (23%) said they had not heard of the term previously, but of those that had 87% said there confident of being able to assess journal quality. However, when they were tested by being presented with journals in their own fields, only 60% could, with scores even lower for medical faculty.
Both papers call for greater education and awareness programs to support academics in dealing with predatory journals, and it is here that Cabells can offer some good news. Later this year Cabells intends to launch a new medical journal product that identifies good quality journals in the vast medical field. Alongside our current products covering most other subject disciplines, the new medical product will enable academics, university administrators, librarians, tenure committees and research managers to validate research sources and publication outputs of faculty members. They will also still be backed up, of course, by the Cabells Journal Blacklist which now numbers over 13,200 predatory, deceptive or illegitimate journals. Indeed, in the paper by Swanberg et al the researchers ask faculty members themselves what support they would like to see from their institution, and the number one answer was a “checklist to help assess journal quality.” This is exactly the kind of feedback Cabells have received over the years that has driven us to develop the new product for medical journals, and hopefully, it will help support good publishing decisions in the future alongside our other products.
PS: A kind request – Cabells is undertaking a review of the current branding for ‘The Journal Whitelist’ and ‘The Journal Blacklist’. As part of this process, we’d like to gather feedback from the research community to understand how you view these products, and which of the proposed brand names you prefer.
Our short survey should take no more than ten minutes to complete, and can be taken here.
As thanks for your time, you’ll have the option to enter into a draw to win one of four Amazon gift vouchers worth $25 (or your local equivalent). More information is available in the survey.
Many thanks in advance for your valuable feedback!
Predatory publishing generally refers to the systematic for-profit publication of purportedly scholarly content (in journals and articles, monographs, books, or conference proceedings) in a deceptive or fraudulent way and without any regard for quality assurance. Here, ‘for-profit’ refers to profit generation per se… Predatory publishers may cheat authors (and their funders and institutions) through charging publishing-related fees without providing the expected or industry standard services.
The most professional and exact list of such journals, the Journal Blacklist, is offered by Cabells and was launched in 2017 and uses a large number of criteria rather than a specific definition to identify predatory or illegitimate journals. Recently, a coalition of publishers, scholars and funders has provided the following definition that was published in the journal Nature: “Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are 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.”
In other words, profit (mostly illegal) is one of the signs of predation. There are even cases of prosecutions of predators, such as the findings in the case of the US Federal Trade Commission against the OMICS Group: “These publishing companies lied about their academic journals and took millions of dollars from aspiring researchers and writers.”
The illustration in the Nature article depicts a wolf (i.e. a predator) in sheep’s clothing, rendered as an academic journal. But is a researcher always the obedient prey of a predator? Is he or she always a sheep? The vast majority of authors likely fall victim to predatory outfits because of their own incompetence or lack of discrimination. But not all authors are sheep.
There is a group of authors who, from time to time, consciously manipulate data or submit dubious results. Grimes, Bauch, and Ioannidis call them unethical authors.
Among these unethical authors are ‘parasite authors’ who deliberately seek symbiosis with predatory journals.
Such parasites should be considered authors who, when choosing a journal, clearly understand that this journal does not intentionally use the best editorial and publication practices, does not perform the declared review procedure, and, at the same time, for a fee, it is guaranteed to quickly legitimize the text of dubious scientific content by publishing it. Predatory journals and parasite authors co-exist and co-operate by tacit agreement. The journal enjoys the desired profit, and the author has the article he needs for his/her career progression (according to Tove Faber Frandsen, this is the main motive of unethical authors) or other rewards.
Predatory journals indexed by Web of Science Core Collection or Scopus are especially attractive to parasite authors.
There are a number of questions that arise when the articles published in these three journals are analyzed. Firstly, it is interesting to note how the number of articles in the three journals has changed since the indexing of journals in Scopus (Figure 1). The publications of articles in journals indexed by Scopus is often a prerequisite for obtaining an academic degree, academic rank, or contracts in many countries.
Secondly, perhaps not all authors of these 21,926 articles were victims (Figure 2). For example, can we call Author A, who published 80 articles in two BEIESP journals during a year, a victim? What could have caused such hypertrophied publishing activity? Perhaps there are worthwhile incentives for this?
Secondly, in Vietnam the Ministry of Education and Training paid USD 259,000 to 1,718 authors of scientific articles published in international journals in 2018. The University of Economics in Ho Chi Minh City rewards authors into the amount of USD 8,650 for any article published.
It would be interesting to know if the 81 Vietnamese authors who published their articles in the 2019 IJEAT were rewarded?
Thirdly, in these journals, most of the articles were published by authors from India, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc. (Figure 3). Authors from several universities have shown an abnormally high commitment to these journals (Figure 4). Researchers from K L Deemed to be University (India) have published nearly 1,000 articles in three OMICS journals in 2019 alone, and those from Bharath Institute of Higher Education and Research (India) published more than 800 articles. It is difficult to assume that this remained unnoticed by the universities themselves. And was the lack of response from the university management acceptable?
Finally, the success of authors and journals can depend largely on the article citation. When it comes to parasite authors and predatory journals, they can “collaborate fruitfully” even with one publisher.
Such actions lead to abnormal results. For example, Article A published in IJEAT in 2019 managed to get 201 citations from “partner journals” (Figure 5а). Article B received 193 citations (Figure 5b); Article С obtained 85 citations (Figure 5с).
Now, imagine an army of researchers from different countries who have submitted their papers to such journals. They were not confused by either the review process or the payment system or anything else. And, as Grimes, Bauch, and Ioannidis rightly point out, “The authors may use lack of awareness to excuse their actions, but indeed, they search for a low‐barrier way to getting published…”
Therefore, it is critical to find effective mechanisms that will force scientists to accept and apply best publishing practices and ethical principles of scientific publications, and create an environment in which the symbiosis of predatory journals and unethical authors will be impossible.
What is the black market in predatory publishing worth each year? No satisfactory estimate has yet been produced, so Simon Linacre has decided to grab the back of an envelope and an old biro to try to make an educated guess.
Firstly, all of us at Cabells would like to wish everyone well during this unusual and difficult time. We are thinking a great deal about our customers, users, publishers and researchers who must try and maintain their important work during the coronavirus pandemic. Whether you are in lockdown, self-isolating, or are more or less free of restrictions, please be assured that Cabells’ services are still available for your research needs, and if there are any problems with access, please do not hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Possibly as a result of spending too much holed up at home, a friend of mine in scholarly communications asked me last week how much predatory publishers earned each year. I confess that I was a little stumped at first. Despite the fact that Cabells has created the world’s most comprehensive database of predatory titles in its Journal Blacklist, it does not collate information on article processing charges (APCs), and even if it did it would not bear any relation to what was actually paid, as often APCs are discounted or waived. Indeed, sometimes authors are even charged a withdrawal fee for the predatory journal to NOT publish their article.
So, where do you start trying to estimate a figure? Well, firstly you can try reviewing the literature, but this brings its own risks. The first article I found estimated it to be in the billions of dollars, which immediately failed the smell test. After looking at the articles it had cited, it became clear that an error had been made – the annual value of all APCs is estimated to be in the billions, so the figure for predatory journals is likely to be a lot less.
The second figure was in an article by Greco (2016) which estimated predatory journals to be earning around $75m a year, which seemed more reasonable. But is there any way to validate this? Well, recently the case was closed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on its judgement against Omics Group which it had fined $50.1m in April 2019 (Linacre, Bisaccio & Earle, 2019). After the judgement was passed, there were further checks on the judgement to ensure the FTC had been fair and equitable in its dealings, and these were all validated. This included the $50m fine and the way it was worked out… which means you could use these calculations and extrapolate them out to all of the journals included in the Cabells Journal Blacklist.
And no, this is not mathematically valid, and nor is it any guarantee of getting near a correct answer – it is just one way of providing an estimate so that we can get a handle on the size of the problem.
So, what the back of my dog-eared envelope shows is that:
The judgement against OMICS was for $ $50,130,811, which represented the revenues it had earned between August 25, 2011 and July 31, 2017 (2,167 days, or 5.94 years)
The judgement did not state how many journals Omics and its subsidiaries operated, but Cabells includes 776 Omics-related journals in its Journal Blacklist
For Omics, if you use this data that means each journal earns revenues of $10,876 per year
If we were to assume OMICS were a typical predatory publisher (and they are bigger and more professional than most predatory operators) and were to extrapolate that out to the whole Blacklist of 13,138 journals, that’s a value of $142.9m a year
I do think this is very much top side as many predatory publishers charge ultra-low APCs to attract authors, while some may have stopped functioning. However, on the flip side we are adding to the Blacklist all the time and new journals are being created daily. So, I think a reasonable estimate based on the FTC judgement and Cabells data is that the predatory journal market is probably worth between $75m and $100m a year. What the actual figure might be is, however, largely irrelevant. What is relevant is that millions of dollars of funders’ grants, charitable donations and state funding have been wasted on these outlets.
Greco, A. N. (2016). The impact of disruptive and sustaining digital technologies on scholarly journals. Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 48(1), 17–39. doi: 10.3138/jsp.48.1.17
Simon Linacre, Michael Bisaccio & Lacey Earle (2019). Publishing in an Environment of Predation: The Many Things You Really Wanted to Know, but Did Not Know How to Ask, Journal of Business-to-Business Marketing, 26:2, 217-228, DOI: 10.1080/1051712X.2019.1603423
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:
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):
# of Titles
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.
This week the Cabells Journal Blacklisthas hit 13,000 titles, and while the number itself is not that significant, its continued rate of growth shows that the problem of predatory publishing shows no sign of abating. In his latest post, Simon Linacre shares a case study of what a predatory journal looks like and why their continued growth should concern us all.
Firstly, a warning: this post will share a link to a journal that Cabells has identified as predatory in nature, and as such, you should take precautions before giving it a click. This is because there is evidence to show that some predatory journal websites, whether it is by accident or design, contain malware that can infect your computers and its networked systems. So, if you do click on it, please don’t share any information as it could infect your hardware.
Welcome to the dark world of predatory publishing.
Despite the risks, it is useful to look at a specific predatory journal to gain some insight into how they operate and what they contain. The example we are using is the International Journal of Science Technology & Management, which appears to be based in India and has been publishing several issues annually since 2012, and includes hundreds of articles freely accessible as pdfs. This particular journal has one of the highest numbers of breaches of our Blacklist criteria, some of which are included below to help explain why the journal is predatory:
Editors do not actually exist or are deceased. The journal does not name an Editor or Editors but has a huge list of names and affiliations, many of which do not actually exist or are listed without their knowledge.
The journal’s website does not have a clearly stated peer review policy. The journal states it is “refereed”, but there is no evidence this occurs.
Falsely claims indexing in well-known databases (especially SCOPUS, DOAJ, JCR, and Cabells). This is a key indicator of predatory journals, and can be easily checked – this particular journal claims it is indexed by Cabells (this is categorically untrue), listed by DOAJ (also false) and has an Impact Factor of 2.012 (most definitely incorrect).
The website does not identify a physical address for the publisher or gives a fake address. Sometimes an address will be given that is the same address as 8,459 other businesses, which is remarkable in that it turns out to be a small terraced house in suburban England. In this example, there is an address you can find after some searching, but the address is spelled incorrectly and the location in India is also home to dozens of other journals and conferences the publisher operates, but no offices.
The publisher or journal’s website seems too focused on the payment of fees. Many predatory publishers charge the going rate of $1,000+ to publish in them, but this journal ‘only’ charges $60 (plus $20 if you require a certificate). This may seem a bargain to some, but authors are being ripped off even at this low price.
There are many other problems with the journal, not least that the quality of articles published in it would embarrass any high school student, let alone an academic. However, while the desire and ease of publishing in such journals persists, Cabells will have to increase its Journal Blacklist by many more thousands to keep pace with demand.