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.

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.