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.

No laughing matter

The latest meme to sweep Twitter in the last week has been a satirical look at typical journal articles. Simon Linacre introduces Cabells’ own take on the theme and reflects on the impact they can have on our shared conscience.

We all like memes, right? Those social media nuggets that we can all relate to and laugh at, a form of in-joke without having to be with a group of people, which under current circumstances has meant a kind of gold rush for this form of humor. Whether it is the boyfriend looking over his shoulder at another woman or the excerpt from the film Downfall with Hitler going berserk, the number of situations and news items that lend themselves to this form of parody is literally endless.

So, when the meme spotlight fell on our own corner of the scholarly publishing world, we couldn’t help but join in and adapt the scientific paper meme to predatory journals (see image). To be honest, it wasn’t too difficult to think of 12 journal titles that highlighted the problems predatory publishing causes, and a whole series of memes could easily be created to underscore the joke that is the predatory journal phenomenon.

It’s easy to spot the themes we chose to lampoon, although however much we become familiar with the predatory journal tropes, publications and new journals are emerging all the time, as the total number of journals listed in Cabells’ Predatory Reports hitting 14,500 this week testifies. Among the issues we put under the spotlight in the graphic are both the unethical and unaware authors publishing in predatory titles, how poor research or plagiarized content can easily be published, and some of the poor excuses those who end up publishing in dodgy journals have provided.

However, underneath the tomfoolery there is a serious point to be made. A recent op-ed in The Atlantic took the opportunity of highlighting not just the shared joy and geekiness of the scientific paper meme, but also the existential dread it spotlighted. As the article expertly points out, while academics recognize the hamster-in-a-wheel absurdity the meme represents, they cannot help but see themselves in the wheel, unable to stop running. For some, they will just shrug their shoulders and find the next piece of clickbait; for others, there is little consolation in the humor and plenty of angst to try and control to preserve their sanity.

When it comes to predatory journals, from a pure eyeballs perspective we can see that articles and social media posts about the often bizarre world of predatory publishing get the most traction, such as the fact that one predatory journal lists Yosemite Sam on the editorial board. And yet there is always a serious point behind these fun stories, which is that predatory journals can make an unholy mess of scientific research, causing millions of funding dollars to be wasted and allowing either junk or rank bad science to contaminate legitimate published research. This is the real punchline and it rings pretty hollowly sometimes.

Rewriting the scholarly* record books

Are predatory journals to academic publishing what PEDs are to Major League Baseball?

The 2021 Major League Baseball season is underway and for fans everywhere, the crack of the bat and pop of the mitt have come not a moment too soon. America’s ‘National Pastime’ is back and for at least a few weeks, players and fans for all 30 teams have reason to be optimistic (even if your team’s slugging first baseman is already out indefinitely with a partial meniscus tear…).

In baseball, what is known as the “Steroid Era” is thought to have run from the late ‘80s through the early 2000s. During this period, many players (some for certain, some suspected) used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) which resulted in an offensive explosion across baseball. As a result, homerun records revered by generations of fans were smashed and rendered meaningless.

It wasn’t just star players looking to become superstars that were using PEDs, it was also the fringe players, the ones struggling to win or keep jobs as big league ball players. They saw other players around them playing better, more often, and with fewer injuries. This resulted in promotions, from the minor leagues to the major leagues or from bench player to starter, and job security, in the form of multi-year contracts.

So, there now existed a professional ecosystem in baseball where those who were willing to skirt the rules could take a relatively quick and easy route to the level of production necessary to succeed and advance in their industry. Shortcuts that would enhance their track record and improve their chances of winning and keeping jobs and help build their professional profiles to ‘superstar’ levels, greatly increasing compensation as a result.

Is this much different than the situation for researchers in today’s academic publishing ecosystem?

Where some authors – called “parasite authors” by Dr. Serihy Kozmenko in a guest post for The Source – deliberately “seek symbiosis with predatory journals” in order to boost publication records, essentially amassing publication statistics on steroids. Other authors, those not willing to use predatory journals as a simple path to publication, must operate in the same system, but under a different set of rules that make it more difficult to generate the same levels of production. In this situation, how many authors who would normally avoid predatory journals would be drawn to them, just to keep up with those who use them to publish easily and frequently?

Is it time for asterisks on CVs?

At academic conferences, on message boards, and other forums for discussing issues in scholarly communication, a familiar refrain is that predatory journals are easy to identify and avoid, so predatory publishing, in general, is not a big problem for academic publishing. While there is some level of truth to the fact that many, though not all, predatory journals are relatively easy to spot and steer clear of, this idea denies the existence of parasite authors. These researchers are unconcerned about the quality of the journal as they are simply attempting to publish enough papers for promotion or tenure purposes.

Parasite authors are also likely to be undeterred by the fact that although many predatory journals are indexed in platforms such as Google Scholar, articles published in these journals have low visibility due to the algorithms used to rank research results in these engines. Research published in predatory journals is not easily discovered, not widely read, and not heavily cited, if at all. The work is marginalized and ultimately, the reputation of the researcher is damaged.

There are myriad reasons why an author might consider publishing in a predatory journal, some born out of desperation. The ‘publish or perish’ system places pressure on researchers in all career stages – how much blame for this should be placed on universities? In addition, researchers from the Global South are fighting an uphill battle when dealing with Western publishing institutions. Lacking the same resources, training, language skills, and overall opportunities as their Western counterparts, researchers from the developing world often see no other choice but to use predatory journals (the majority located in their part of the world) to keep pace with their fellow academics’ publishing activity.

To a large degree, Major League Baseball has been able to remove PEDs from the game, mostly due to increased random testing and more severe penalties for those testing positive. Stemming the flow of predatory publishing activity in academia will not be so straightforward. At the very least, to begin with, the scholarly community must increase monitoring and screening for predatory publishing activity (with the help of resources like Cabells’ Predatory Reports) and institute penalties for those found to have used predatory journals as publishing outlets. As in baseball, there will always be those looking to take shortcuts to success, having a system in place to protect those who do want to play by the rules should be of paramount importance.

Spotlight on Turkey

Turkey has been making great strides in recent years as a force to be reckoned with on the international research stage. However, it seems to have encountered more problems than other countries with regard to predatory journals. Simon Linacre looks at the problems facing the country and highlights some resources available to help Turkish scholars.

A simple Google search of “predatory journals Turkey” provides quick insight into the concerns academic researchers there have regarding these deceptive publications. Numerous articles fill the first pages of results highlighting the particular issue Turkey seems to share with a few other countries such as India and Nigeria. Alongside, however, are anonymous websites offering unsupported claims about predatory publications. Validated information appears to be thin on the ground.

Luckily, the Turkish government understands there is a problem and in the Spring of 2019 it decided to take action. According to Professor Zafer Koçak in his article ‘Predatory Publishing and Turkey’, the Turkish Council of Higher Education decreed that “scientific papers published in predatory journals would not be taken into account in academic promotion and assignment. Thus, Turkey has taken the step of becoming one of the first countries to implement this in the world”.

According to its website, the Turkish Council of Higher Education believed the phenomenon was increasing, and was doing so internationally. A number of articles have been published recently that back this up – for example here and here – and there is the potential for Turkish authors to get caught up in this global swell due to their increasing publication output.

To support Turkish authors and institutions, Cabells has translated its information video on its Journalytics and Predatory Reports products, as well as translating this page, into Turkish. Hopefully, the availability of independently verified information on predatory journals and greater dialogue will improve the conditions for Turkey and its scholars to continue to grow their influence in global research.

Türkiye son yıllarda uluslararası araştırma sahnesinde yabana atılamayacak büyük bir aşama kaydetmektedir. Ancak yağmacı dergilerle diğer ülkelerde olduğundan daha fazla sorunlarla karşılaşıyor gibi görünüyor. Simon Linacre bu konuda ülkenin karşı karşıya olduğu sorunlara bakıyor ve Türk bilim insanlarına yardımcı olacak mevcut kaynakların altını çiziyor.

Basit bir “predatory journals Turkey” Google taraması akademik araştırmacıların bu aldatıcı yayınlarla ilgili endişelere sahip oldukları konusunda hızlı bir anlayış sağlıyor. Taramanın ilk sayfaları, Türkiye’nin bu sorunu Hindistan ve Nijerya gibi diğer bir kaç ülke ile paylaştığını gösteren sonuçlarla dolu. Fakat bu sonuçların bir kısmı da yağmacı yayınlar hakkında desteklenmeyen iddialar sunan anonim web sayfaları. Doğrulanmış ve güvenilir bilgi nadir görülüyor.

Neyse ki, Türk hükümeti bir sorun olduğunun farkında ve 2019 Baharında önlem almaya karar verdi. Profesör Zafer Koçak’ın ‘Predatory Publishing and Turkey’ makalesine göre, Yükseköğretim Kurulu tarafından alınan kararla “yağmacı dergilerde yayımlanan bilimsel makaleler akademik yükseltmelerde dikkate alınmayacak. Böylece Türkiye dünyada bu kararı yürürlüğe koyan ilk ülkelerden biri olma adımını attı”.

Yükseköğretim Kurulu web sitesine göre, Kurul hem ulusal hem de uluslararası ortamlarda yağmacı yayıncılığın arttığına inanıyor. Son zamanlarda bunu destekleyen bir çok makale yayımlandı – örneklerini burada ve burada görebilirsiniz – ve yayın sayıları ile birlikte hızla artan küresel yağmacılığa Türk yazarların yakalanma olasılığı var. Cabells, Türk yazarları ve kurumları desteklemek için Journalytics ve Predatory Reports ürünlerinin bilgilendirici videosu ile birlikte bu sayfayı da Türkçeye çevirdi. Umarız ki, yağmacı dergiler hakkında bağımsız olarak onaylanmış bilginin ulaşılabilirliği ve daha güçlü iletişim, Türkiye’nin ve  akademisyenlerinin global araştırmadaki etkilerini arttırarak devam ettirmeleri konusunda şartları iyileştirecek.

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.

Predatory journals vs. preprints: What’s the difference?

While working towards publication in a legitimate journal, however circuitous the route, is of course a much better path than publishing in an illegitimate journal, Simon Linacre examines why this is a useful question to consider.

A blog post this week in The Geyser pointed out the problems surrounding version control of the same article on multiple preprint servers and on the F1000 platform.

TL;DR? It isn’t pretty.

The article used as an example is unquestionably a legitimate study relating to the coronavirus pandemic, and as such is a small but important piece in the jigsaw being built around science’s pandemic response. That this article has yet to be validated – and as such enabled as a piece that fits the COVID-19 jigsaw – is something that will presumably be achieved once it is published in a recognized peer-reviewed journal.

However, this does raise the following rather thorny question: how is the article any better served fragmented on different preprint servers and publishing platforms than it would be having been published as a single entity in a predatory journal?

I am being facetious here – working towards a legitimate publication, however circuitous the route, is far better than publishing in an illegitimate journal. However, comparing the two options is not as strange as one might think, and perhaps offers some guidance for authors uncertain about where to publish their research in the first place.

Firstly, early career researchers (ECRs), while often offered very little direction when it comes to publication ethics and decision-making, are understandably worried about sharing their data and findings on preprint servers for fear of being ‘scooped’ by other researchers who copy their results and get published first. This is a legitimate fear, and is one explanation why a researcher, although unfamiliar with a journal, might submit their research for a low fee and quick turnaround.

Secondly, ECRs or more experienced researchers may be incentivised by their institutions to simply achieve a publication without any checks on the type of journal they publish in. As such, they need a journal to validate their publication – even if the journal itself has not been validated – which is something preprints or non-journal platforms are unable to provide.

Finally, while recent research has shown that just over half of articles published in predatory journals do not receive any citations, just less than 50% did receive citations, and authors may prefer one sole accessible source for their research than multiple sources across different preprints. This is not to say that preprints can’t receive citations – indeed Google Scholar reveals 22 citations to the article above from its original posting on Arxiv – but the perception may be that only journals can deliver citations, and will therefore be the aim for some authors.

Of course, authors should know the very real difference between a predatory journal and a preprint, but the evidence of 14,000+ journals on Cabells Predatory Reports database and the millions of spam emails received daily from illegitimate journals points to at least some researchers falling for the same tricks and continue to line the pockets of predatory publishers. While research publishing options remain as varied and as complex as they are – and while higher education institutions and funders simply assume every researcher has an effective publishing strategy – then as many will fall into the predatory trap as they have always done.

The fake factor

On the day that the US says goodbye to its controversial President, we cannot bid farewell to one of his lasting achievements, which is to highlight issues of fake news and misinformation. Simon Linacre looks at how putting the issue in the spotlight could at least increase people’s awareness… and asks for readers’ help to do so.

Cabells completed around a dozen webinars with Indian universities towards the end of 2020 in order to share some of our knowledge of predatory publishing, and also learn from librarians, faculty members and students what their experiences were. Studies have shown that India has both the highest number of predatory journals based there and most authors publishing in them, as well as a government as committed as any to dealing with the problem, so any insight from the region is extremely valuable.

Q&A sessions following the webinars were especially rich, with a huge range of queries and concerns raised. One specific query raised a number of issues: how can researchers know if the index a journal says it is listed in is legitimate or not? As some people will be aware, one of the tricks of the trade for predatory publishers is to promote indices their journals are listed in, which can come in several types:

  • Pure lies: These are journals that say they have an ‘Impact Factor’, but are not listed by Clarivate Analytics in its Master Journal List of titles indexed on Web of Science (and therefore have an Impact Factor unless only recently accepted)
  • Creative lies: These journals say they are listed by an index, which is true, but the index is little more than a list of journals which say they are listed by the index, with the addition of the words ‘Impact Factor’ to make it sound better (eg. ‘Global Impact Factor’ , ‘Scholarly Article Impact Factor’)
  • Nonsensical lies: These are links (or usually just images) to seemingly random words or universities that try to import some semblance of recognition, but mean nothing. For example, it may be a name of a list, service or institution, but a quick search elicits nothing relating those names with the journal
  • White lies: One of the most common, many predatory journals say they are ‘listed’ or ‘indexed’ by Google Scholar. While it is true to say these journals can be discovered by Google Scholar, they are not listed or indexed for the simple reason that GS is not a list or an index

When Jeffrey Beall was active, he included a list of ‘Misleading Metrics’ on his blog that highlighted some of these issues. A version or versions of this can still be found today, but are not linked to here because (a) they are out of date by at least four years, and (b) the term ‘misleading’ is, well, misleading as few of the indexes include metrics in the first place, and the metrics may not be the major problem with the index. However, this information is very valuable, and as such Cabells has begun its own research program to create an objective, independently verifiable and freely available list of fake indexes in 2021. And, what’s more, we need your help – if anyone would like to suggest we look into a suspicious looking journal index, please write to me at and we will review the site for inclusion.

Back to basics

As we enter what is an uncertain 2021 for many both personally and professionally, it is worth perhaps taking the opportunity to reset and refocus on what matters most to us. In his latest blog post, Simon Linacre reflects on Cabells’ new video and how it endeavors to show what makes us tick.

It is one of the ironies of modern life that we seem to take comfort in ‘doomscrolling’, that addictive pastime of flicking through Twitter on other social media on the hunt for the next scandal to inflame our ire. Whether it is Brexit, the coronavirus epidemic or alleged election shenanigans, we can’t seem to get enough of the tolls of doom ringing out in our collective echo chambers. As the New Year dawns with little good news to cheer us, we may as well go all in as the world goes to hell in a handcart.

Of course, we also like the lighter moments that social media provide, such as cat videos and epic fails. And it is comforting to hear some stories that renew our faith in humanity. One parent on Twitter remarked this week as the UK’s schools closed and reverted to online learning, that she was so proud of her child who, on hearing the news, immediately started blowing up an exercise ball with the resolve not to waste the opportunity lockdown provided of getting fit.

Reminding ourselves that the glass can be at least half full even if it looks completely empty is definitely a worthwhile exercise, even if it feels like the effort of constantly refilling it is totally overwhelming. At Cabells, our source of optimism has recently come from the launch of our new video. The aim of the video is to go back to basics and explain what Cabells does, why it does it, and how it does it through its two main products – Journalytics and Predatory Reports.

Making the video was a lot of fun, on what was a beautiful sunny Spring day in Edinburgh with one of my US colleagues at an academic conference (remember them?). While nerve-shredding and embarrassing, it was also good to go back to basics and underline why Cabells exists and what we hope to achieve through all the work we do auditing thousands of journals every year.

It also acted as a reminder that there is much to look forward to in 2021 that will keep our glasses at least half full for most of the time. Cabells will launch its new Medical journal database early this year, which will see over 5,000 Medical journals indexed alongside the 11,000 journals indexed in Journalytics. And we also have major upgrades and enhancements planned for both Journalytics and Predatory Reports databases that will help researchers, librarians and funders better analyse journal publishing activities. So, let’s raise a (half full) glass to the New Year, and focus on the light at the end of the tunnel and not the darkness that seems to surround us in early January.

What to know about ISSNs

There are many ways to skin a cat, and many ways to infer a journal could be predatory. In his latest blog post, Simon Linacre looks at the role the International Standard Serial Number, or ISSN, can play in the production of predatory journals. 

For many reasons, the year 2020 will be remembered for the sheer volume of numbers that have invaded our consciousness. Some of these are big numbers – 80 million votes for Joe Biden, four million cases of COVID in the US in 2020 – and some of these will be small, such as the number of countries (1) leaving the EU at the end of the year. Wherever we look, we see numbers of varying degrees of import at seemingly every turn.

While numbers have been previously regarded as gospel, however, data has joined news and UFO sightings (seemingly one of the few phenomena NOT to increase in 2020) as something to be suspicious about or faked in some way. And one piece of data trusted by many authors in determining the validity or otherwise of a journal is the International Standard Serial Number, or ISSN.

An ISSN can be obtained relatively easily via either a national or international office as long as a journal can be identified as an existing publication. As the ISSN’s own website states, an ISSN is “a digital code without any intrinsic meaning” and does not include any information about the contents of that publication. Perhaps most importantly, an ISSN “does not guarantee the quality or the validity of the contents”. This perhaps goes some way to explain why predatory journals can often include an ISSN on their websites. Indeed, more than 40% of the journals included in Cabells’ Predatory Reports database include an ISSN in their journal information.

But sometimes predatory publishers can’t obtain an ISSN – or at least can’t be bothered to – and will fake the ISSN code. Of the 6,000 or so journals with an ISSN in Predatory Reports, 288 or nearly 5% have a fake ISSN, and this is included as one of the database’s behavioural indicators to help identify predatory activity. It is instructive to look at these fake ISSNs to see the lengths predatory publishers will go to in order to achieve some semblance of credibility in their site presence.

For some journals, it is obvious that the ISSN is fake as it looks wrong. In the example above for the Journal of Advanced Statistics and Probability, the familiar two groups of four digits followed by a hyphen format is missing, replaced by nine digits and a forward slash, which is incorrect.

For other journals, such as the Global Journal of Nuclear Medicine and Biology below, the format is correct, but a search using the ISSN portal brings up no results, so the ISSN code is simply made up.

More worrying are the few publications that have hijacked existing, legitimate journals and appropriated their identity, including the ISSN. In the example below, the Wulfenia Journal has had its identity hijacked, with the fake journal website pictured below.

If you compare it to the genuine journal shown below (the German homepage can be found here), you can see they list the same ISSN.

One can only imagine the chaos caused for a legitimate journal when its identity is hijacked, and this is just part of wider concerns on the effects of fake information being shared have on society. As always, arming yourself with the right information – and taking a critical approach to any information directed your way – will help see you through the morass of misinformation we seem to be bombarded with in the online world.