Predatory publishing is undoubtedly a global phenomenon, but with unique characteristics in different countries. In this week’s blog, Simon Linacre shares insight from Russia and a group of researchers keen to shine the spotlight on breaches in publication ethics from within their own country.
For many of us, the Summer months are usually filled with holidays, conferences and a less than serious new agenda. The so-called ‘silly season’ could reliably be identified by news stories of the cat-stuck-in-tree variety, signaling to us all that there was nothing going on and we could safely ignore the news and concentrate on more important things, such as what cocktail to order next from the poolside bar.
It is hard to put a finger on it, but since around 2015 the Summer months seem to have been populated almost exclusively by epoch-making events from which it is impossible to escape. Whether it’s Brexit, COVID or any number of natural or man-made disasters, the news cycle almost seems to go up a gear rather than start to freewheel. And news stories in scholarly communications are no different. This summer saw a number of big stories, including one in Nature Index regarding alleged plagiarism and article publications in predatory journals by Russian university officials. Intrigued, I contacted the research group behind the investigation to learn more.
The group in question is the Commission for Counteracting the Falsification of Scientific Research, Russian Academy of Sciences, and earlier this year they compiled what they claimed to be the first evidence of large-scale ‘translation plagiarism’ by Russian authors in English-language journals (“Predatory Journals at Scopus and WoS: Translation Plagiarism from Russian Sources” (2020). Commission for Counteracting the Falsification of Scientific Research, Russian Academy of Sciences in collaboration with Anna A. Abalkina, Alexei S. Kassian, Larisa G. Melikhova). In total, the Commission said it had detected 94 predatory journals with259 articles from Russian authors, many of which were plagiarised after being translated from Russian into English.
In addition, the study saw that over 1,100 Russian authors had put their names to translated articles which were published in predatory journals. These included heads of departments at Russian universities, and in the case of three authors over 100 publications each in predatory journals. The report (the original can be found here) was authored by some of the founders of Dissernet, a Russian research project which is developing a database of mainly Russian journals which publish plagiarised articles or violate some other criteria of publication ethics. They are concerned that the existence of paper mills in Russia that spam authors and offer easy publication in journals is leading to wide-ranging breaches of publication ethics, supported by inflated metrics appearing to lend some legitimacy to them. Cabells hopes to be able to support the work of Dissernet in highlighting the problem in Russia and internationally, so watch this space.
Earlier this year Cabells engaged CIBER Research (http://ciber-research.eu/) to support its product and marketing development work. Today, in collaboration with CIBER, Simon Linacre looks at the findings and implications for scholarly communications globally.
In recent months the UK-based publishing research body CIBER has been working with Cabells to better understand the academic publishing environment both specifically in terms of Medical research publications, and more broadly with regard to the continuing problems posed by predatory journals. While the research was commissioned privately by Cabells, it was always with the understanding that much of the findings could be shared openly to enable a better understanding of these two key areas.
The team at CIBER Research was asked to investigate how researchers in the health domain went about selecting journals to publish their papers, what tools they used to help them, and what their perceptions of new scholarly communications trends were, especially in regard to predatory journals. Through a mixture of questionnaire surveys and qualitative interviews with over 500 researchers and ‘intermediaries’ (i.e. librarians and research managers), research pointed to a high degree of self-sufficiency among researchers regarding journal selection
While researchers tended to use tools such as information databases to aid their decision-making, intermediaries focused on sharing their own experiences and providing education and training solutions to researchers. Overall, it was notable how much of a mismatch there was between what researchers said and what intermediaries did or believed
The existence of so-called ‘whitelists’ were common on a national and institutional level, as were the emergence of ‘greylists’ of journals to be wary of, however, there seemed to be no list of recommended journals in Medical research areas
In China, alongside its huge growth in research and publication output are concerns that predatory publishing could have an impact, with one participant stating that, “More attention is being paid to the potential for predatory publishing and this includes the emergence of Blacklists and Whitelists, which are government-sponsored. However, there is not just one there are many 10 or 20 or 50 different (white)lists in place”
In India, the explosion of predatory publishing is perhaps the consequence of educational and research expansion and the absence of infrastructure capacity to deal with it. An additional factor could be a lack of significant impetus at a local level to establish new journals, unlike in countries such as Brazil, however, universities are not legally able to establish new titles themselves. As a result, an immature market has attempted to develop new journals to satisfy scholars’ needs which in turn has led to the rise of predatory publishing in the country
Predatory publishing practices seemed to be having an increased impact on mainstream publishing activities globally, with grave risk of “potentially polluting repositories and citation indexes but there seems to have been little follow through by anyone.” National bodies, publishers and funders have failed to follow through on the threat and how it may have diverted funds away from legitimate publications to those engaged in illicit activities
Overall, predatory publishing is being driven by publish-or-perish scenarios, particularly with early career researchers (ECRs) where authors are unaware of predatory publishers in general, or of the identity of a specific journal. However, a cynical manipulation of such journals as outlets for publications is also suspected.
CIBER Research is an independent group of senior academic researchers from around the world, who specialize in scholarly communications and publish widely on the topic. Their most recent projects have included studies of early career researchers, digital libraries, academic reputation and trustworthiness.
Fake news has been the go-to criticism of the media for some politicians, which in turn has been rejected as propaganda and fear-mongering by journalists. However, as former journalist Simon Linacre argues, the fourth estate needs to have its own house is in order first, and ensure they are not tripped up by predatory journals.
I class myself as a ‘runner’, but only in the very loosest sense. Inspired by my wife taking up running a few years ago, I decided I should exercise consistently instead of the numerous half-hearted, unsuccessful attempts I had made over the years. Three years later I have done a couple of half-marathons, run every other day, and track my performance obsessively on Strava. I have also recently started to read articles on running online, and have subscribed to the magazine Runners World. So yes, I think I may actually be a runner now.
But I’m also an experienced journalist, a huge cynic, and have a bulls*** radar the size of the Grand Canyon, so even while relaxing with my magazine I like to think I can spot fakery a mile off. And so it proved earlier this summer while reading a piece on how hill running can improve your fitness. This was music to my ears as someone who lives half-way up a valley side, but my interest was then piqued when I saw a reference to the study that formed the basis for the piece, which was to an article in the International Journal of Scientific Research. Immediately, I smelt a rat. “There is no way that is the name of a reputable, peer-reviewed journal,” I thought. And I was right.
But that wasn’t even half of the problem.
After checking Cabells’ Predatory Reports database, I found not one but TWO journals are listed on the database with that name, both with long lists of breaches of the Cabells’ criteria that facilitate the identification of predatory journals. I was still curious as to the nature of the research, as it could have been legitimate research in an illegitimate journal, or just bad research, full stop. As it turned out, neither journal had ever published any research on hill running and the benefits of increasing VO2 max. So where was the story from?
After some more digging, an article matching the details in the Runners World piece could be found in a third similarly-named journal, the International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications. The article, far from the recent breakthrough suggested in the August 2020 issue of Runners World, was actually published in August 2017 by two authors from Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. While the science of the article seems OK, the experiment that produced the results was on just 32 people over 12 weeks, which means it really needs further validation across greater subjects to confirm its findings. Furthermore, while the journal itself was not included in Cabells’ Predatory Reports database, a review found significant failings, including unusually quick peer review processes and, more seriously, that the “owner/Editor of the journal or publisher falsely claims academic positions or qualifications”. The journal has subsequently been added to Predatory Reports, and the article itself has never been cited in the three years since publication.
Yet one question remains: how did a relatively obscure article, published in a predatory journal and that has never been cited, find its way into a news story in a leading consumer magazine? Interestingly, similar research was also quoted on MSN.com in May 2020 which also quoted the International Journal of Scientific Research, while other sites have also quoted the same research but from the International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications. It appears likely that, having been quoted online once, the same story has been doing the rounds for three years like a game of ‘Telephone,’ all based on uncited research that may not have been peer reviewed in the first place, that used a small sample size and was published in a predatory journal.
While no damage has been done here – underlying all this, it does make sense that hill running can aid overall performance – one need only need to think about the string of recent health news stories around the coronavirus to see how one unverified article could sweep like wildfire through news outlets and online. This is the danger that predatory journals pose.
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.
Publication ethics is at the core of everything that Cabells does, and it continually promotes all scholarly communication bodies which seek to uphold the highest standard of publishing practices. As such, we would like to express our support for Simon Linacre (Cabells’ Director of International Marketing and Development) in his candidacy to become a COPE Trustee. COPE plays an essential role in ensuring scholarly publishing maintains the highest standards, and if you are a COPE member is it important you use your vote to support the organization’s progress.
Simon has been with Cabells two years, and involved in academic publishing for almost 20 years. In that time he has gained wide experience of all aspects of journal publishing, and in particular Open Access issues which this role focuses on.
If you would like to vote in the election, please go to the COPE website, log in and cast your vote for your favored candidate.
Thanks, The Cabells Team
It is three years since Cabells first launched its database on predatory journals, and a good deal has happened in that time in the world of scholarly publishing. In his latest post, Simon Linacre reflects on these changes and offers some ‘dos and don’ts’ on the latest version of the database.
In June 2017 – which seems a lifetime ago now for all sorts of reasons – Cabells launched a new database that included details on over 4,000 predatory journals. It was the first time that a resource of that size had been made available to researchers who wanted to check the legitimacy or otherwise of journals they may be considering as a destination for their articles. In the intervening years, it is to be hoped many authors have been alerted to the dangers of publishing their research in such journals and benefited from worthwhile publishing experiences in good journals.
At the time, Cabells chose to name the database the ‘Blacklist’ as the most straightforward description of the intent of the database. As some may have seen, we brought forward the decision to change its name to ‘Predatory Reports’ last week in the first of a number of changes Cabells intends to introduce in 2020 and beyond.
The new name includes the word ‘Reports’ for an important reason. The database has been designed as more than a simple list of predatory, fake or questionable journals – it has also been put together so that researchers can use the information that has been collated on all 13,400 journals to inform their understanding of scholarly communications, and as a result, make better decisions about their research publications and career into the future. In this spirit, here are FIVE DOS AND DON’TS of how to use the Cabells Predatory Reports database:
DO check all violations listed for each journal on Predatory Reports to fully understand what the journal is NOT doing properly, as this can to help identify predatory behavior in future
DON’T trust a journal because it has an ISSN on its website – over 40% of journals listed on Predatory Reports include one, with many copied from legitimate journals or simply invented
DO check the publisher’s name in the ‘Advanced Search’ option if a journal is not included on the database, as the same publisher could have created a new journal with the same predatory behaviors
DON’T visit a predatory journal website unnecessarily as they could contain malware – hover the cursor over the website to view the full URL to see if it corresponds to that of the journal being checked out
DO send Cabells updates or information on potential new predatory journals by sending an email to ‘email@example.com’
And as a final ‘DO’, do click the link to our 70+ criteria that we use to identify predatory journals – these will be updated soon to streamline and clarify the process of reviewing journals for inclusion in Predatory Reports, and offer a much more robust checklist than currently exists to help researchers avoid falling into the predatory journal trap.
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.
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.