Predatory Publishers

Driven by Money, Not Research

A 'featured research guide' appears alongside a beware sign to remind academics of the dangers of predatory publishing

We are in the age of open access. This publishing model allows researchers to more widely disseminate their work and is now offered by increasing numbers of journals. Although open access offers many advantages, authors must be aware of the threat posed by what are now being called predatory publishers, companies that prey on the “publish or perish” paradigm and are interested in money, not research.

Although the definition of “open access” varies, it generally concerns content that is free to read online. It is difficult to define exactly when the open access era began, but its rise has almost certainly paralleled the increased availability of fast and affordable internet access.

One recent study estimated that almost 28% of journal articles with a DOI were published under open access criteria. This study also highlighted the value of open access to researchers: an 18% increase in citations. Typically, reputable open access journals provide the standard editorial services to authors, which may include peer review and editorial guidance, text formatting and editing, figure polishing, article promotion, and even translation services in the case of bilingual journals.

Publication charges

Before predatory publishers are discussed, it is important to stress that many high-quality journals charge authors for publishing their work. This amount varies considerably and can reach several hundred dollars per color page.

Many authors consider publication charges acceptable given the added value (e.g., peer review, copyediting, editorial advice) and benefits (e.g., boost to career) provided by publishing in a journal of repute. Some journals even charge authors for merely submitting a paper, such as the Journal of Neuroscience (currently 140 USD), which aims to cover “a portion of the costs associated with peer review” and presumably—and understandably—to minimize the time spent by editors and peer reviewers on manuscripts that are, for whatever reason, unsuitable for the journal.

One indication of the growing popularity of open access is that the model is even being adopted by the traditional subscription-based journals and publishing companies. For example, the Journal of Biological Chemistry currently charges an extra 1500–2000 USD to allow manuscripts to be open access. This is, of course, entirely optional and is a useful option for any scholars whose funding agencies require publication in an open access format.

Predatory publishers

In contrast to legitimate journals, predatory publishers are journals formed with the sole purpose of earning money from unsuspecting researchers. These journals provide no added value, often accepting submitted articles with few, if any, changes and with bogus or minimal peer review. They may even make false claims about impact factor and indexing. Upon article acceptance, authors are typically charged many hundreds of dollars before online publication proceeds—if it even proceeds at all!

Any research published in such journals may damage authors’ reputations, particularly when applying to grants and jobs, undermining years of work.

In one widely reported series of experiments, Science correspondent John Bohannon submitted a number of fake scientific papers to over 300 open access journals, many of which had previously been identified as suspect. These papers were attributed to imaginary authors at nonexistent institutes and contained clear scientific flaws and contradictions that would have been spotted by any competent peer reviewer. Despite their numerous shortcomings, the articles were accepted—for a fee—by about half of the journals.

The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) has since tightened up its inclusion criteria to weed out such substandard journals. Nonetheless, care must be taken by authors.

How to identify predatory journals

Although authors need to evaluate many different aspects when choosing a target journal, the integrity of the journal is paramount. Scholars may, however, find it difficult to identify predatory publishers.

One article that should be read by all authors considering submitting their work to a new or unknown journal is a cross-sectional comparison performed by Shamseer et al. This article, published in BMC Medicine, one of the many high-quality open access journals available to authors, identified 13 evidence-based characteristics distinguishing legitimate and predatory journals.

Another valuable resource providing tips to identify predatory journals is ThinkCheckSubmit. This website provides a checklist, now available in over 30 languages, that highlights the main points that authors should consider at the time of journal selection. It is thus an essential guide for anyone with doubts about the trustworthiness of their chosen journal.

Finally, I recommend checking the journal you are considering on Beall's List of Predatory Publishers. This list, originally organized by librarian Jeffrey Beal, keeps a record of publications with dubious or suspect publication practices. 

Remember, publication should be the final hurdle faced by researchers—don’t trip on it!

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