HOW TO DEFINE AND HOW TO AVOID THEM
By: Yan Mardian
Recently, scientists and academia in Indonesia were made concerned by the release of snippets of presentation slides issued by several internal researchers from the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN). Although no official letter has been released yet to date, the widely spread snippets slides informed that “in 2023, starting in January, all the journals of the three largest Open Access (OA) publishers were blacklisted, including Hindawi (acquired by Wiley in early 2021), MDPI founded by a Chinese businessman Lin Shukun, and Frontiers, which has become very popular in recent years. The notice states that articles published by Hindawi, MDPI, and Frontiers will not be included in research performance statistics in Indonesia and are ‘not recognized’ as globally indexed international publications.”
Globally, there is also increasing concern in the scientific community and society about “predatory” journals, also called fake, pseudo-, or fraudulent journals.
Since around the 2000s, the OA movement has arisen to ensure unrestricted access to research results, do away with intermediaries, and shift publishing costs from authors onto the journals. Its emergence has been positively received by part of the academic and scientific community, because it allows studies to be accessed without having to pay subscription fees or fees to download articles, and at the same time Open Access is a boon to research opportunities in the less well-developed countries.
Seeing the benefits that OA brings, there seemed to be little reason to suspect that some unprincipled publishers might take advantage of the situation to turn the movement into a money-making operation. So it was that predatory journals came about. Predatory journals, or journals that charge an article processing charge (APC) to authors, yet do not have the hallmarks of legitimate scholarly journals such as peer review and editing. These journals do not provide the editorial services that legitimate journals offer, which calls into question the reliability and scientific standards of the articles they publish. However, not that all open-access journals are predatory. There is certainly a long list of journals that can be read for free yet nonetheless uphold high scholarly and scientific standards. This is precisely what makes being able to identify journals that are predatory so important.
“Predatory journals”: what are they?
Many authors define “predatory journals” as journals that exploit the OA model unprofessionally to derive economic gain without meeting the quality standards of scientific publications. The magazine Nature (Grudniewicz et al., 2019) published a good definition of the term, considered to be one of the fullest, put forward by a group of scholars and editors from different countries: “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.” That definition highlights key features of their business practices and makes it clear that what drives them is their own commercial self-interest, not any actual interest in science.
Blacklist vs. whitelist journal
There have been various attempts to derive criteria to characterize and identify predatory journals, in order to help researchers to avoid these outlets. These attempts include the compilation of lists of fraudulent journals (blacklists) or trustworthy journals (whitelists). The example of two blacklists consists of the updated list of Beall and Cabells Scholarly Analytics’ blacklist (herein called Cabell’s blacklist), and two whitelists consist of the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ; https://doaj.org/) and Cabells Scholarly Analytics’ whitelist (herein called Cabell’s whitelist). A subscription to the lists of Cabells Scholarly Analytics was needed, whereas access to the DOAJ and the updated Beall’s list was free of charge. The best-known list is the blacklist of “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access journals” by Jeffrey Beall, a librarian who coined the term “predatory” journal (herein referred to as Beall’s list). Beall took his list down in 2017, probably due to lawsuits instigated by publishers included in the list. At present, the list is maintained and updated by an anonymous scholar at a different site.
The quantitative analysis investigated overlaps between the contents of blacklists and whitelists. The considerable overlap between the two blacklists indicates that Cabell’s list may use Beall’s list as a source of predatory publishers. The overlaps between black lists and whitelists may be interpreted in several ways. First, these journals may be “false positives” on the blacklists, i.e., wrongly classified as fraudulent. Indeed, Beall’s list has been criticized for not distinguishing fraudulent from low-quality journals or from emerging journals. The latter may not be able to afford membership in associations or may not yet have been accepted as members and thus be misclassified by blacklists. Second, these journals might be “false negatives” on the whitelists, i.e., wrongly classified as being legitimate, based on criteria that are easily verified and easily met but that miss other, fraudulent practices, for example, the lack of adequate peer review. Third, some journals may operate in a gray zone for extended periods, meeting some blacklist and some whitelist criteria. Furthermore, the status of a journal may change over time, as publishers and editors abandon questionable practices or good practices. Lists, therefore, need to be kept up to date, and journals should be periodically reassessed.
Why you should avoid submitting to predatory publishers
Completing a rigorously designed scientific study in a researcher’s field entails a huge investment in time and effort and deciding where to publish the results is of the utmost importance, since the study’s visibility, eases of access, and effect on the researcher’s reputation will depend on the medium used. However, submitting articles to predatory journals may have serious negative consequences such as the ones listed below.
- Fake peer review undermines the scientific conversation. One of the most common forms of fraudulent publishing practices is for predatory journals to claim to provide true peer review when they do not. This practice leads to many problems in the broader context of scientific progress. Articles with flawed research or communication issues do not receive the benefit of peer feedback before publication and can be published with inaccurate information. Articles with low-quality or deliberately false information, which true peer review would likely catch, are also sometimes published in these journals. When articles like these are published under the false pretense of having received peer review, it can allow misinformation to enter the broader research community and slow or divert effort away from more legitimate lines of investigation.
- Publishing in a low-quality journal can make your research harder to find and less likely to be used by others. Because fraudulent journals are perceived to be low quality and untrustworthy, researchers in your field are less likely to browse those journals or read them on their own5. Therefore, articles containing important research findings may be passed over by the broader scientific community. Many popular citation databases also do not index low-quality journals, so other researchers may not be able to find your work just by searching by topic.
- You could be scammed and lose your work. The goal of predatory publishers is to convince authors to pay an APC while performing the least amount of work possible on the publisher’s side. Sometimes, this includes not actually publishing accepted articles, taking articles or journal websites off-line without notice, or publishing submitted articles before authors have signed a publishing agreement. Since many legitimate publishers will not accept articles that have been published before, submitting an article to a predatory publisher can be risky, even if you ultimately decide not to publish with them.
How to spot a journal that exhibit non-standard behavior
Analyzing opportunistic behavior by predatory journals is a challenge for many, but some strictly biblio-metric indicators, namely, the Impact Factor (IF), the Impact Factor minus Author Self-Citation (IFasc), and the Article Influence (AI) score, can help researchers rate a journal’s quality and ascertain whether its behavior deviates from the standards of legitimate journals. Apart from these indicators, there are other criteria that can help researchers spot low-quality open-access journals that rely on questionable practices. These can be as simple as looking through the journal’s archives for articles that seem off-topic, checking that the APCs and review process are clearly stated on the journal website, or just checking for grammar and spelling mistakes in solicitation emails. There are also several tools and checklists now available for verifying the identity of publishers. Table 1 provides some helpful tips on how to check the credibility of a journal or publisher. Table 2 provides a list of online resources for checking journal quality.
Controversy cases and challenges
Frontiers and MDPI are large OA-only publishers that are arguably exemplars of grey publishing. Both publishers have been successful in recent years, as evidenced by rising APCs, founding of new journals and increases in publishing volume. However, both publishers have faced criticism and controversy over business practices, particularly regarding excessively permissive peer review and subordination of academic functions to business interests. Founded in 1996, Basel, Switzerland–based MDPI, has 213 open-access journals, of which 37 now have an impact factor. In 2014, it was briefly included on a list of predatory publishers maintained by Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but it was removed after the company appealed the decision. Today, MDPI is included in DOAJ.
Frontiers Media is a large open-access publisher that has been in operation for over a decade and has published many high-quality research articles across various academic disciplines. Frontiers journals have become a conspicuous presence in academic publishing since they started in 2007 with the advent of Frontiers in Neuroscience. However, it was clear that the publishers had several innovative ideas that were attractive to authors, with a pleasant online interface and a collaborative review process that made engagement with reviewers more of a discussion than a battle with anonymous critics. Like many other online OA journals, the editorial decision to publish was based purely on an objective appraisal of the soundness of the study, not on a subjective evaluation of importance, novelty or interest. As word got around that respectable scientists were acting as editors, reviewers and authors of the paper in Frontiers, people started to view it as a good way of achieving fast and relatively painless publication, with all the benefits of having the work openly available and accessible to all.
Following its inclusion in Beall’s list, some researchers and academics still consider it a reputable publisher, while others have raised concerns about its business model and the peer review process. However, based on the above-mentioned criteria, scholars can easily spot which journals are truly predatory. For example, one of the journals in the Frontiers group, Frontiers in Medicine (not to be mistaken with Frontiers of Medicine by Springer Nature publisher), is currently a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) and indexed in: UGC CARE, Scopus, Web of Science (SCIE), DOAJ, and PubMed, with the latest impact factor of Frontiers in Medicine, is 5.058, SJR (SCImago Journal Rank) of 1.388 and indexed in Scopus in the Quartile Q1. An indexed journal means that the journal has passed a review process of specific requirements done by a journal indexer. Therefore, it should be helpful to differentiate it from the true predatory journal.
Evaluating obvious black-and-white cases of predatory publishing is relatively simple. In modern publishing, how academics, librarians and their institutions handle the multiple shades of grey – and where they draw economic and professional lines between legitimate and illegitimate – will be a much more significant and profound challenge. Efforts to counter predatory publishing need to be constant and adaptable. Predatory journals also quickly adapt to policies and measures designed to foil them. As scientific publishers experiments with new formats and business models online, it has become increasingly easy for fake publishers to masquerade as legitimate ones.
- Elmore SA, Weston EH. Predatory journals: what they are and how to avoid them. Toxicologic pathology. 2020 Jun;48(4):607-10.
- Ferris LE, Winker MA. Ethical issues in publishing in predatory journals. Biochemia Medica. 2017 Jun 15;27(2):279-84.
- Torres CG. Editorial misconduct: the case of online predatory journals. Heliyon. 2022 Feb 24:e08999.
- Strinzel M, Severin A, Milzow K, Egger M. Blacklists and white-lists to tackle predatory publishing: a cross-sectional comparison and thematic analysis. MBio. 2019 Jun 25;10(3):e00411-19.
- Beall J Predatory publishers are corrupting open access. Nature 9 12, 2012 2012;489(7415):179. doi: 10.1038/489179a [PubMed: 22972258]
- Beall J What I learned from predatory publishers. Biochemia Medica. 2017;27(2):273–278. doi: 10.11613/bm.2077.029 [PubMed: 28694718]
- Grudniewicz A, Moher D, Cobey KD, Bryson GL, Cukier S, Allen K, Ardern C, Balcom L, Barros T, Berger M, Ciro JB. Predatory jour-nals: no definition, no defence. Nature. 2019 Dec 12;576(7786):210-2.
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