Recognizing Predatory Publishers
Gold Open Access, one of the models of open access (OA) publishing, involves the charge of a one-time publication fee to the author (or the author’s institution) to cover the costs of peer review, editing, and making the article permanently available on an organization’s servers. This can be a legitimate business model, and researchers, who may be able to pay the fee from grant funding, often find the value of having their work visible and citable to be worth the publication fee.
However, this model also presents a tempting opportunity for those who see a means of profiting from researchers’ desire to have their work widely available. Knowing how important publication is to scholars for career advancement and the personal satisfaction of contributing to their fields, as well as how difficult it can be to get an article accepted for publication, they take advantage of the urgency that researchers can feel when under pressure to “publish or perish.”
As a result, the past years have seen the development and explosive growth of what have come to be called “predatory publishers”: organizations with no interest in open access scholarship as a concept, but that exist to make money from publication fees. These organizations charge the author a fee and will, technically, make an article freely available, but because they have no interest in the content they offer little if any legitimate peer review (though they may claim to), and the journals they run have little or no credibility in the research community.
Researchers should be aware that it can actually hurt your career to associate with or be published in predatory journals, since even if your research is sound, the weakness of the journal’s peer review process means that readers can never be sure of this. Similarly, if your good work appears in a journal known for publishing shoddy material, it casts doubt on yours by association.
Researchers often think to check a journal’s Impact Factor (IF). This is a good start, but many predatory journals will list an impressive Impact Factor, either by simply lying, or by having an obscure organization ‘calculate’ one for them. The Impact Factors that are formally recognized in the scholarly community are calculated by one firm, Thomson Reuters.
You can check an Impact Factor in the Journal Citation Reports (JCR) in the Web of Science database. If a journal claims an Impact Factor but you can’t find it in the JCR, it was probably calculated by another firm that exists only to provide IFs to journals Thomson Reuters won’t look at, which should be a warning sign.
NOTE: There are legitimate journals that do not have IFs because they are too new or too small or otherwise not yet on Thomson Reuters’ rader, so if a journal doesn’t claim to have one, that’s not necessarily a concern. However, if they do claim to have one, and you can’t find it in the JCR, this is a definite red flag: at best they are attempting to seem more widely cited than they are by pretending an association with a well-known ranking system.
Evaluating Solicitation Letters
Researchers regularly receive invitations, both legitimate and not, to submit their work to conferences or journals. (Students and recent graduates may receive offers to publish their theses or dissertations as articles or even as standalone volumes.) Some things to ask:
- Is the journal or conference title very similar to another, well known one? Say, the New England Journal of Medication, conveniently abbreviated as NEJM? Most legitimate publishers will want the name of their journal to stand out and be recognizable: it’s not a good sign if they seem not to care about being confused with another journal or event.
- Does the pitch make dramatic claims about how important the journal is, i.e. calling it something like “the primary journal in the field of [whatever]”? If that were true, would you have heard of it? (Maybe not, this might not actually be a field you’re familiar with…in which case, why do they want to publish you, exactly?)
- Relatedly, think: how did they get your name, and why are they reaching out to you? While it may be flattering to be asked to contribute, or to serve on an editorial board, if it doesn’t make obvious sense for a particular journal to be interested in your work (for example, if the journal is not in your field/subfield), be suspicious. They may just want the money from publication fees, and, in the case of offered ‘editorships,’ the appearance of legitimacy that comes from association with real people who may be recognizable within their field.
- Does the solicitation make a big point of having quick review and/or quick publication? That’s certainly something that people are interested in, so a publisher can be justified in mentioning it, but be wary if it seems like the main selling point. If “we publish fast!” is presented as their main draw, they’re basically also telling you that everything aside from speed (review, copy-editing, ease of access after publication) is secondary at best.
- In the case of email, does the contact info listed correspond to the ‘reply-to’ address? Sometimes you’ll see a blanket call for submissions that claims to be from a major company, such as Elsevier, but these can be faked. Check the reply-to email address, and if it’s something long and complicated (or a free email account like gmail.com), that can be a giveaway that the solicitation is not really from a major publisher.
If you’re still unsure after reading an initial communication, you can learn a lot by checking out an organization’s website. Things to consider:
- Is contact info listed in an obvious place on the site? If the physical location of the headquarters is listed, does it correspond to the journal title? (If it’s called the New England Journal of Science and its mailing address is in the Cayman Islands, you might wonder why it isn’t actually located in New England.)
- Is the contact info for people on the site @gmail.com, or another free email provider? A legitimate business will usually have dedicated email addresses for its employees.
- Can you identify the editorial staff? A reputable journal should list an editor and an editorial staff, and you should be able to see institutional affiliation for each person. If this information is missing, or you notice that it’s the same for every journal on a publisher’s site, this is a bad sign: it means, at best, that the publisher doesn’t take any specific journal seriously enough to recruit a dedicated editorial staff. If the institutional affiliation information is there, glance over it to see if it makes sense: are there people on the list whose titles suggest they work in fields unrelated to the topic of the journal?
- If you recognize the name of a prestigious researcher, does it make sense that the person would be on the editorial board of this journal? Predatory publishers are known to list people’s names as editors without their permission in an attempt to benefit from the person’s good name. If you have doubts, do a quick internet search: just putting the person’s name and the journal title into an internet search box can let you see if the person has acknowledged this association in another context, or sometimes if they’ve actually disclaimed it.
- What is the overall quality of the website? If there are numerous broken links, misspellings, clumsy typos, etc., that’s a bad sign. Small publishers often don’t have a lot of money and may not have the most polished online presentation (and some predatory publishers can put together very attractive looking sites!), but most reputable journals/publishers will at least make the effort to have a copy editor for their website. Think: if they don’t care enough to look professional, how much good will it do you professionally to be published there?
- How much do they charge? If the journal/publisher is not straightforward about how much they charge authors for publication, be very wary. Note: fees might not always be the first thing on a legitimate publisher’s website either, but if they’re reputable, you should always be able to find a page that lists their fees, and they should be clear about the rates. If they want you to get in touch for a quote, and certainly if they seem to want you to sign a contract and they’ll bill you later…run away.
- Does the site claim that the journal is indexed in databases that you’ve heard of? (PubMed, Web of Knowledge, SciFinder.) If so, it’s easy to go to that database and check: if you can’t find the journal, they’re clearly lying.
- Conversely, does the site claim that the journal is indexed in databases that you’ve never heard of? Ask yourself if it’s actually useful for your article to show up in some database that no one in your field will ever search. You can also come to the Medical Library’s e-resources page to look up the database: we don’t have every legitimate database listed, but if it’s one you’ve never heard of AND we don’t have it, that’s probably not a good sign. (And always feel free to ask us if you’re not sure! A librarian can do some research and tell you if a database is legitimate but tiny, or made up just to index bad journals.)
- Is there advertising on the site, and if so, what kind? Note that legitimate publishers will also have advertising, but usually for their own products: for example, if you visit the Springer website to look up one of their journals, you might see an ad promoting their ebooks. If a publisher or journal site is showing advertising for random other companies, or so much advertising that ads seem to be as important to the site as their other content, be wary.
- Check out some of the articles that are already available on the site: do they look like the products of legitimate, well-reviewed research? If the articles already on the site are full of typos, they probably haven’t been reviewed or edited much, if at all, and this is an indication of how much care you can expect for your own work. Also notice if the existing articles are actually presenting scientific research: sometimes a journal will publish opinion papers by people without qualifications in the field, highly questionable hypotheses, radical claims of new treatments with no evidence, or other things that you don’t want your research or career associated with. At worst, these publishers can become vanity presses to give people who couldn’t otherwise get published at all a way to say they’ve been published in a ‘scientific journal.’
- How well does the site serve readers? A legitimate publisher wants people to read their journals, and a legitimate journal wants their articles to be viewed and cited: this is how they attract quality submissions. If you have a hard time even locating the articles on the site, you have to suspect that attracting readers is not their primary focus (getting fees from authors probably is), and from a practical standpoint you have to wonder how likely it is that anyone will find your article there.
If you have ever received a letter proclaiming that you have been named one of the Top 50 Super-Geniuses of the 21st Century, and need only rush $595 to a highly legitimate post office box to receive your attractive certificate decorated with gold-tone foil accents (only $795 for a lovely plaque!), you will be familiar with this business model.
While arguably not as damaging an outright scam as predatory publishing (after all, you will indeed receive the plaque or certificate you paid for, and some organization will keep your name on file somewhere, if only to send you another offer next year), “Vanity Awards” are essentially nothing more than an opportunity to pay someone to print your name on something next to a fancy title they made up.
They will generally drain your bank account without giving you anything of particular value, and in the worst case, listing these sorts of titles on your CV or displaying their certificates/plaques/trophies on your wall or desk can make it seem as if you either don’t recognize a scam, or you do but are so desperate to have something to include on that CV/wall/desk that you’re hoping no one else will.
We all appreciate recognition of our hard work, and this natural impulse can make it very tempting to accept an offered honor. It’s also not uncommon for some honors societies to sell gear or items designed to let the recipients advertise their membership in a presumably select group (Phi Beta Kappa doesn’t just give away those gold key charms!). However, be aware that pretty much no organization likely to be viewed as reputable/impressive by others will charge you just to receive a certificate or trophy. If you really won that trophy, it should already have your name on it–who else are they going to give it to?
To determine how exclusive the honor really is, we recommend asking if any of your colleagues has heard of the organization offering you an award (you may find they’ve all received the same offer), as well as doing a quick internet search for the name: it’s often fairly easy to tell if a group is widely known for anything besides selling awards. (As always, feel free to contact the library if you’re not sure: we’re happy to look into it for you.)
Here’s hoping all your well-deserved honors are genuine!
- Cabell’s Journalytics Medicine and Predatory Reports: look up a journal in this database to see if there are known concerns
- NIH: Statement on Article Publication Resulting from NIH Funded Research
- NIH: Continuing Steps to Ensuring Credibility of NIH Research: Selecting Journals with Credible Practices
- Federal Trade Commission: Academics and scientists: Beware of predatory journal publishers
- Criteria for Determining Predatory Open Access Publishers
- Think. Check. Submit.
- Academic Vanity Scams [blog post]
- Wikipedia: Vanity award
- Harvey HB and Weinstein DF. Predatory publishing: an emerging threat to the medical literature. Acad Med. 2017;92:150-151. PMID: 28121685.
- Sorokowski P, Kulczycki E, Sorokowska A and Pisanski K. Predatory journals recruit fake editor. Nature. 2017;543:481-483. PMID: 28332542.
- Eriksson S and Helgesson G The false academy: predatory publishing in science and bioethics. Med Health Care and Philos. 2017;20(2):163-170. PMID: 27718131.
- Bohannon J. Who’s afraid of peer review? Science. 2013;342:60-5. PMID: 24092725.