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Open Access Week 2017: It’s time to do something about predatory publishers

Sure, it’s happened to all of us — the invitation to be keynote speaker at a conference you’ve never heard of or an invitation to sit on an editorial board for a journal with a name you don’t recognize. These types of predatory publishers are an adverse side effect of the new open access publishing model. October 2017 marks the tenth International Open Access Week and so it’s high time that all early career researchers learn about predatory publishing is and how to spot a predatory publishers from a credible.

The history of open access and PLOS

PLOS started as a nonprofit open access publisher in 2001 and launched its first journal, PLOS Biology, in 2003. The game changed again ten years ago, when PLOS ONE launched in 2006 as the first multidisciplinary open access journal. Due to the volume of peer-reviewed research published in PLOS ONE, it is often referred to as an Open-Access Mega-Journal (OAMJ). Since the advent of PLOS ONE, many more OAMJs have launched, and the scientific community is beginning to prioritize open access to science.

For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a new open access policy for their research, and some funding agencies even demand that scientists publish under a open access license, the Swedish Research Council among them. The idea behind open access to science is that anyone should be able to learn about current scientific research — that scientific findings ought to be treated as a public good.

How predatory publishers operate

The key difference between the traditional publishing model and and the open access publishing model is that the traditional model requires an institutional or personal subscription to access the research, whereas open access research can be accessed without subscription or fee. Instead, many publishers, including open access publishers such as PLOS charge a publishing fee for each article published.

The publishing fees are being exploited by sham journals imitating legitimate journals to collect money from researchers under false pretense. Researchers, particularly early career researchers that are eager to publish and perhaps less familiar with the submissions process, may submit their papers with or without verifying a journal’s reputability.

Investigations showed that many of these “open access journals” operate with a substandard or nonexistent peer review system with little to no scrutiny of submitted articles, that some were trying to recruit fake editors, and had an excessive amount of retracted papers because of fake peer review. Sometimes, these illegitimate journals reuse legitimate journal articles published elsewhere to appear credible. As I mentioned in my previous post, Swedish scientists experienced the Paolo Macchiarini affair, which involved both substandard peer review and retracted scientific papers.

Spotting a predatory publisher

It’s no secret that early career scientists are under immense pressure to publish or perish, and there is no guidebook on making sense of the scientific smorgasbord awaiting your first paper or invitations to conferences or editorial boards. There are 2.5 million new scientific papers published each year, making it a challenge to easily decipher credible resources.

The increased adoption of open access articles and preprints is a step in the right direction, but unfortunately predatory publishers are unlikely to stop or slow their deceptions until some form of validation system is established.

Some tips for staying out of a predatory publisher’s path:

  • Double, triple check the name of the journal. Is it similar or the same as another reputable journal in your field, but something looks off-kilter? Do some googling prior to submitting.
  • Contact the scientists listed on the journal’s review board: Are they truly associated with the journal? Ask them about the journal’s peer review system.
  • The gut check: Does this website look or feel legitimate? Does this journal have an authentic Internet presence (e.g. social media profiles, a public relations page etc.?)
  • Dear Dr. (Your Last Name Here). You can also sometimes quite easily spot the fake invites by looking how they address you. For instance, if you receive a request email that reads, “Dear Dr.” and you don’t have a PhD, it’s probably fake. Sometimes, they don’t even bother to mention your name at all in a “Dear, *fill in the blanks*” approach.

For more tips, read a recent post from the PLOS SciComm Community Blog: To Catch A Predatory Publisher.

A solution in sight?

Researchers should not need to be dependent on these tactics, but should be able to trust some kind of official governmental monitoring system. In an era of fake news and the war on science, it is important that predatory publishers impersonating credible ones do not get away with their “open access” fraud so easily. Hopefully Open Access Week 2017 will spur more discussion about how to combat predatory publishers to strengthen the open access mission. We cannot afford to lose important new research to fraudulent journals.

Featured Image: A Great White Shark emerges from the water in South Africa.

The image belongs to the flickr account of Travelbag Ltd an image owner. used under a Creative Commons CC licence Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)


Bohannon, J. (2013) Who’s Afraid of Peer Review? Science. Vol. 342(6154), 60-65.

Eriksson, S., Helgesson, G. (2017) The false academy: predatory publishing in science and bioethics. Med Health Care and Philos. Vol. 20(2), 163-170.

Gao, J., Zhou, T. (2017) Retractions: Stamp out fake peer review. Nature. Vol. 546(7656), 33.

Heber, J. (2016). Ten Years of Advancing Science as ONE. PLoS Blogs: The Official PLoS Blog.

Sorokowski, P., Kulczycki, E., Sorokowska, A., Pisanski, K. (2017) Predatory journals recruit fake editor. Nature. Vol. 543, 481-483.

Sullivan, B. (2017). To Catch A Predatory Publisher. PLOS SciComm.

Swedish Research Council. (2017). Open Access – free accessibility to research findings

Vilhelmsson, A. (2016) The home of the Nobel: who will blow the whistle on academia? PLOS Blogs: PLoS ECR Community.




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