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Predatory publishing 2.0: Why it is still a thing and what we can do about it

Greetings of the day”, “Dear Colleague”, “Dear Dr.Vilhelmsson A”, “Dear Dr. Vilhelmsson Andreas”

These are just a few examples of how I have been greeted in emails from predatory journals in the last couple of weeks. Almost all wishes me “good health” or believe that my research will be of “great benefit to mankind” as they invite me to join editorial boards or submit any manuscript of my liking for fast publication in upcoming journal numbers or attend conferences.

These invitations are now so common that they have become part of my ordinary life, and although seemingly innocent and obvious fake, they are part of a more nefarious and dark side of academic publishing and the quest for open science.

A known unknown problem

For the last few years what has been called predatory publishing have got a lot of attention from the scientific community. I myself wrote about the misuse of open access and predatory publishing already in 2017 and since then the problem seems only to have gotten worse. According to a comment in Nature, the number of journals has grown faster than the number of publications, suggesting that many of these journals are basically shells with little content. It is also believed that there are now more predatory journals than real ones (over 15,500).

Predatory journals make use of the current increased requirement for research results to be made openly available and researchers – especially junior level – might submit work to these outlets naively or cynically; even unread or sloppy articles are rewarded by some universities’ tenure, hiring and promotion decisions. A common denominator with these journals is their low quality and their mission to make money without any real concern over the scientific quality or the service provided for authors or their institutions, thereby threatening science by undermining the very communication system that we are relying on.

Predatory journals often falsely claim who is on their editorial boards to look serious. At the same time they can promise a review report within a week and quick publication dates, which of course is troublesome if the peer review process is not handled correctly. They also give the impression of having high impact factors by listing numbers after the journal title and falsely write that they are listed in different scientific databases to give an impression to be a legit journal. These journals can even have false journals titles, for instance claiming to be European or International although they are not.

Predatory publishing 2.0.

But despite being an academic headache for many years, the knowledge of predatory strategies and techniques is still sparse within the research community. For instance, an online survey tested the knowledge among the German Society for Orthopaedics and Trauma Surgery on predatory journals and open access journals showing that the hazard of predatory journals was unknown to many orthopaedic and trauma surgeons. The authors therefore conclude that early-stage clinical researchers must be trained to differentiate between predatory and scientifically accurate journals. Still, not much have happened from either the academic or the judicial system to combat predatory journals and we can now talk about an era of predatory publishing 2.0.

Previous, the conference part of predatory publishing has not been especially highlighted or investigated, despite it being an increasing problem that may already outnumber real ones. For that reason, it is welcome that The InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), a global network of more than 140 scientific academies, just issued a report on predatory academic journals and conferences.

In 2020, IAP launched a two-year study on Combatting Predatory Academic Journals and Conferences with the intent to improve the understanding of predatory journals and conferences, their prevalence and impact, the drivers fuelling them, and effective ways to combat them. By issuing a survey of academicians and researchers from all over the world, dialogues with global, regional and national practitioners from key stakeholder communities and a literature review the report argue that there is a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding about what constitutes predatory journals and conferences.

The report define predatory journals and conferences as a spectrum or typology of journal and conference
practices, ranging from fraudulent and deceitful to questionable and unethical, with the common core that these practices serve to prioritise self-interest at the expense of scholarship. As IAP write, while open access models have created exciting new avenues for the access, dissemination and production of knowledge – they have also fascilitated and exacerbated the problem of predatory publishing by creating more space for predatory practices. The threat of predatory journals and conferences has also been underestimated by many stakeholders as being a problem of young, inexperienced scientists or those in less developed countries.

Over 80% of the 1,800+ respondents to the survey from 112 countries indicated that predatory journals and conferences are already a serious problem or on the rise in their country, with the highest level of concern expressed by those in low- and middle-income countries. Respondents cited lack of awareness as the main reason for falling prey to predatory practices, highlighting an urgent need for awareness-raising campaigns, training and mentorship resources to protect researchers at all stages of their career. At the same time, 24% of the responders disclosed that they had knowingly published in predatory journals and participated in predatory conferences, sometimes with the acceptance of their institution. It was also revealed that some leading institutions even hosting predatory conferences to generate income while conferring predatory outlets with a veneer of credibility. Since these kind of journals and conferences basically arise because of an existing market opportunity it can be said that it is the academic scholars that publish with attend their conferences that keeps them going.

Trust in science

But is this a problem if researchers do this willingly and knowingly as seems to be the case according to the survey? Yes is the short answer. Predatory publishing not only risk compromising the quality of peer review but is also threatening science by undermining the public trust in the process as a whole while wasting hard invested research budgets, often taxbased. There is also a real concern that non-peer reviewed results are presented as sound science. Clinicians for instance need assurance that the research and other information they find in papers is accurate, has undergone peer review by experts in the field, does not contain misleading information, and is ready for use in practice.

Here we already have a growing problem with illicit “paper mills” where leaders in scientific publishing worry are increasingly corrupting the literature by selling false authorship or prewritten papers. According to a new study a Russian site offers paper authorship in reputable journals for up to a fee of $5000.

Beyond APC

It is apparent that the monetisation and commercialisation of research output has lead to a situation where being cited has become a goal in itself. Many research funders, institutions, and governments now require research to be made available under Open Access licensing and also provide funds that can be applied to authors’ Open Access publication costs. But the ways in which Open Access is supported varies across different fields and global regions. There are gaps that leave many researchers who want to publish in Open Access journals without funding for APCs.

The IAP report therefore recommend publishers to waive APCs in their Open Access journals for all researchers in low-income countries. PLOS have introduced other models that target specific challenges in the Open Access ecosystem—keeping costs low for selective journals through CAP, reflecting regional economic differences through Global Equity. Their Flat Fee model similarly aims to make Open Access publishing easier and more accessible for researchers while being flexible and granular enough to suit many different communities.

Publish or perish?

For ECRs it is especially important to avoid fraudulent publications or those of such low quality that publishing in them acts as a demerit. A publication in a predatory journal can be extremely hurtful for PhD students that want to get their studies published but when examined before an examination board risk that their whole PhD defence becomes a failure. Predatory journals also have a tendency to disappear after a few years and with them content that should be archived for future referencing making the whole research effort being in vain.

Thus, the focus on publish or perish must be abandoned for a broader agenda that merits peer reviewing and taking part in the scientific discussion. Raising awareness of predatory practices, the importance of not adressing them, and their threat to both science and society is a first step to avoid engaging with, and legitimizing predatory journals and conferences. Academia need therefore to create discentives for researchers who use predatory publishing or attend predatory conferences, whether knowingly or not. It is important that academics highlight the dangers of predatory journals and conferences and mandate that all members of their academy avoid predatory journals.

The first thing is to learn more about the problem of predatory publishing. One good place to start is is to check the website Think. Check. Submit. that helps researchers identify trusted journals and publishers for their research. Through a range of tools and practical resources, this international, cross-sector initiative aims to educate researchers, promote integrity, and build trust in credible research and publications. This can help the researcher to make an informed choice. Here you can also read some of the papers written of the phenomenon.

Parallel to this, we need to learn to spot the predatory journals to learn to see their weak spots and there are several things to look out for, or if you will predatory red flags.

Red flags and recommendations to ECRs (and other researchers as well) to avoid predatory publishing:

  • 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. Check if the journal is a member of Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) or is member of an organisation of good publishing practices, such as COPE, the Committe on Publication Ethics.
  • Black lists: Check black list websites of potential predatory journals and publishers, but be sure not to rely entirely on these, since the ecosystem of predatory publishing is constantly evolving.
  • 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.
  • Contact your university library before publishing in an open access journal to reasure that the journal is legit.
  • 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. Do not fall for the generic flattering where your name is pasted in to a standard letter praising your scientific knowledge, despite that you only have published one article or none at all.
  • They basically want you send in whatever you want: “If you’re interested to write and submit a manuscript, kindly share a Research/Review/Case Report/Case Series/Case Blog/Short Communication (2-4 pages)/Clinical Images (150 words)/Letter to the Editor/Opinion on any topic related to your research interest which falls in the journal scope” (from an actual invitation)
  • Fast turnarounds: if the journal promises very fast peer review, like in a week and if peer revewing only engages one single peer reviewer, this can not be regarded as serious.
  • If you are offered an APC waiver, despite being an established researchers this should be a red flag. This offer also often comes with hidden charges for publishing or additional services like the DOI number.
  • No submitting system: predatory journal do in most cases not have a submitting system for your manuscript and instead just asks you to email them your contribution. This does not always need to be the case since also regular respected journals still uses submissions by email, but I myself have not yet come across an obvious predatory journal ask for my contribution through a submitting system.
  • Put pressure on your university to take the problem of predatory publishing seriously and inform employers and students so that they can spot and avoid publishing in fake journals.
  • In most cases, serious journals or publishers do not email offers to junior researchers to join editorial boards. These positions are often advertised on their journal webpages and they demand that you have published a certain amount of articles and/or have peer-reviewed a certain amount of articles for different journals.
  • Be suspicious if you get invited to conferences that are way out of your research area. If you are invited to the World Chemistry 2022 Conference, despite being a public health researcher never worked or published anything within the field of chemistry, there is something fishy going on. The same goes for journal invitations where it does not make sense that a public health researcher is invited to publish with the Journal of Astrobiology & Outreach or the International Journal of Swarm Intelligence and Evolutionary Computation.
  • If the journal takes payment in bitcoin, it is most surely false.
  • Finally, since it can not be highlighted enough, there is no such thing as a free lunch. If it sounds too good it is because that is the case. If an open access journal market itself by offering cheaper and faster open access publishing than traditional journals, often within a week, this also means that their quality control is flawed or nonexistent.

Photo by Engin_Akyurt on Pixabay

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