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GUIDE: How to spot predatory academic journals in the wild

Not all academic journals are made equal: some are the pinnacle of global scholarship, while others are a collection of articles thrown together with little regard for quality or rigour. At worst, it might even be a scam journal specifically out to make money.

If you are a researcher, fact-checker or journalist, how can you know that the article you’re citing is a legitimate piece of research in a credible journal?

A recent study out of the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (Crest) at Stellenbosch University found that between 2005 and 2014, more than 4,200 South African academic articles were published in 47 journals which were classified as “possibly” or “probably” predatory.

These 47 journals qualified for the department of higher education and training's subsidies, meaning that universities and sometimes the researchers themselves received money for publishing in them.

What is a predatory journal?

A predatory journal is an online academic journal which charges people money to publish their article, but without the services that usually warrant the money, such as peer review or editing.

Researchers pay to publish in a journal - so that readers don’t have to - in the open access publishing model. In exchange for the fee, articles in journals of high quality are edited, reviewed by peers within their discipline, and archived in the journal’s archives, among other services.

Until the beginning of this year, University of Colorado Denver librarian Jeffrey Beall led the crusade against journals “of questionable and downright low quality”. He described predatory journals in 2012 as “counterfeit journals [used] to exploit the open-access model in which the author pays. These predatory publishers are dishonest and lack transparency.”

Between 2010 and 2017, Beall published a list of what he considered to be potentially, possibly or probably predatory journals, but removed the list and his blog posts on the subject in January 2017. (Note: He refused to comment or give reasons for the sudden removal.)

But in the days of the internet, it is not possible to make anything truly disappear. Here is a copy of Beall’s list just before it got yanked. Another publishing activist, who prefers to remain anonymous, published a list of Beall’s questionable publishers and standalone journals.

How widespread is the problem?

There is no hard-and-fast metric of what constitutes a predatory journal. This was one of the major criticisms of Beall’s list: that it was subjective and often dependent on emails that he had received regarding publisher and journal conduct.

Some of Beall’s original criteria included:

  • The journal's editor is not identified,

  • There is no institution or university linked to the editor, editorial staff, and/or review board members,

  • The journal shares the exact editorial board with other journals.

A 2015 study published in BioMed Central Medicine investigated the extent of predatory publishing. The researchers estimated that the journals they had identified as predatory (using Beall's list and criteria) had increased their output from about 53,000 articles in 2010 to an estimated 420,000 in 2014.

The average cost-to-publish was US$178, putting the total estimated money paid in 2014 to these publishers at a handsome US$74 million. The articles’ authors were predominantly located in India (34.7%), followed by the rest of Asia (25.6%) and Africa (16.4%).

In the case of the OMICS Publishing Group headquartered in Hyderabad, India, article processing fees range from $300 for the Journal of Ecology and Toxicology to $3,919 for the Journal of Analytical and Bioanalytical Techniques. This publisher claims to have more than 700 titles.

In August 2016, the United States’ Federal Trade Commission charged OMICS withdeceiving academics and researchers about the nature of its publications and hiding publication fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars”, but OMICS has denied the allegations.

Could have cost SA up to R300 million in subsidies

In the South African Journal of Science, the authors note that should publishing in predatory journals continues to grow, it could ultimately “affect the very fabric of the science system” and “also undermine the trust and confidence of the general public in science and its products”.

In an assessment published in journal Nature, a group of scientists characterised the content of almost 2,000 biomedical articles from more than 200 journals thought to be predatory. The data in these papers contained data from more than 2-million individuals and over 8,000 animals.

“Little of this work will advance science. It is too dodgily reported (and possibly badly conducted) and too hard to find,” the scientists wrote in an accompanying opinion piece, titled “Stop this waste of people, animals and money”.

“In our view, publishing in predatory journals is unethical. Individuals who agree to be studied expect that their participation could benefit future patients. Use of animals in biomedical research is rationalized on the assumption that experiments will contribute valuable information."

In the South African context, publishing in possibly and probably predatory journals could have cost the country between R100 million and R300 million in subsidies - ignoring the amount paid to publish in these journals, according to the Crest study.

These journals were on the department of higher education and training’s list of accredited journals. The department incentivises academic publishing and pays up to R100,000 per research unit published in an accredited journal.

In a statement, the department said it “will continue to seek satisfactory evidence on the validity of claims pertaining to predatory publishing, including investigations on the journal titles mentioned in the article. If they are confirmed then subsidies will not be provided for articles published in such journals.”

“The [department’s] policy is intended to subsidise quality research outputs only,” the department’s spokesman Madikwe Mabotha told Africa Check. Following the Crest study, it had instituted a research project to evaluate the quality of South Africa’s academic publishing.

What gives a predatory journal away?

Though it’s difficult to identify predatory journals, there are certain red flags that move a journal from “potentially” predatory to “not to be trusted”. Ask these questions:

1. Is the journal respected by others in the world of academia?

You can check if the journal appears on search lists of the world’s top journals. Clarivate Analytics, which owns the Web of Science database, has a journal search function. Elsevier runs the Scopus database, which includes a search function of peer-reviewed titles. A problem with these lists, though, which has been highlighted by academics, is that it is biased against newer journals that have not yet achieved the gravitas of older, more established ones. The Directory of Open Access Journals has tried to weed out predatory journals, and has cut more than a quarter of the titles on its 11,000-strong site.

2. Who is the editor?

If a publisher’s journals all have the same editor, who also happens to be the publisher, you have a problem. Also, if there is no information about the editor’s academic credentials. An editor should be a journal editor because of their expertise and knowledge of the discipline.

3. Who is on the editorial board?

This board guides the direction of the journal and is the ultimate metric of quality. They should be experts in the field the journal claims to represent. This may seem ridiculous, but there is an important additional thing to check: Are all the board members still alive? The Crest researchers found that Prof Kenneth Kennedy, who was listed as an editorial member of the Journal of Human Ecology, had actually died in 2014. Similarly Prof Richard Brown, an alleged editorial member of the Journal of Social Sciences, had died in 2003.

4. Where is the journal based?

Often publishers use an address in the United Kingdom or the United States to look more prestigious, whereas they are actually based in Pakistan or Nigeria. You can check for this on Google Maps, which should show you a street view of the address. If you are looking at the equivalent of a PostNet, alarm bells should start ringing. It is also worth giving them a phone call and seeing who picks up the phone on the other side.

5. What is the turn-around time?

Peer-review is the foundation of academic publishing, with researchers in the same field rigorously checking the article to maintain quality. If the peer-reviewer is top-notch, they are probably a very busy person. When a journal offers a two-week window between submission and completed peer-review, you are unlikely to be looking at a quality publication.

6. How many articles do they publish?

If a journal is pumping out hundreds - or thousands - of articles a year, how are they managing to give academics quality editing or peer-review?

7. When in doubt, ask a librarian.

Librarians monitor and husband universities’ journal subscriptions, and are better informed about which journals are quality publications. Most South African universities also produce library guides (LibGuides), which can set you straight.

Note: This list is an amalgamation of Beall’s pointers; the University of Witwatersrand’s LibGuide to avoid predatory publishers; a tips list published on PlosOne; advice from, a campaign to educate academics about predatory publishing; and the Crest article published in the South African Journal of Science.



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