Increasingly, I’m asked to advise and assist with the problem of predatory journals. While it’s probably only an annoying nuisance to many in the developed world, the increasing number of spam emails inviting articles and conference participation is beginning to feel like a potentially serious problem for developing world scientists and institutions. This demands action, as Richard Smith and I argue in a recent editorial in The BMJ.
That’s because these countries’ relative lack of development also extends, unsurprisingly, to scholarly publishing. Whereas in rich country institutions we would have training, supervision, and support that generate a level of literacy to discern predatory versus legitimate journals, this is often missing or nascent in developing country institutions. As a recent paper shows, the majority of authors in predatory journals are inexperienced and based in developing countries.
Predatory journals (a term first coined by librarian Jeffrey Beall) are fake or scam journals that send phishing emails offering “open access” publication in exchange for payment, without providing robust editorial or publishing services. They have been discredited by the scientific community, and because they are not indexed in standard databases any research published in them is effectively lost. Their motive is financial gain, and their modus operandi is a corruption of the business model of legitimate open access publishing.
Many organisations and universities around the world are facing this problem, but it appears predatory publishers may be particularly targeting institutions in the global south.
I’m struck by how many more spam emails from predatory publishers I get to my Bangladesh institutional email than I do to my Canadian academic account. In a recent seven day trial, I received 14 predatory journal spam emails to my icddr,b account and six to my University of Toronto account; a colleague at Harvard in the same period got just two.
This can’t be explained by inadequate junk mail filters, as the system we use at my organisation in Bangladesh is an industry standard.
I recommend a five point plan for researchers to avoid predatory journals, which involves “doing your homework” to check the credibility of a journal or publisher, and always being sceptical of unknown journals. To distinguish legitimate from predatory journals, here are some useful sources of information—none of which are adequate on their own:
1. Is the journal or publisher listed in Beall’s List? If so, it should be avoided, as this “blacklist” is regularly updated and specifies criteria for identifying predatory journals and publishers.
2. If claiming to be an open access journal, is the journal in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)? This is a sort of “whitelist,” and journals here must meet specific criteria.
3. Is the publisher a member of recognised professional organisations that commit to best practices in publishing, such as the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE); the International Association of Scientific, Technical, & Medical Publishers (STM); or the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA)?
4. Is the journal indexed? Do not accept the journal’s claims about being indexed. Instead verify these claims by searching for the journal in databases such as PubMedCentral (free) or the Web of Science (requiring subscription).
5. Is the journal transparent and following best practices when it comes to editorial and peer review processes, governance, and ownership? Are there contact details for the journal and its staff (email, postal address, working telephone number)? Reputable journals have a named editor and editorial board comprised of recognised experts. Are the costs associated with publishing clear? Credible journals do not ask for a submission fee. Many bona fide open access journals require a publication charge, but this is levied after acceptance and through a process separate from the editorial process.
To help with “doing your homework” authors can consult new guidance from COPE, which—along with the DOAJ, OASPA, and the World Association of Medical Editors—has set out principles of transparency and best practice that set apart legitimate journals and publishers from “non-legitimate” ones.
These sources of information can help any researcher struggling to avoid predatory journals, but should supplement rather than supplant extensive discussions among co-authors about the right and reputable target journals for their papers.
In addition, those of us who collaborate with and advocate health research from developing countries should lend our support to colleagues, especially junior colleagues, to spread publication literacy and to fight against the predatory journals.
Jocalyn Clark (@jocalynclark) is executive editor of the Journal of Health, Population and Nutrition, and other external publications at icddr,b (a global health research organisation in Dhaka, Bangladesh). She was a senior editor at PLOS Medicine and assistant editor at The BMJ.
Competing interests: The author has no further interests to declare.