Edward Christopher: How can medical students avoid predatory journals

“Dear Professor Christopher”, says the start of the email. As a medical student with academic aspirations, being addressed as professor never fails to flatter and amuse me. Yet with time and experience, as much as I enjoy the erroneous title, I have learnt that emails that start with such greetings are either: addressed to the wrong person or invitations from predatory journals. As open access gains widespread traction, predatory journals pose an ever-present danger to authors, especially to publishing newcomers. The ability to distinguish real journals from predatory ones is therefore becoming increasingly important for aspiring medical student authors. 

So how did I learn to recognise emails from predatory journals? I almost learnt it the hard way.

I received my first email three years ago. I was invited by the “journal” to write an editorial on medical leadership, a field I hold dearly in my heart. I expressed my interest in writing and they quickly returned with an invoice amounting to hundreds of dollars. I grew suspicious. The journal claimed that the fee was needed to make the editorial “open access”, a term I was unfamiliar with at the time. A quick Google search defined open access as “[the] free, unrestricted online access to research outputs such as journal articles…usually associated with an article processing charge.” It was during this same search that I came across another term, “predatory journals”, defined as “an exploitative, and typically open-access, academic publishing business model that involves charging publications fees to authors without checking articles for quality and legitimacy and without providing the other editorial and publishing services associated with legitimate journals.” I was led to the Beall’s list of predatory journals, where the journal that had contacted me was listed. This was my road to Damascus. I realised then and there that not all journals are created equal.

Many of you must now be thinking: “Why on earth would you respond to such email?!”  But I had absolutely zero knowledge and experience in scholarly communications back then. We all have to start somewhere, and it is with this inexperience when most, if not all, medical students like myself first leap into academic publishing. Medical students ought to be aware of predatory journals, but in reality, many are not. 

Students are particularly vulnerable considering our limited experience in publishing practices and our “publish or perish” mindset. The promise of a rapid submission to publication and their lofty titles make predatory journals an appealing manuscript destination to the untrained eye. Some predatory journals can be almost indistinguishable from legitimate journals to newcomers. I have met some students who submitted to predatory journals, whose hard work was wasted. 

So what can be done to curb predatory journals? I believe raising awareness is key. Predatory journals can often be identified with little effort—their grammatical and spelling errors, erroneous greetings, and unusually active soliciting of submissions can make these journals suspiciously stand out. Learning about the existence of predatory journals’ and the utility of tools such as think-check-submit and Directory of Open Access Journals should do the trick. 

However, there are situations when recognising predatory journals is not as straightforward. In these cases, seeking advice from senior colleagues is crucial. University librarians or supervisors can provide the insights required to distinguish borderline cases. Most importantly, you should not submit if they have even the slightest hint of hesitation, as their instincts are probably right.

New predatory journals appear every week. Medical student authors need to exercise vigilance and uphold research integrity from an early stage. Should you receive emails from predatory journals, it is best to delete the emails and avoid any associations with them. However, if you fancy lavish, albeit empty, compliments, keeping few such emails in your inbox will not do much harm—as long as no actions are taken on them, of course. After all, when else would medical students be addressed as professors?


Edward Christopher is a final year medical student at the University of Edinburgh and a BMJ Clegg Scholar.

Competing interests: None to declare.

Twitter: @edwachristopher