Sam Shuster: Predatory pirate journals and what we can do about them

Once upon a time, the word “pirate” would recall the excitement of Treasure Island, but today, the Jolly Roger flag of warning is raised by publishers, whose pieces of eight come from academic predation. Predatory pirate journals are about quantity of money, not quality of purpose. 

As online publishing developed, many academic journals allowed open access, costs being paid by the authors—in practice, by the universities and grant-giving bodies—and quality was maintained by editorial control and peer review. But financial predators saw this as a way to make money, since many people will pay to be published, and we are now being exposed to material that is dubious or incorrect. The number of predatory journals has increased since Beall’s original listing (Jeffrey Beall is an American librarian and library scientist, who first coined the term “predatory journals”), and more are using hijacked material. [1] This became apparent to me from the increasing number of emails received from journals I’d never heard of. The most revealing were invitations, sticky with flattery – “Dear Professor, I found your profile had a dynamic potential which fascinates me to email you.” Three or four of these now arrive daily, pleading for submission of a piece in any form and on any subject I choose; I am to be an instant expert in any branch of medicine or surgery. The commercial give-away is that whatever I write must be submitted in just a few days, because one single article is needed to complete an issue for which fees have already been collected. 

These absurd invitations provided me with the perfect opportunity to explore profit and editorial control. So, tongue in cheek, I replied to some that, having been invited, I presumed they would pay me a writer’s fee, and how much would it be? The reply was there was a misunderstanding, and I was expected to pay $2000 for publication, but a discount would be given. Haggling increased the discount even further. I tested other invitations by replying that as the piece was needed to complete an issue I would consider writing it if the fee was waived; a full or partial reduction was usually agreed. 

Clearly, then, the primary concern of pirate journals is financial; but what about quality? All the journals I examined presented an impressive format, claiming that all submissions would be considered by independent reviewers. But the short time to publication made this unlikely, so to test this, I replied to invitations I can consider putting things aside to do the article only if you can guarantee its publication.” A typical reply was:We will guarantee for its publication”—so much for independent reviewing.

When payment is the criterion, quality comes second, which is why we are being increasingly exposed to the academic branch of the fake news family, with its low quality, un-refereed submissions. But a new development in predatory publishing was revealed when I came across an article falsely purporting to have been written by me. The publisher has not responded to requests to have this forgery taken down, and neither the postal address nor phone number given by the publisher are real. It seems that predatory journals now write their own “submissions” when needed. We must deal with this before it spreads further, with the added risk of undermining genuine academic publishingbut how? 

We cannot stop the practice; that will happen only if and when our culture loses the primacy of money; but we can reduce its malign effect by increasing awareness of the problem and improving its detectionmost pirate journals are new, and have a poorly edited, banal content, but they are becoming more sophisticated and less easily recognised. Awareness is important for people new to journal publishing and grant-giving and government bodies that award funding on the basis of publication quantity rather than quality; but this will need care so that it does not add to the atmosphere of disbelief that fake news has already provoked. 

Finally, and tedious though it may be, the decisive tool can only be certification of academic reliability. To achieve this, academic publishers will have to collaborate with universities, professional societies and industry, to set up a body such as a Council for Academic Publication, to review and certify a journal’s acceptability. Approved journals could carry the emblem of approval, and an electronic reference confirming that material viewed or downloaded is from an approved journal. 

Exposure and isolation of  predatory pirate journals is urgent; it will need funds and a concerted effort to minimise the problem; such an approach could even make some pirates walk the plank to oblivion.  

Sam Shuster, emeritus professor of dermatology, Woodbridge, UK.

Competing interests: none declared.

1  Macháček V, Srholec 2021, M Predatory publishing in Scopus: evidence on cross‑country differences. Scientometrics