If you are at least a semi-active researcher, chances are that you have received an invitation to contribute to one of the thousands of predatory publishers that are out there. Predatory publishers, in case you are unfamiliar with the term, are scammers who produce pretend journals, advertise aggressively, and charge high publication fees to publish your work. Now, assuming you have money to spare, or you can persuade your university to pay, you might be tempted to use their services. You shouldn’t, and in this post I will discuss why it is a bad idea to publish your work in a predatory journal, and present some tips that can help you to tell the diference between bona fide journals and scammers.
How to spot predatory publishers
It’s generally not hard to spot predatory publishers. For example, journals that email you out of the blue inviting your contributions are almost always predatory. Real journals just don’t beg for papers. The invitation will most likely resemble the style and grammar of Nigerian 419 scam emails rather than the norms of academic communication. And if the promises they make (e.g., super-fast peer review) sound too good to be true, that’s probably because they are not.
However, if you do not feel comfortable trusting your gut feeling, here are some additional criteria that you need to consider (drawing on a list by Jocalyn Clark, which appeared at the British Medical Journal Opinion blog, and an article by Willy Renandya).
For a number of years, the go-to reference list for checking whether a journal is legit was the Scholarly Open Access blog, or ‘Beall’s List’, which was curated by Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at Auraria Library in Denver. This is sadly defunct (here’s why [paywall]), but cached versions of the list is still available (e.g., here, here and here). Cabell’s Scholarly Analytics also curate a blacklist which you should consult if your university subscribes to it.
Another approach to evaluating the quality of a journal is to check whether it is indexed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), a list of mostly reputable publishers. In order to be listed in the DOAJ, journals should meet certain quality thresholds and practices, so if a journal is included, it is probably legitimate. This criterion should be used in conjunction with others, however, because it is not uncommon for some shady publishers to manage to make it in the list, and some promising journals might not be listed because they have not been evaluated yet.
3. Professional organisations
In addition to the DOAJ, legitimate publishers tend to be associated with professional publishing organisations, such as the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), the International Association of Scientific, Technical, & Medical Publishers (STM), and the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA). The journal websites sometimes indicate such affiliations by adding badges at their website, but so do predatory publishers. So rather than trust the information on the publishers’ websites, what you should be doing is referring to the directories of the publishing organisations.
The most important journals are indexed in major metrics databases, such as PubMedCentral (free) or the Web of Science (paywall). Once again, you need to be careful, because predatory journals invariably, and falsely claim to be indexed. They often display metrics in their website which are either entirely made-up, or created by scam databases. The image below (taken from Scholarly Open Access) shows the URL of such a spurious database. This is maintained by an entity who call themselves the Institute for Science Information, a name which mimics the legitimate Thomson-Reuters Institute for Scientific Information.
On the other hand, just because a journal is not indexed does not always means that it is predatory. Many journals, especially newer ones or those with a regional focus, are not listed in the major indices.
5. Boards and peer review practices
To the extent possible, you need to try to evaluate how transparent the editorial and peer review processes seem. To begin with, look for the names of the editor and editorial board. If you can’t find these, that’s a huge red flag. You will also want to verify any information that you do find, because some predatory journals just lie about their editorial boards. You can do this by checking the academics’ university webpages and CVs.
Another thing to look for is whether the journal acknowledges the reviewer’s work. This is often done in the last issue of every year. Not all journals publish this information, but it’s still worth considering in conjuntion with everything else. A much faster turnaround is suspicious and it might mean that the journal does not really conduct proper peer review.
You will also want to consider the speed in which peer-review is carried out. You can do this by looking at the submission and publication dates for individual articles. In a bona-fide journal, peer review is a long process, which often lasts several months. If a journal somehow manages to publish several issues a year, and delivers a very fast turnaround time, this is a very strong indication that they are not providing rigorous peer-review.
While on the topic of transparency, you will also want to see how clearly the publishing costs are described. Many open-access journals levy what they call Article Processing Charges, or APCs, for every article they publish. You should be able to find information about these in the website of the journal or their publisher. If this information is hard to locate, you should ask the editors.
The two greatest red flags are when the journal charges submission fees (as opposed to publication charges) and when publication involves fees that are not clearly described. Another red flag is when a journal charges disproportionately high fees for the services they provide. Willy Renandya helpfuly notes that charges over $300 are suspect. (However, if you were to point out that the Article Processing Charges levied by publishers like Elsevier or Springer also qualify them as predatory publishers, I would find it hard to contest your view).
I hope that the advice above is helpful in spotting a predatory publisher. However, in some ways, such journals are rather like pornography: much like they are hard to define, they are typically easy to recognise. If you’re interested, you can read about one such journal below.
Predatory journals are dishonest publishing ventures that mimic the academic publishing model in order to collect money from naive or desperate academics. I have written elsewhere about some of the features of such journals, but the truth is that –just like pornography– predatory publishing is hard to define and easy to recognise. So what I…
Some reasons not to publish in a predatory journal
Work published in predatory journals is wasted
If you publish your work in a predatory journal, you cannot change your mind later, and try your luck with a better publisher. When an article is accepted for publication, the author transfers the copyright to the journal publisher. Publishing the same content in a different venue would be a violation of the publisher’s copyright and could lead to legal action. More importantly, all reputable journals will insist that any work you submitted to them has not been published anywhere previously. I understand that it must be very frustrating when a solid piece of research is lost amid the clutter typically found in fly-by-night journals. Unfortunately though, once this mistake has been made, there is very little that can be done about it.
Predatory journals sometimes just vanish
When you publish your in any open-access journal, the implicit expectation is that they will make your work available to readers for ever. Less reputable journals, however, tend to appear and disappear overnight. It is also very unlikely that they make a suitable arrangement to transfer their content to some kind of depository or content provider. What this means is that there is, ultimately no third-party verification that this article was ever published. This makes it hard to use this publication for career progression.
I think that Renandya hits the nail on the head when he makes the following remarks:
It’s not worth paying $500 to get your paper published in a bogus international journal. Use the money instead for other more useful purposes. You can donate it to a charitable organization or set up a scholarship fund for your needy students. Or use it for your own professional development needs by buying reference materials produced by respectable publishers.
It is true that this is sometimes easier said than done in a high-pressure publish or perish culture, but whatever the short-term benefit of publishing in a ‘fly-by-night’ journal, on the long run this will hurt your career.
More to read
You can read up on predatory journals by following the links below:
- Investigating journals: The dark side of publishing (Nature News)
- Cabell’s New Predatory Journal Blacklist: A Review (The Scholarly Kitchen)
- How do you choose a journal when it’s time to submit a paper? (Scientist Sees Squirel blog)
- How are we encouraging predatory publishers? (I wrote this with the Greek higher education context in mind, but I think it’s more broadly relevant)
If you have any stories or comments about such publishers, which might be helpful to other readers, you might want to add a comment in the space below. Also please help combat predatory publishing by using the social sharing buttons below to share this content with anyone else who might find it helpful.
About this post: This post was originally written in response to a question from a blog reader in December 2013. It was republished in September 2018 after a substantial revision, which included adding the section with advice on identifying predatory publishers. The post was last updated in December 2020 (rearranged & updated content).