What are predatory journals?

Once you’ve finished your research and want to share it with the world, the next step is to look for a journal that will publish your work. However, in this day and age, you have to be careful about where you submit your work for publication.

Or, you could be doing research for your own paper and are having trouble differentiating between credible sources and sources that are not credible.

The proliferation of online open-access journals has helped increase access to scientific research, but it has also, unfortunately, given rise to a set of bad actors who exploit the author-pay model and taint the reputation of online publishing. They are known as predatory journals.

What is a predatory journal?

Predatory journals are a scam that involves unethical publications collecting fees from authors upfront but then not following through on the promised service. Some predatory journals simply take the money and run, never publishing the submitted article. Others will publish the article, but without subjecting it to any vetting or peer review.

Beall’s List

In 2008, Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado, began what’s known as Beall's List, a documentation of open-access publishers who did not conduct legitimate peer review and published virtually any submitted article in exchange for a fee.

Beall’s List began as a personal project for Beall. His interest in predatory journals was kindled when he began receiving a spate of requests to join the editorial boards of journals of suspect reputation and provenance. These requests stood out to him as they contained a significant amount of grammatical errors. Beall began keeping a list of what he identified as “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers".

Within a few years, the list gained prominence and traction among scholars. By the end of 2016, it listed over 900 journals. In early 2017, Beall deleted his blog and the list, following complaints and threats of legal action from publishers. An archived version of the list still exists online.

How to tell if a journal is predatory

Spotting a predatory journal is a little bit like spotting a counterfeit purse. At first glance, everything looks more or less as it should. But on closer inspection, you start to see clues that tip you off, such as loose threads, shoddy fabric, and a misspelled brand name.

Predatory journals often present an impressive facade, with websites that look legitimate and an accredited editorial team. They often “phish” for prospects by sending out emails that ask for article submissions or extend invitations to join their editorial team. However, there are telltale signs that give them away.

Here are six things to look out for.

6 signs to tell if a journal is predatory.

1. Take a good look at their website

Sloppiness is a hallmark of predatory journal websites. The language won’t sound quite right, and there will usually be spelling and grammar mistakes galore. This indicates a slapdash effort that is more focused on scamming people out of money than it is on meeting professional standards.

Another thing to check for on the website is the journal’s fees. These should be clearly stated and should be charged to authors only after their article has been accepted. A journal that requests an upfront fee at the submission stage, before the article is approved for publication, may be predatory.

2. Verify if the journal is a member of DOAJ, COPE, OASPA, or STM

If a journal claims membership in any of the following reputable organizations, check the relevant website to confirm the claim. These organizations thoroughly screen applicants before accepting them as members. You can also email the organizations to verify if the journal in question is a member or not.

3. Check the journal's contact information

A reputable journal will have contact information that checks out and that matches the nation it claims to be headquartered in. A predatory journal, on the other hand, will often have contact information that references an entirely different country. Pay attention to when the contacts from a journal respond to emails. You can use this information to check that the journal’s working hours are actually in line with its stated country. Also, take a look at the country code on the listed phone number and do a Google search of its address to confirm that it is where it says it is.

4. Look up the members of the editorial board

In a bid to increase their credibility, predatory journals may list established scholars as members of their editorial board without their permission. They may also invent fake scholars with made-up names and credentials. You can check the veracity of a journal’s editorial board by looking up the online profiles of the scholars and seeing if they mention the journal. Check on LinkedIn as well as on the official website of their academic institution. If you don’t see the journal mentioned in any of these places, consider it a red flag.

5. Bring a critical eye to their peer review process and publication schedule

The peer review process is essential to maintaining a standard of quality and accuracy in research and is the bedrock of reputable journals. It also takes time. Peer review requires evaluations from at least one editor and independent experts on the topic in order to be thorough and credible. Predatory journals tend not to invest the necessary time to vet the articles they publish and this shows up in the form of extremely quick timelines and publication schedules. Take a good look at their peer review policy and ask yourself if it allows the necessary time required for credible evaluation.

6. Browse previous issues

Since many predatory journals will publish whatever articles are submitted to them without any consideration for quality or relevance, their past issues will reflect this lack of focus and standards. Articles will be on a wide range of topics far outside the stated scope of the journal (such as articles on migraine therapy in a journal dedicated to dermatology). Once again, if you notice that typos and other errors have been overlooked, this is a strong indicator that the journal has no quality control and is not reputable.

What happens when you publish in a predatory journal

With all of the pressure that exists to “publish or perish,” you may wonder whether there is some merit in submitting to a predatory journal, simply as a way to increase your number of publications. The reality is that there is nothing to be gained from being published in these journals, and a lot of harm can come from it.

Hiring and promotion committees are aware of predatory publications and it will count as a strike against you to have them on your CV. Quantity won't earn you the points that quality will.

What’s more, publishing in predatory journals becomes a liability both for you personally and for whatever institution you are affiliated with. If you are exposed, it reflects poorly on both you and the institution.

Above all, remember that as a scholar, you have an obligation to professionalism and integrity. That means performing research according to established academic standards and subjecting it to the validation of peer review. Without this commitment to rigor, all of academia stands to lose its credibility and meaning.

What to do if you think you’ve mistakenly submitted to a predatory journal

Let’s say you’ve submitted an article to a journal and once your submission is in, you start to notice some red flags. Perhaps the journal completes its “peer review” stage in an alarmingly speedy amount of time and requests payment immediately. Maybe then you notice that they are not a member of COPE. You start to worry that this is a predatory journal. What now?

You can decline to pay the fee and request that your submission be withdrawn. This may be enough to end the matter, as predatory journals are primarily focused on collecting money. If they push back and demand a withdrawal fee, it’s best to stand your ground and not give in to coercion. It’s also advisable to seek support from your supervisor, if you have one, and to reach out to COPE. They can provide guidance and their involvement can help put some pressure on the journal to back down.

Key Takeaways

Predatory journals pose a real threat to research and academia. Eradicating them requires collective effort from scholars, and you can play your part by being judicious about where you submit your work for publication and by keeping an eye out for the signs that a journal may not be reputable. The signs are there, if you’re willing to look for them.

Frequently Asked Questions about predatory journals

💡 What is meant by predatory journal?

Leading scholars and publishers from 10 countries have agreed on this definition of predatory publishing: “Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterized by false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial and publication practices, a lack of transparency, and/or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices.”

🌼 How do you know if a journal is predatory?

There are six steps that help you determine if a journal is predatory:

  1. Take a good look at their website
  2. Verify if the journal is a member of DOAJ, COPE, OASPA or STM
  3. Check the journal's contact information
  4. Look up the members of the editorial board
  5. Bring a critical eye to their peer review process and publication schedule
  6. Browse previous issues
🦋 Are predatory journals illegal?

Although predatory publishing is exploitative and unethical, if the publisher is engaging in illegal behavior needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis. If and which journal is predatory is sometimes disputable and the best thing you can do is just not engage with a journal if you think it is predatory.

🏢 How many predatory journals are there?

It is hard to give a definitive answer on how many predatory journals exist since new ones are appearing out of nowhere every day and disappearing just as fast. Various lists (e.g. Cabell's List) state thousands of predatory journals.

🌁 Why are predatory journals bad?

The problem with predatory journals is that the articles they publish are not subject to any vetting or peer review. This undermines the scientific process on the one hand, and is poisoning the scientific archive on the other, since the papers have not been evaluated.