Anna O. Szust. Oszust is Polish for fraudster. This was the name of the fictional researcher whose CV was sent to 360 journals with a request to become an editor. All her publications and qualifications were false. Despite this, she was offered editorial work at 48 of the journals.
The investigation, conducted by Polish researchers and described in the journal Nature, was carried out to shed light on the phenomenon of predatory journals.
The term ‘predatory journal’ is used to describe journals that, in return for payment, offer the publication of research articles, without the usual requirements of scientific publishers.
The journals often claim that they conduct a thorough peer review, have an impact factor, or follow ethical guidelines, even though in reality this is not true. Aggressive sales methods and persistent mass emails are commonly used to attract writers.
Listed predatory journals
The term ‘predatory journal’ was coined in 2010 by Jeffrey Beall, librarian and associate professor at the University of Colorado in the United States. He launched a well-used but controversial list of open access journals and publishers which he deemed to be predatory journals.
From then the phenomenon has grown rapidly. In 2014, more than 420 000 articles were published in approximately 8 000 active predatory journals, according to a study by Bo-Christer Björk, professor of information systems science at the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki.
The study also examined which countries the researchers who published in predatory journals were based in. Of 262 articles in 47 different predatory journals, the majority, around 35 per cent, were from India. After that, 8 per cent of the authors were from Nigeria, and 6 per cent from the United States.
– The incidence is highest in countries where in evaluations and when filling posts, a great deal of importance is attached to publication in ‘international journals’, without defining which journals apply and without further quality control of the research. In this case, predatory journals offer an opportunity for easy publishing, says Bo-Christer Björk.
But the picture that the phenomenon is limited to researchers in Africa and parts of Asia is beginning to be questioned. A review of 1 907 articles in over 200 predatory journals in the biomedical field, for example showed that 57 per cent of the studies were carried out by researchers from high-income and upper-middle-income countries. The results were published in Nature in 2017.
The largest percentage of studies in these journals came from researchers in India, 27 per cent, then the United States, 15 per cent, and Nigeria, 5 per cent. However, the number should be interpreted in the light of the country’s total research – the United States produces about five times as many biomedical articles as India in one year and about 80 times more than Nigeria.
The review found researchers from 103 different countries.
– Our results show that this is a global problem, it does not just affect the so-called low-income countries in South-East Asia that were previously identified. We also saw publications from some very prestigious research institutions in the US, says one of the researchers behind the study, David Moher, associate professor at the University of Ottawa and director of the centre for journalology (publication science) at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.
The differences from previous studies may be due to the fact that this time a larger number of articles were studied in the sample, or that the phenomenon has become more global in recent years, he states.
Little is known about why
According to David Moher, we currently do not know much about why researchers publish in predatory journals. But factors such as the pressure to publish, high fees for open access publishing, and the perception that it is beneficial to one’s career, come into play.
– It occurs among the entire spectrum of researchers, from young inexperienced researchers to highly experienced senior researchers. Some are fooled into doing it, others know what they are doing.
While Bo-Christer Björk at Hanken in Helsinki sees negative advertising for open access publishing as the main problem with predatory journals, David Moher describes it as a waste. When research results, often following poor reviewing and reporting, end up in hard to find predatory journals, it is a waste of both research money and patients’ time.
More difficult to trust
Stefan Eriksson, associate professor in research ethics and adviser to the vice-chancellor on good research practice at Uppsala University, also sees several problems with predatory journals. In addition to the time wasted on deleting emails from questionable journals, for example publication lists and CVs become more difficult to trust and take longer to check.
He believes that the phenomenon can also affect the dissemination of false news and science itself.
– We currently know that articles published in predatory journals can be found in some established indexes and that they are cited by other researchers. This is serious, not least in medicine, where there have been examples of questionable articles being cited as evidence for treatment.
He also thinks that instead of the imprecise term ‘predatory journal’, we should make a distinction between journals that are of low quality and fraudulent journals, in order to be able to discuss and counteract the problems more adequately.
Since last year’s revision, supporting predatory journals has been written into the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity as being an unacceptable action.
– This is now something we have to take quite seriously, says Stefan Eriksson.
Researchers who want help to avoid predatory journals can use so-called white lists — lists of journals and publishers that have been authorised in accordance with certain standards, such as the Directory of Open Access Journals.
There are also lists of blacklisted journals. The pioneer Jeffrey Beall took down his list last year, but archived versions remain and are still maintained anonymously. The company Cabell’s International recently introduced the possibility of paying to subscribe to a list of suspected predatory journals.
The researcher is responsible
But no list is perfect and the responsibility lies with the researcher, says Stefan Eriksson.
– You need to take a close look at the journal yourself and consider the quality. A reasonable approach is to shun everything that seems suspicious – serious journals rarely send mass emails with publishing offers or have websites full of typos.
Universities and research funding bodies also have an important role to play in counteracting the publication of research in predatory journals.