Predatory publishing is the “black sheep” of open access journals
What is predatory publishing?
Many open access journals are funded by article processing charges (APCs), also known as publication fees. A small number of these journals are “black sheep” which provide little or no editorial or publishing services in return for the money they charge.
These kinds of business practices are often referred to as “predatory publishing”. In many cases this method of doing business is associated with spam emails which encourage authors to submit their work. These emails often include details designed to tempt authors, such as unrealistically short deadlines by which the journal insists it can complete the peer review process.
While the dubious nature and intentions of some journals are obvious at first glance – for example due to multiple typing and printing errors in their emails and on their website – others may initially appear legitimate until some further investigations are carried out. The reason some of these predatory journals appear professional is that they often make their website and academic credentials look very similar to those of well-known, legitimate journals in order to deliberately confuse people. Sometimes they even pretend that their editorial board includes well-known scientists who, in reality, have nothing whatsoever to do with the journal.
The journal industry also has a grey area that is difficult to quantify. This includes journals with perfectly respectable intentions that have not yet implemented the publishing standards that are customary in their particular field. This makes them appear less professional.
It is therefore important to remain sceptical when considering where to submit your article, especially if you’re dealing with lesser-known open access journals. There are many different ways in which you can check whether a journal is legitimate.
How to check - list of criteria
The following criteria are often suggested as a means of determining whether a journal is reputable:
- Is the website consistent and coherent or have chunks of it been copied across from other websites?
- Does the journal appear in the indexes of the databases it claims to form part of? Are these literature databases used regularly in the relevant field?
- Has the journal genuinely been ranked by Journal Citation Reports? In other words, does it have an ‘official’ journal impact factor (JIF)? It is worth noting that journals are not even entitled to receive an impact factor until their third year of publication. However, disreputable journals will sometimes simply invent metrics that look similar to the journal impact factor or calculate it themselves on the basis of different data sets.
- Is the publishing house a member of the “Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association” (OASPA) or the “Committee on Publication Ethics” (COPE)? Can their membership be verified?
- Does the publisher imply that the peer review process can be completed within an unrealistically short space of time? Reputable journals generally require several weeks for this process, or even months. Very short deadlines indicate that the peer review process may be inadequate or may not take place at all.
- Do the contractual arrangements appear to be legitimate and reputable? Authors retain their exploitation rights when publishing articles in open access journals. In addition, publication fees should only be charged once a publication has been accepted, and the article processing charges should be clearly stated on the website. Any contradictory information or discrepancies imply an inconsistent and possibly unprofessional approach.
There are still a number of elements missing from this list. A number of additional criteria have been proposed by the Think.Check.Submit initiative.
In many cases, the only way to obtain an accurate picture is to consider a combination of multiple criteria. You can find more information on this issue in the report on the ZB MED workshop held in December 2018.
If you still have any doubts, we recommend discussing your misgivings with colleagues in your field or with the library staff.
Other sources of information
A whole series of platforms are now available which can be used to acquire information on open access journals. These platforms not only help authors to determine if a journal is reputable, but also tackle other aspects such as their article processing charges, the way in which they conduct the peer review process, etc. There is a wide variation in the number of journals evaluated by each of these platforms, but they offer a good way of acquiring additional information.
Popular platforms include:
Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)
Quality Open Access Market (QOAM)
Blacklists and whitelists
One commonly voiced opinion is that the use of blacklists and whitelists would make it simpler to choose journals and help curb the spread of disreputable publications. Blacklists feature journals that are confirmed or alleged to be predatory, while whitelists provide a list of journals that are recommended for publishing.
The best known blacklist of predatory journals is Beall’s List, named after the American librarian Jeffrey Beall, who first drew up the list. The list is regarded as controversial because it is highly subjective. It is no longer available on the original website, though it is still being maintained by anonymous providers at a different location.
One example of a whitelist that covers multiple disciplines is the “Frequently cited open-access journals” list maintained by the National Contact Point Open Access.
The scholarly analytics company Cabell's offers both a commercial whitelist and a blacklist, though access to these requires a licence.
Ultimately, however, the idea of solely consulting blacklists or whitelists to determine whether a journal or publishing house is reputable is considered to be extremely problematic. Blacklists may feature journals that are actually legitimate but that do not yet meet the publishing standards that typically apply in that field, making them appear less professional. Due to the difficulty of removing information from the Internet, a journal may end up being stuck with the label of ‘predatory journal’ long after it has become more professional. Depending on the criteria they are based on, whitelists tend to be very selective and therefore incomplete. Rigorous inspection processes may also lead to lengthy delays in journals being included in the list.
Why is predatory publishing such a big problem?
Quite apart from the fact that it represents an attempt to deceive people and contradicts the goals of scientific rigour and honesty, the other problem of predatory publishing is its inadequate peer review process. This could lead to the publication of results which have not been properly checked and reviewed ¬ and that could ultimately even cause damage in fields such as medicine. Claimed editorial boards which do not really exist can bring prestigious scientists into disrepute.
So are open access journals fundamentally flawed?
Although predatory publishing is often used by critics as an argument against the open access movement, it should not actually be taken to mean that open access journals are fundamentally flawed. The majority of journals that operate in the market are reputable and have implemented the kind of quality assurance procedures for content that are customary in their relevant field (peer review).
Application to conferences – predatory conferences and predatory meetings
Experts in the field are increasingly extending these warnings about predatory practices to conferences that issue blanket calls for the submission of contributions and demand unusually high participation fees from speakers. After sending payment, participants may be told, for example, that the conference will only be held as a virtual event. Alternatively, the organisers may reveal that they are holding multiple conferences in the same location on the same dates – a strategy that serves to maximise their profits. There are also cases of conferences that have an unusually broad subject matter and target audience. Participation in these kind of conferences typically turns out to be pointless because of the lack of opportunity to interact with peers from the same field. The Think Check Attend platform lists criteria that can be used to identify disreputable conferences.
Peer Review: Why is it important?
Important note: The information and links provided here do not represent any form of binding legal advice. They are solely intended to provide an initial basis to help get you on the right track. ZB MED – Information Centre for Life Sciences has carefully checked the information included in the list of FAQs. However, we are unable to accept any liability whatsoever for any errors it may contain. Unless indicated otherwise, any statements concerning individual statutory norms or regulations refer to German law (FAQ updated 04/2019).
Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA)
Committee of Publication Ethics (COPE)
Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)
Quality Open Access Market (QOAM)
Think. Check. Submit.
Think. Check. Attend.
Report on the networking workshop on predatory publishing at ZB MED (German only)
Predatory Journals (continuation of Beall’s List)
Frequently cited open-access journals (List National Contact Point Open Access)
Cabell's Scholarly Analytic
Schmitz, J. et al. (2018). Dokumentation zum Vernetzungsworkshop zu Predatory Publishing bei ZB MED. ZB MED Informationszentrum Lebenswissenschaften, 20 December 2018. (accessed 20/12/2022) (German only)
Publisso (2020). Predatory Publishing: Wie kann ich beim Publizieren oder Lesen unseriöse Open-Access-Zeitschriften erkennen? [flyer] ZB MED-Publikationsportal Lebenswissenschaften. (German only)
Bartlewski, J. & Schmitz, J. (2020). Das nehmen wir aber jetzt persönlich! – Analyse von SPAM-Mails von Zeitschriften und Konferenzen. ZB MED Informationszentrum Lebenswissenschaften, 3 December 2020. (accessed 20/12/2022)
Schmitz, J. & Schmeja, S. (2019). Bericht zum Workshop „Was tun, wenn es passiert ist? Umgang mit Publikationen, die bei einem Predatory Journal eingereicht wurden.“ ZB MED Informationszentrum Lebenswissenschaften, 29 November 2019. (accessed 20/12/2022)