Predatory journals contribute to inequity in the academic food chain

Earlier this year, a publisher for open access journals came under fire when it was "fined $50 Million after scamming thousands of scientists". This publisher is not an isolated case but belongs to a group known as 'Predatory Journals'. What are their practises and how are they damaging the academic publishing industry?

Predatory journals in the academia

Establishing a competitive publication record is an important measure of academic success for most early career academics’. In addition to being an important metric amongst peers, universities often use publications to evaluate academic researchers’ performance and asses job candidates and applications for internal promotions. Likewise, strong publication track records for researchers are essential criteria for many external funding applications.

"The pressure to publish high-impact papers is therefore felt by researchers throughout their careers."

'Publish or perish!'

The negative implications of this ‘publish or perish’ culture for academic integrity, research ethics and the quality of published research (not to mention researchers’ mental health) are now recognised as growing concerns in the global academic community.

Academics in communities where employment and funding opportunities are less available feel these pressures even more acutely, coupled with often having limited access to facilities, technical support and training.

The rise of predatory journals

In response to the increasing demand from researchers for journals willing to publish their work, another worrying phenomenon has emerged: predatory journals’ charge authors to publish their research whilst offering limited or no peer review. This has contributed to the exploitation of the open access model and an increasing amount of poor-quality research published online.

For inexperienced researchers, identifying legitimate journals in which to publish their work can be a difficult task, especially that some predatory journals go to great lengths to pass themselves off as reputable peer-reviewed publications.

Many predatory publishers source articles by contacting authors via email, in some cases using names that closely resemble those of legitimate peer-reviewed journals.

Fined over $50 Million for “Deceptive Practices”

OMICS International is a publishing group which supports more than 700 journals and claims to ‘strictly adhere to the standard peer-review process.’ The group was recently ordered to pay US$51 million by a US federal court as compensation for (among other charges) concealing publication costs from authors and using the names of researchers to promote conferences and as members of non-existent editorial boards without permission.

Whether this decision will lead to the compensation for any victims or changes in OMICS International’s publishing practises is yet to be seen, given that they are based in Hyderabad, India and enforcing court orders made in the US will likely prove difficult.

Geographic disadvantage

One of the most damaging consequences for individual researchers is that their potentially valuable findings are less likely to be discovered or taken seriously by other researchers in their field.

Academics from low and middle-income countries are more vulnerable to  predatory journals and often have the added disadvantage of coming from non-English-speaking backgrounds. 

These tricks will help you to protect yourself

Several lists of reputable and suspected predatory open access journals are regularly updated (see the Directory of Open Access Journals and Beall’s List for comprehensive lists of each, respectively).

However, the increasing rate at which new predatory journals are appearing means that authors will still need to look out for warning signs, such as unconventionally large editorial boards, for which they might have no or incorrect contact details, unusually high numbers of articles published per issue and short turnaround times between submission and acceptance.

Amongst the wider academic community, there have been calls to increase self-regulation by the academic publishing industry.

Perhaps what will also help is the growing shift in how researchers’ contributions beyond published research are being recognised. The movement aims to provide better opportunities for researchers who have sacrificed time during their academic career to make positive contributions to the broader scientific community.

Increasing demand for better recognition of teaching commitments, industry experience and volunteer work, such as participation in conference organising committees, will hopefully lead to a greater focus on developing skills outside academic publication that will eventually be adopted worldwide.

Katherine Stevens

by Katherine Stevens

Freelance editor and postgrad researcher studying photocleavable bioconjugates for tissue imaging using targeted MALDI-MS.