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Beware! Academics are getting reeled in by scam journals

The number of predatory publishers is skyrocketing – and they’re eager to pounce on unsuspecting scholars.

By ALEX GILLIS | JAN 12 2017

Editor’s note, Jan. 18, 2017: Jeffrey Beall, the University of Colorado Denver librarian behind Beall’s List of “potential, possible or probable” predatory journals, has removed all information from his site. Retraction Watch reports that it received a statement from the University of Colorado Denver that Mr. Beall “has decided to no longer maintain or publish his research or blog on open access journals and ‘predatory publishers.’” Lacey Earle, vice-president of business development for Cabell’s International, a publishing services company, said on Twitter that Mr. Beall “was forced to shut down [the] blog due to threats and politics.”

This past year, when an undergraduate biology student at the University of the Fraser Valley approached dean of science Lucy Lee for $2,000 to publish a paper in an academic journal, Dr. Lee had immediate concerns about the request. She’d had a bad experience with the journal in question, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, while doing a review for the publication. She discovered a lack of rigour in some of the journal’s articles, was alarmed at its many retractions and corrections, and had concerns with the journal’s practice of publishing an “acknowledgement” issue with a very long list of reviewers to make it look credible.

The publisher, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI), churns out nearly 160 scholarly journals a year, many of them of mediocre quality, according to Jeffrey Beall, an associate professor and librarian at the University of Colorado Denver, and one of the world’s leading experts on what he calls “predatory” open access publishing. Each week, MDPI and other questionable publishers hound Dr. Lee by email, asking her to review submissions that she considers shoddy. Mr. Beall has called this particular environmental publication a “pretend journal.” So when Dr. Lee next saw the biology student, she alerted her to the potential problems and redirected her to more credible scholarly publications, such as FACETS, a Canadian open access journal.

Predatory and mediocre journals are based on the model of open access publishing in which authors pay fees to have their work published online. However, unlike legitimate journals, they bombard academics with spam emails, accept almost all submissions and overstate the rigour of their peer-review processes. They also often conveniently neglect to mention publication fees until late in the process.

In other cases, authors are complicit in the scam, publishing numerous articles in these questionable journals to earn quick and easy academic credit at their institutions. “There are some predatory journals that specialize in that, charging only $200 or $300 for publication,” says Mr. Beall. This compares to fees of $1,500 or more for most of the large, reputable open access publishers. “If you need academic credit, the market provides a solution,” he says, adding: “Universities are particularly susceptible to these ethical breaches and predatory practices.”

All photos by Luis Albuquerque.

The world of scholarly publishing is in serious trouble. The number of predatory journals has skyrocketed in the past three to four years, leading to a tidal wave of poor-quality research being published. Beall’s List, the popular blacklist website compiled by Mr. Beall, contains more than 1,200 publications and 1,000 publishers that he calls potentially predatory. Five years ago, there were only 18 publishers on the list.

In 2014 alone, publishers launched approximately 1,000 new journals. Distinguishing the unethical, pretend journals from the real ones is becoming increasingly difficult as scams get more sophisticated and publication standards fall. Bad journals range in quality from mediocre to outright frauds, and researchers are advised to stay away from them.

It hasn’t always been this bad. Legitimate open access publishers, such as the Public Library of Science (PLOS) and BioMed Central, began about 20 years ago as the internet expanded. They contained few restrictions on access to scholarly work, in contrast to traditional models in which subscribers, mainly libraries, pay fees for access to journal content. Thanks to PLOS and other big, credible publishers, open access models changed the culture of scholarly publishing for the better, making research more accessible. But open access models also opened the doors to scam artists and mediocrity.

“The barriers to launching a new operation are few and low,” Mr. Beall says. “All you need is a website and the money starts rolling in. People are copying the model from friends and uncles, because they see how easily they’re making profits.” Predatory journals are run less like multinational corporations and more like syndicates, working independently of one another but using similar models, resources and methods.

it is considered more prestigious to publish in North American journals

What’s more, many predatory journals “want to use Canada’s brand value,” says Mr. Beall. Most of the world’s scholars are based in Asia, he explains, but it is considered more prestigious for them to publish in North American journals than those based in India or China, for example. “People are starting predatory journal operations for those overseas scholars, and running the journals out of their houses in suburbs of Toronto and places like that.” For instance, a group from Pakistan runs scientific publisher ScienceVier – a riff on the name of the well-known, reputable publisher Elsevier – out of a Hamilton, Ontario, apartment building.

Savvy deans such as Dr. Lee at UFV are trying to raise awareness about these issues. “Some students and faculty … are quite gullible,” Dr. Lee says. In her role as an executive on the Canadian Council of Deans of Science, she invited Mr. Beall to speak at the council’s annual meeting in 2016. One of the themes of the meeting, she says, was “the things that keep deans awake at night.”

When Mr. Beall discovers a predatory publisher, he doesn’t pull his punches. Titles of his blog posts denouncing predatory journals and publishers include, “More Rubbish from Hyderabad: Peertechz” and “OMICS International Totally Sucks.” Mr. Beall classifies both Peertechz and OMICS as predatory publishers. “The warnings need to be stark to alert people,” he says.

The deans’ council was grateful for his research and candid conclusions, Dr. Lee says. “Some deans were unaware of the recent predatory ways in which these publishers are tricking academics,” she says. “It was eye-opening. When we hire new faculty, we have to be very careful to look at their CVs in detail. Some applicants list 50-plus publications and we have to comb through each one to ensure it’s credible.”

“This is a problem for all scholars”

Canada’s francophone academics are not immune to the issue, even though most of these predatory journals publish in English. “This is a problem for all scholars, irrespective of language,” says Vincent Larivière, an expert on scholarly publishing who holds the Canada Research Chair on the Transformations of Scholarly Communication at Université de Montréal.

Dr. Larivière notes that, in the natural and medical sciences, francophone scholars mostly publish in English, since topics are international in scope. However, in the social sciences and humanities – given that history, culture and society are usually closely linked to language – francophones are more likely to publish in French.

“But, the trend is changing because of pressures to be more international and publish in English,” says Dr. Larivière. “In this context, I think it is quite crucial that francophone researchers also become aware of this issue of predatory journals. It might be even more crucial for them, as English-language journals might not be their natural publication venues.”

Eduardo Franco, the James McGill Professor in the departments of oncology, and epidemiology and biostatistics, at McGill University, says he sees many junior faculty members getting duped. “That is a bad trend,” he says. “Older faculty members know the credible journals, because there are only a few great journals in each discipline.”

In his role as chair of McGill’s department of oncology, Dr. Franco oversees academic promotion, which includes reading every CV submitted to the department. In 2014, he wrote a warning letter to faculty about publishing in predatory journals. “Some have also accepted roles as editors or editorial board members of these journals,” he wrote. “If only they actually knew what passes for science in these journals … they would immediately disallow their association with them.”

Dr. Franco has had his own run-ins with predatory publishers. OMICS once used his name for a series of dental conferences that had nothing to do with him and even “had the audacity to hijack the name of one of the journals I edit, Preventive Medicine,” he says. Preventive Medicine, founded in 1972, is published by Elsevier; the similarly titled Journal of Preventive Medicine is published by Insight Medical Publishing, which is owned by OMICS.

This recent hijacking trend is particularly disturbing, says Dr. Franco, because the fakes piggyback on real brands and confuse even vigilant academics. Plus, shutting down these sites is nearly impossible; when someone convinces authorities to shut one down, another site quickly replaces it. OMICS is one of the largest scholarly publishers in the world, running more than 700 journals, most of them of dubious quality.

It gets worse, Dr. Franco says: OMICS is now buying legitimate publishers. At the end of September, the India-based company made news in Canada after Rose Simpson, the former managing editor of the Canadian Journal of General Internal Medicine and several other scholarly journals, blew the whistle on some of its purchases. In January 2016, she’d discovered that OMICS was buying Andrew John Publishing Inc. of Dundas, Ontario, which owned more than a dozen legitimate publications. She had been working for AJPI, but was let go this past July. The company’s former publisher, John Birky, told her that OMICS had also bought the Pulsus Group, a legitimate publisher that managed the Canadian Journal of Respiratory Therapy and more than 30 other credible publications.

“my spidey senses began tingling”

Ms. Simpson, who’s been an editor and writer for 40 years, was surprised at the takeovers. “During the transition at AJPI, the publisher never used the name OMICS and only told his clients that there were new partners,” she says. “Even after the company was sold, very few people knew about OMICS.”

She went to the OMICS website and “my spidey senses began tingling,” she says. “I discovered spelling and grammatical errors” – mistakes that any high school student could have fixed.

Still, not knowing much about OMICS, she agreed to help in the transition at the Pulsus Group. An OMICS representative in Dubai offered her a contract position. “Immediately after the Dubai call, an OMICS rep contacted everyone at Pulsus and introduced me as the new person who would solve everyone’s problems,” Ms. Simpson says. Then all hell broke loose.

“I started getting emails from people at the journals saying, ‘This is a disaster,’” she says. The former publisher of Pulsus, who she suspects was duped by OMICS, sent a note to her saying that editors at some of the Pulsus journals were vilifying him. Serious inaccuracies and false claims began popping up on the Pulsus website, including old contact information, references to a journal that OMICS hadn’t acquired and references to business segments that OMICS didn’t own. One editor said he Googled OMICS and discovered on a Wikipedia page that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission had filed complaint against the company a month earlier.

“The editor asked me if this was true,” says Ms. Simpson. She checked and discovered to her horror that it was. This past August, the FTC had filed a case in the U.S. against OMICS for deceptive publishing, stating that “consumers have suffered and will continue to suffer substantial injury” because of OMICS’ violations. The FTC noted that OMICS made false statements that some of its journals were included in PubMed and MEDLINE, two reputable academic-journal indexing services. In addition, the FTC claimed that OMICS was holding on to authors’ submissions until the authors paid publication fees, essentially kidnapping their work. Even after receiving requests to withdraw articles, OMICS published them in spite of authors’ objections – and continued to ask for payments.

“I thought, ‘Oh my god’,” Ms. Simpson says. “I didn’t want to be associated with anyone like that.” She quit not long after the Dubai call and began sending emails to the AJPI journals where she’d worked. “Everyone just freaked out,” she says. “None of the medical societies for whom I worked knew that OMICS had bought AJPI or Pulsus.” After learning about the FTC case, a few editors at the bought-out Canadian journals that were indexed with PubMed feared they would lose their status because of OMICS.

In response to the FTC lawsuit, OMICS lawyers submitted a rebuttal and asked that the case be dismissed. OMICS owner, Srinubabu Gedela, also clarified that OMICS doesn’t control the journals, just their publishing contracts.

Nevertheless, one by one, the journals formerly under AJPI and Pulsus are now trying to break their contracts with OMICS and turn to more reputable publishers. This past September, the Toronto Star reported that six of the journals, including the Canadian Journal of General Internal Medicine and the Canadian Journal of Optometry, terminated their publishing contracts with OMICS. In other cases, editors-in-chief are resigning. Ten other journals contacted by the Star didn’t respond to emails.

“The explosion in open access predatory publishing has increased the noise in the scientific world”

“Predatory journals are contaminating the world of science,” says McGill’s Dr. Franco. “I have only contempt for publishers like OMICS. The explosion in open access predatory publishing has increased the noise in the scientific world. It’s become more difficult to hear real signals – to hear about real, relevant scientific discoveries.”

In an effort to alert academics, Mr. Beall updated his Beall’s List to include both AJPI and Pulsus as possible predators and wrote about the panic among staff and editors at many Canadian medical journals. “OMICS International is on a mission to take over all of scholarly publishing,” Mr. Beall wrote, saying the company is on a buying spree around the world. “It is purchasing journals and publishers and incorporating them into its evil empire. Its strategy is to saturate scholarly publishing with its low-quality and poorly managed journals, aiming to squeeze out and acquire legitimate publishers.”

Complicating the situation, OMICS and other predatory journals use fake impact-factor companies to make themselves appear more legitimate than they really are. The FTC mentioned this in its case against the company. Legitimate firms count article citations and other factors to measure a journal’s influence or impact. “There’s one legitimate impact-factor supplier, and it’s Thomson Reuters,” says Mr. Beall. “Most predatory journals have an impact-factor number,” he adds, but “they either lie or hire a company to contrive one, and they use the number on their websites and in emails to make it look like they’re authentic.”

Academics are also increasingly facing a deluge of invitations to fake or low-quality conferences, sometimes run by the same unscrupulous individuals who run fake or mediocre journals. “There are a lot of conferences that aren’t really scientific but make money for somebody,” UFV’s Dr. Lee says. Such conference organizers harvest emails from university websites and send requests to academics, some of whom, unfortunately, use the opportunity to take vacations. “I regularly get invitations to attend these internationally, and they’re email scams,” she says.

The consequences of all this can be painful for unsuspecting academics. Dr. Franco says he hasn’t seen careers ended, but he warns that by publishing your work in a predatory or mediocre journal, you’ve burned that research. “You can’t republish the same research, and the article in the predatory journal could stay on the internet forever,” he says, risking your reputation. Given the number and sophistication of predatory and mediocre journals – and the lack of oversight and policing in the industry – perhaps the most reasonable advice is to assume that all new journals are suspect, unless the journal’s criteria and content prove otherwise.


How to identify mediocre or predatory academic journals and publishers

  1. Spend a few minutes searching on the following websites for the publisher or journal in question: Beall’s List (scholarlyoa.com), which contains blacklisted publishers and journals, as well as so-called hijacked journals; and PubPeer, a popular, anonymous database that allows you to search for misconduct among individual researchers.
  2. Take the time to read articles in the journal that you’re interested in and research the journal itself. There should be absolutely no obvious spelling or grammar mistakes in the journal. Publishers’ websites should be easy to navigate, transparent in terms of contact names and methods, and shouldn’t crash or suffer from ongoing technical problems. Also, legitimate open access journals are always transparent and clear about their peer-review processes and author fees. A short peer-review process and sudden request for fees are signs of a predatory journal.
  3. Cross-industry coalitions have started ventures to protect against deceptive journals, and universities are doing much more with committees and codes to stop deceptive practices compared to three or four years ago. For basic advice, refer to the site thinkchecksubmit.org (although a default attitude of “think, check, don’t submit” might serve you better).
  4. Search Journal Citation Reports, published by Thomson Reuters, to confirm claimed impact factors.
  5. Avoid using journal “whitelists” because such lists and indexes weren’t created for the purpose of conferring legitimacy. For instance, the Directory of Open Access Journals and the Thomson Reuters Master Journal List (which provides a list of journals appearing in at least one of 24 indexes) are legitimate operations, but their lists contain many predatory journals. Ditto for Scopus, Science Citation Index and other academic lists, citation databases and indexes.
  6. Don’t be fooled by a journal’s association with legitimate businesses, codes and committees. The scholarly publishing industry is doing a poor job of policing itself and legitimate companies, such as firms that sell software and agencies that distribute ISSN numbers, offer services and licenses to almost anyone, including predatory publishers. For example, although the Committee on Publication Ethics, or COPE, contains more than 10,000 members worldwide and provides advice on how to handle cases of research and publication misconduct, many of its members are from predatory journals.
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  1. Reuben Kaufman / January 11, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    Wow …. why wasn’t an article such as this published years ago?!

    I know that I am old as well as old-fashioned, but to me all open-access journals have the air of the vanity press industry. I know, I know, the reputable ones are peer-reviewed, but one always wonders the extent to which an author fee influences the final decision ….

    I have more respect for those publishers who give you an option of open-access vs traditional. I always choose traditional (even when I had a research grant before retirement), and guess what: after 6 months the articles become essentially open access …..

    Most important, the vast majority of people who want to read the academic literature have access to the library of an academic institution, where they can access articles without a fee …. so can someone enlighten me as to what advantage there is for an author to dish out the better part of $2000 from a modest research grant to publish an article?

    • Marc Couture / January 13, 2017 at 10:57 am

      You write: “all open-access journals have the air of the vanity press industry”. True, prejudices like “OA journals are bad” or “OA journals that charge authors article processing charges (APCs) are not serious at peer-review” make life simpler, but they are no substitute to the actual assessment of journal quality. It’s like saying “Elsevier journals are good”, “Elsevier journals are bad” or “Elsevier must certainly cut on peer review in order to maintain their extremely high profitability” (you may put any major publisher name instead).There are both good and not-so-good Elsevier journals, as there are good and not-so-good OA journals. Even extremely bad ones, in both cases.

      A few reminders here:

      – Many OA journals don’t charge APCs (it’s true especially in social sciences and humanities).

      – Some OA journals with APCs do have a very low acceptance rate (PLOS Medicine, for instance).

      – All reputable publishers now have a number of OA titles. Some examples: Nature Publishing Group (now part of Springer), 36 journals; Oxford University Press, 27 journals; even Elsevier, 263 journals. Again, not all those will be of the same quality.

      You also write: “the vast majority of people who want to read the academic literature have access to the library of an academic institution”. Well, I haven’t seen any peer-reviewed study on this subject (surely not easy to investigate), but there is plenty of (anecdotal) evidence of the contrary. For instance, it seems that 40% of Pubmed Central (an OA aggregator) users are not researchers, but “citizens” (see http://bit.ly/2jfNfTr). And, although it doesn’t seem to apply tou your situation, even researchers don’t have access to all the papers they need. I certainly didn’t, even as a professor in a decent university, because I often needed articles falling outside of the main research topics of my institution. True, I could have taken the bus to a major university library or waited a few days for an inter-library loan, but it’s nowhere near what I call access in the 21st century.

      • Alex Gillis / January 19, 2017 at 4:28 pm

        Well put, Marc. Thanks for commenting.

      • Reuben Kaufman / January 23, 2017 at 10:42 am

        “Having the air of vanity press”: I don’t mean by that that they are vanity press because, as you say, there’s a mixed bag. You named at least several highly reputable, OA excellent journals. I once asked one of the Nature journals I was considering submitting to whether acceptance of a submitted MS was independent of ability to pay the fee. I seem to recall that if a paper is accepted, one must pay the fee; so I withdrew the submission.

        I wasn’t aware that some OA journals don’t charge a fee to the authors. I wonder where they get their financial resources from …. Anybody know?? The traditional journals that give one the option of OA require a fee, but if you don’t sign up for that option, the paper will be published, just not available freely until ~6 months later. Personally, I couldn’t care less!

        • Linda Laidlaw / September 23, 2017 at 3:01 pm

          In the social sciences there are a number of Canadian journals that use the Open Journal System (OJS). Costs are low. In the journal I edit, we receive a tiny stipend from our professional association and apply for grants and faculty graduate research stipends to help with editorial assistance. Co-editors are all volunteers (getting our ‘credit’ in our academic recognition of this). Currently, SSHRC now requires researchers to publish in open access forms, to address their commitment to making research public. That said, in the journal I work with, we are receiving increasing numbers of submissions where applicants have clearly have had prior work with the predatory journals — for example, wondering why the peer reviews haven’t been completed in a few weeks’ time.

  2. Marc Dubé / January 11, 2017 at 4:31 pm

    This goes well beyond predatory journals: predatory conferences are now also the norm. Guess who is involved here again? OMICS…I`m sure that many of my colleagues are bombarded daily with these fake conference invitations…

    • Alex Gillis / January 19, 2017 at 4:30 pm

      Hi Marc Dubé. It’s not only OMICS. There are many others involved.

  3. Martin Stoermer / January 11, 2017 at 11:29 pm

    This is a sad state of affairs. In 1998 I published several micro papers in the the original MDPI (Molecular Diversity Preservation International) journal Molecules. This had a Molbank section where you could upload one molecule syntheses as fully OA papers, no cost to authors, no cost to read them. They were indexed by Scifinder so I found it useful to publish several left over compounds from my phd that never made it into the thesis, but were fully characterised, in the hope that it might someday be of use to someone. One even ended up as a citation in Wikipedia. Sadly it later became compulsory to donate a sample of the molecule if you wished to publish, which became prohibive if you had to deal with customs, OHS etc. so it withered, and MDPI dissolved. Out of the the ashes this high cost predatory publisher has emerged. It started out promisingly but as has become commonplace, financial pressures turned a great old idea into a harsh reality. All publishing models cost money, it’s just where the most burden lies that changes.

  4. teekay / January 12, 2017 at 5:47 am

    Ah, nice, the 378th article about OMICS journals & predatory publishing with all the details that any academic worth their title should know by know…but I wish these articles would also spell out a more blunt truth: If you go to any journal page and a substantial amount of articles are published by academics on the global periphery, very often based at universities you didn’t even know existed, chances are that this is a predatory journal. These journals thrive to a large extent not because ‘unsuspecting’, primarily OECD country-based academics submit articles, but because of a growing academic periphery with many academics in large developing and transitioning countries publishing in such journals.
    We can/should talk about global inequalities, better education and research funding for academics and higher education systems on said periphery, but in the meantime you can pretty much spot a predatory journal the moment you access their ‘.com’ website…

    • Alex Gillis / January 19, 2017 at 4:37 pm

      Hi teekay. You’re right that you can figure out a predatory journal using its website, mainly by noting the basic errors, but it’s not true that an indicator is ‘a substantial amount of articles published by academics on the global periphery.’ The global periphery, however you define it, has nothing to do with it, other than what I wrote in my article.

  5. Lonnie Aarssen / January 13, 2017 at 10:21 am

    An easy solution is to transform academic culture so that university libraries become the principal publishers of academic research. Accredited universities already have (and are guaranteed to retain) the branding needed to give confidence that anything they publish will be free from these kinds of deceptive and predatory practices. http://www.musingsone.com/2014/08/why-are-university-researchers-still.html

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