26 April 2022

Why academics should resist
these tempting invitations
from predatory journals

Predatory Publishing … an image from the website ‘The Scholarly Kitchen

Patrick Comerford

I was cleaning out my Spam folder in my email account the other day when I came across an interesting invitation. At first I was surprised. Had I simply emptied my Spam folder without going through each message individually, I might have missed an invitation to contribute articles to the International Journal of Philosophy and to join the journal’s editorial board and reviewer team.

The invitation certainly managed to massage my ego … well, at least for a moment or two. I rescued the email from the Spam folder, and started to read it with a little more attention.

The message claimed the International Journal of Philosophy (IJP) ‘is a double-anonymous peer reviewed international scientific journal. Our journal is created with the goal of facilitating academic communications in fields related to philosophy.’

It seems the invitation had come my way because people at the journal had ‘noticed that your published work titled ‘For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church’ has caught great attention.’ They told me they feel honoured ‘if you could contribute articles to our journal and join the Editorial Board/Reviewer Team.’

Was I being asked to join the ‘Editorial Board’ or the ‘Editorial Committee’ of the International Journal of Philosophy? Why did they feel so honoured, after all my paper has been published only recently in the in the current edition of Studies in Christian Ethics.

Studies in Christian Ethics is the leading English-language journal in theological ethics in Europe. It offers first-rate work by British theologians and ethicists, but also showcases the best in North American and Continental scholarship in the field.

However, my paper in this journal makes no reference to my academic qualifications, experience or background, and simply identifies me as of ‘Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.’ There are no references to my degrees, previous books and papers, to the places where I have worked as an academic, or the reasons why the editors and reviewers of Studies in Christian Ethics thought I was the appropriate person to write this paper.

I read the invitation more carefully.

I was addressed ‘Dear Comerford, P,’ and the author of the letter signed off ‘Assistant, Editorial Office of International Journal of Philosophy’. I had no titles or qualifications, not even a full first name; the writer of the letter had no name at all, and did no reveal his or her qualifications. Yet, I was being told, ‘In light of your academic background and experience, we invite you to contribute other unpublished manuscripts of relevant fields to the journal.’

Indeed, I do not even know where they are based or where they are writing from.

I was also ‘advised to encourage students and colleagues around you to use this journal, help manuscript submissions from potential authors, and cite the published papers in the journal.’

My ego is easily massaged, but was I as honoured as my correspondent was, this anonymous letter writer who assures me, ‘on behalf of the Editorial Board of the journal,’ that ‘it is honored for us to invite you to join our team as one of the editorial board members/reviewers.’

I was told I could ‘refer to this link to know more about us’: http://www.intjphil.org/jyip3/fzqva.

Well, it seems anyone can join their team as a member of their editorial board or committee, and anyone and everyone is invited to submit ‘academic articles,’ share their ‘latest scientific research’.

I was assured they are ‘looking forward to cooperating with me’ and told me I could submit my papers to: http://www.intjphil.org/sfmgx0v/fzqva

The communication was very flattering in tone, but I thought the fact that my specialisms are in theology, liturgy and church history and not in philosophy sent out warning signs, and the spelling mistakes and grammatical in one short email raised a number of red flags.

With a little research over the weekend I soon found the publishers of this ‘journal’ are listed on ‘Beall’s List of potential predatory journals and publishers,’ a list of ‘potential predatory scholarly open access publishers’ created by Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado until 2017. His list is available HERE.

A lengthy review of the controversy started Beall started appears in The Journal of Academic Librarianship. But leading scholars and publishers from ten countries have also agreed to a definition of predatory publishing that can protect scholarship.

Predatory publishing, also write-only publishing or deceptive publishing, is an exploitative academic publishing business model that involves charging publication fees to authors without checking articles for quality and legitimacy, and without providing editorial and publishing services that legitimate academic journals provide, whether open access or not.

The phenomenon of ‘open access predatory publishers’ was first noticed by Jeffrey Beall, when he described ‘publishers that are ready to publish any article for payment.’

Predatory publishers trick scholars into publishing with them, although some authors may be aware that the journal is poor quality or even fraudulent. New scholars from developing countries are said to be especially at risk of being misled by predatory publishers. According to one study, 60% of articles published in predatory journals receive no citations over the five-year period following publication.

Beall’s List sets out criteria for categorising publications as predatory. Since then, other efforts to identify predatory publishing have emerged, such as the paywalled Cabell’s blacklist, as well as other lists.

Predatory publishers have been described as the ‘black sheep among open access publishers and journals’ and compared to vanity presses. They pretend to provide services such as quality peer review that they do not implement. They have been reported to hold submissions hostage, refusing to allow them to be withdrawn and in this was preventing submission to other, reputable journals.

John Bohannon, a writer for the journal Science, tested the open access system in 2013 by submitting to a number of these journals a deeply flawed paper on the purported effect of a lichen constituent. He published the results in a paper called, ‘Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?’ About 60% of those journals and several universities accepted the faked medical paper.

Four researchers created a fictitious sub-par scientist named Anna O Szust – oszust is Polish for ‘fraudster’ – in 2015 , and applied on her behalf for an editor position to 360 scholarly journals. Her qualifications were dismal for the role of an editor: she had never published a single article and had no editorial experience; the books and book chapters listed on her CV were made-up, as were the publishing houses that published the books.

One-third of the journals ‘Dr Szust’ applied to were sampled from Beall’s list of predatory journals. Forty of these predatory journals accepted Szust as an editor without any background vetting and often within days or even hours.

The number of predatory journals has grown exponentially since 2010. Predatory journals have rapidly increased their publication volumes from 53,000 in 2010 to an estimated 420,000 articles in 2014, published by around 8,000 active journals. Early on, publishers with more than 100 journals dominated the market, but since 2012 publishers in the 10-99 journal size category have captured the largest market share. A report in 2019 found 5% of Italian researchers have published in predatory journals, with a third of those journals engaging in fraudulent editorial practices.

A study in 2020 study found hundreds of scientists say they have reviewed papers for ‘predatory journals.’ Authors pay an average fee of $178 each for papers to be published rapidly without review, typically within two to three months of submission.

Predatory journals are a global threat, and they are driven by self-interest, usually financial, at the expense of scholarship. They accept articles for publication — along with authors’ fees — without performing promised quality checks for issues such as plagiarism or ethical approval. Predatory publishers collect millions of dollars in publication fees, often paid out by funders of the research.

Of course, it can be difficult to distinguish a predatory journal from a journal that is under-resourced. Both can be low quality, but under-resourced journals do not have an intention to deceive.

In the past I have been happy, indeed honoured, to contribute to under-resourced journals and journals that often miss strict academic criteria such as independent peer review, including the journals of local history society and the Church of Ireland journal Search.

But predatory publishing is an ever-multiplying problem. To the researcher eager to make an impact with their work, these ‘journals’ can seem like very tempting offers. But publishing with these publishers often entails signing away copyright that means authors lose the right to publish elsewhere.

The threat posed by predatory publishing is not going to disappear as long as universities use how many publications an academic publishes as criteria for graduation or career advancement.

Academic institutions need to ensure that researchers avoid submitting manuscripts to these journals or listing these publications on their CVs. But the ‘publish-or-perish’ culture in academic life fosters the environment that encourages predatory publications.

An ‘Open Research’ paper at the University of Cambridge on the dangers of predatory publishing suggests the following websites offer help to make an informed decision on where to publish:

Think, Check, Submit

Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)

Open Access Scholarly Publishers’ Association (OASPA)

In the meantime, I am not joining the ‘Editorial Board’ or the ‘Editorial Committee’ of the International Journal of Philosophy.

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