What makes a journal predatory?

A few days ago, a Nigerian researcher asked this question in a Facebook group I participate in. It prompted a large volume of responses from researchers and academics around the world who are members of the group, each contributing their perspective on the elements they consider allow them to identify or label a journal, or scientific magazine, as predatory.

What is understood by a predatory journal?

The scientific community uses the term ‘predatory journal’ to identify a scientific magazine that lacks editorial integrity and quality, and primarily focuses on financial gain rather than promoting the dissemination of legitimate scientific research and contributing to the advancement of knowledge. The proliferation of predatory journals has coincided with the adoption of the gold Open Access model by some academic publishers, improperly called Open Access in general (since there is also platinum or diamond Open Access). This model involves charging authors a fee, known as APC (article processing charges), in exchange for publishing their articles, making predatory journals naturally inclined to take advantage of this lucrative financial dynamic.

Four origins can be identified for these types of fraudulent scientific publications, where two elements are always present: first, the charging of the APC; and second, the indexes of WoS and Scopus and the IF (impact factor).

Origin A: the newcomer. This is the simplest form, where a so-called “academic publisher” registers a new URL and offers to publish papers in its “journal” very quickly and at a highly variable price range. Many of these are listed in Beall’s List.

Origin B: the acquired ones. Legitimate journals that were originally established by a university or scientific association, usually without charging APCs, but were later sold to an “academic publisher” that continues to operate them under the same brand, now charging APCs. This article from El Confidencial explains how this works.

Origin C: the hijacked or cloned. “Journals” that impersonate legitimate journals with the intention of scamming. In these cases, they may have exactly the same name (and sometimes even the same graphic identity) but obviously different URLs, or, they are legitimate but discontinued journals with expired web domains that an “academic publisher” has repurchased and relaunched, now charging APCs. Regarding these, RetractionWatch updates a list where it has identified more than 200 of this type.

Origin D: the expelled ones. Legitimate journals that mostly charge APCs and are indexed in WoS or Scopus, but begin to behave like predatory journals. As a result, they end up being removed from these indexes upon being identified as such, thereby losing their IF. Some journals from major academic publishers like Elsevier, MDPI, Frontiers, Sage, Springer, Wiley/Hindawi, Taylor & Francis, among others, fall into this category. Clarivate, the owner of WoS, which has removed more than 100 journals, explains this and Predatory Reports keeps a list of journals expelled from Scopus that number more than 800.

How do I know which ones they are?

Identifying a predatory journal is not an easy task and requires a trained eye. Not surprisingly, some researchers, especially junior ones, but also seniors, fall into their traps unknowingly. Unfortunately, in PhD training, this is not typically addressed in the curriculum, nor are other crucial issues necessary for the integrity of a research career, such as predatory conferences, paper mills, fake peer reviewers, fake authors, coercive citations, authorship buying, etc. These are often learned in practice, and sometimes through unfortunate experiences.

The following are the predominant characteristics of predatory journals, although not all may be present at the same time and there may be others that I do not mention. If you can identify several of these in a journal to which you are interested in submitting a paper, then there is a red flag and it is probably predatory. In the end, trust your instincts; if it causes you mistrust, do not submit.

1. Always charge APCs: The price range can vary considerably, from less than $100 to more than $2,000 dollars (or in other strong currencies like euros – €, Swiss franc – CHF, and British pound – £), although it is also possible in other currencies like the rupee – INR or the real – R$. Sometimes they offer generous discounts in this area.

2. They often place excessive importance on the Impact Factor or IF: They dedicate a lot of space on their pages to highlight their supposed IF, and/or prominently display their supposed indexing in Scopus or WoS (this is particularly common among hijacked or cloned journals), as well as other supposed indexations.

3. They use email spam techniques, sometimes employing grandiose language aimed at flattering the ego, to distribute their supposed “call for papers,” in which they ask you, literally, to send them any text you have (a paper, a three-page review… anything goes); some even offer to publish the paper in an already published issue or volume. In these emails, it’s common to find words written with non-Latin characters (e.g., resear?h instead of research) or they copy the abstract of the paper that made a “deep impression” on them. It’s also possible to find advertising campaigns on Facebook and Twitter inviting publication with them.

4. They offer unrealistically short timelines for acceptance and publication of the paper, such as three days or five days, which are incompatible with a rigorous peer review process, author revisions, editor’s decision, and publication, which can take several months (or even a year or more). In other words, they do not undergo a peer review process, or they may pretend to do so, but there is not.

5. They publish many issues in a year, exceeding a rate of five editions per year, and sometimes even up to twelve, meaning monthly publications. They are also very active in publishing special issues (especially the expelled journals…). In these cases, there is a trend of publishing issues with future dates (e.g., publishing in 2023 issues dated 2025).

6. Each issue they publish lists an enormous number of papers. A legitimate journal publishes around 10 to 12 papers per issue, sometimes slightly less or more. Predatory journals, on the other hand, publish around 50 to 100 or more papers in a single issue. In the case of expelled journals, there has been a tactic observed where, in order to decrease the number of papers per issue, they have begun to publish them with future dates, for example, published in 2023 but dated as 2025.

7. The papers published in each issue can span various fields of knowledge, for example, one may be about a treatment for cancer and the next about the quality of education in indigenous schools. They can also cover a wide range of topics within the same field.

8. They do not verify authorships and affiliations or allow changes to authorships and/or affiliations after acceptance, meaning there is no rigorous process to verify if the authors actually exist and whether they truly have the affiliation under which they are publishing. Legitimate journals have recently started implementing this step in the article acceptance process due to the growing phenomenon of non-existent authors. This is compounded by the issue of buying authorships, as explained, for example, in this Punto Final report on how it works in Peru, or authors who, for money, change their affiliations, as happens with Spanish scientists and universities in Saudi Arabia, or this case in Chile.

9. The Editorial Board, some predatory journals seem to randomly list names of non-existent researchers, or in the case of hijacked or cloned journals, they list the same names that appear in the legitimate journal. It is very difficult for authors to verify the authenticity of the staff listed on the editorial board.

Does publishing in a predatory journal ruin my scientific or research career?

No, your scientific or research career will not be ruined by publishing in predatory journals. What could happen is that an evaluating entity might not consider the paper when scoring scientific output because the journal is on Beall’s List, in the Retraction Watch Hijacked Journals Checker, or because it was expelled from WoS or Scopus; or there might be an impact on the number of citations. However, if it becomes a frequent practice, it could indeed have an impact, such as on obtaining funding. Generally, the greatest harm in publishing in a predatory journal is to the researcher’s prestige, having their name listed as an author in a publication of dubious reputation, and the money it cost.

Now, while it is generally true that articles in predatory journals are of low quality, it is also possible to find good research that is well-conducted and explained. It’s important to remember that the quality stamp is not given by the journal in which it is published, but by the article itself. That’s why the famous IF, for me, is nothing more than smoke.

For ethical and scientific integrity, it is best to avoid publishing in the various types of predatory journals described. However, as already mentioned, due to lack of knowledge and experience, and other reasons such as the pressure of “publish or perish,” quick publication with few obstacles by paying, and an unhealthy fixation on WoS, Scopus, and the IF, this controversial industry will continue to thrive within the scientific ecosystem.

*Originally published in Spanish on the UTB Research Blog.

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