Predatory Journals and Predatory Publishing
"Predatory journals" are journals that use aggressive advertising and a professional appearance to invite researchers to publish articles in return for payment of a publication fee, but organize no or inadequate quality assurance measures.
"Predatory Journals" and "Predatory Conference Organizers" are negative phenomena of the scientific publication and communication system that have increasingly developed over the past years.
“Predatory Journals" are journals that use aggressive advertising and a professional appearance to invite researchers to publish articles in return for payment publication fees, but organize no or completely inadequate quality assurance measures.
Similar activities are pursued by "Predatory Conference Organizers", who organize dubious conferences and invite researchers to participate in these events.
These actors try to acquire submissions via bulk emails. In some cases, these emails are personalized and refer to actual publications by the addressed person: Since email addresses are usually provided alongside scientific papers, "Predatory Journals" and "Predatory Conference Organizers" can easily make use of them.
The term "Predatory Journals" was coined in particular by librarian Jeffrey Beall, who until early 2017 ran a blog with a list of, in his view, problematic publishers and journals. Due to a lack of transparent criteria for evaluating publishers and journals, this so-called "Beall's List" was deemed controversial.
A comprehensive study by Shen and Björk (2015) describes this phenomenon comprehensively. Excerpt:
“Over the studied period, 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. The regional distribution of both the publisher’s country and authorship is highly skewed, in particular Asia and Africa contributed three quarters of authors. Authors paid an average article processing charge of 178 USD per article for articles typically published within 2 to 3 months of submission.“
A publication decision should always be well considered and informed. The initiative "Think Check Submit", which is supported by publishing and library associations, provides researchers with a helpful checklist that can be used to verify the trustworthiness and seriousness of a scientific journal. This three-step "Think Check Submit" guide has been translated into numerous languages, including German. Some of the initiative's central check criteria are cited below:
- “Do you or your colleagues know the journal?”
- “Have you read any articles in the journal before?“
- “Is it easy to discover the latest papers in the journal?”
- “Can you easily identify and contact the publisher?”
- “Is the publisher name clearly displayed on the journal website?”
- “Can you contact the publisher by telephone, email, and post?”
- „Is the journal clear about the type of peer review it uses?”
- “Are articles indexed and/or archived in dedicated services?”
- “Is it clear what fees will be charged?”
- “Does the journal site explain what these fees are for and when they will be charged?”
- „Is the publisher a member of a recognized industry initiative?”
If any of these and the other questions mentioned are answered negatively, submissions are strongly discouraged. Similar criteria can be used when selecting conferences. Here, too, the organizers (e.g., the professional society) of the conference and other persons involved (chairs, etc.) should be known in the professional community. If this is not the case, submission should urgently be avoided.
- “Do you or your colleagues know the journal?”
- The quality of a scientific article or a conference contribution can only ever be assessed on the basis of the actual publication itself. In the natural sciences, life sciences and technical disciplines, "peer review" procedures ensure the quality assurance of a contribution.
- These peer review procedures have developed since the 17th century in the context of scientific self-organization. In this process, scientists review the contributions of other researchers. The organization of these processes is taken over by publishers or conference organizers. Contributions are accepted immediately if they are of appropriate quality; other contributions must be revised on the basis of reviews or are rejected. Whether a paper is accepted by a journal or conference depends - beyond quality - also on the focus of a journal or conference.
- If a paper is published without such quality assurance, this does not automatically mean that the paper is an unscientific paper. However, the publication criteria then do not meet the standards that a serious scientific journal should meet. The individual case must always be considered.
Publication guidelines as countermeasure
Many scientific institutions, including the Helmholtz Centers, have issued publication guidelines. These set out standards such as release processes for publications. In addition, the "Guidelines for Safeguarding Good Research Practice", which are anchored in academia through employment contracts and funding requirements, provide guidelines for action that also extend to the handling of scientific publications.
Criteria for the Operation of Open Access Publication Funds and the Payment of Open Access Publication Fees as countermeasure
In the context of Open Access, so-called Open Access Publication Funds have been established at many scientific institutions, including the Helmholtz Centers. These funds are the responsibility of the libraries and serve, beyond the fund management, the transformation towards Open Access. As guidelines for the operation of these publication funds, the Helmholtz Association has formulated "Criteria for the Operation of Open Access Publication Funds and the Payment of Open Access Publication Fees". These address the issue of quality assurance in several places. Among other things, it is stated:
- “The publication’s quality is guaranteed by quality assurance mechanisms recognized in the respective discipline.”
- “Articles should be published in journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). Additionally, it is recommended that the respective publisher's membership in the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA) is considered.”
If these guidelines are taken into account, it can be assumed that the probability of being deceived by a "Predatory Journal" is quite low. However, not all scientific institutions have established such central OA Publication Funds. In addition, funding agencies also provide funds for publication fees. Thus, it can be difficult in practice to record every article or conference contribution before submission and to point out all problematic publishers to researchers.
Evaluation criteria as countermeasure
In the Helmholtz Association, only articles/conference contributions that are indexed in Open Research Europe as well as the databases "Web of Science" (Clarivate) and "Scopus" (Elsevier) are included in the review process for so-called program-oriented funding (PoF).
The inclusion criteria of two databases are not always transparent, nevertheless it can be assumed that the operators of these central databases check the publication bodies before deciding on indexing – especially with regard to quality assurance – of their articles/conference contributions.
Counseling and education as countermeasure
At the Helmholtz Centers, for example, the Helmholtz Libraries and the Helmholtz Open Science Office provide advice on the topic of "Predatory Publishing". Next to courses for doctoral students, information on the administration of publication fees, and via websites – awareness for this topic is being raised on many levels.
Email filtering as countermeasure
At some scientific institutions, including the Helmholtz Association, some of the known domains of "Predatory Publishers" are listed in so-called blacklists. In practice, these emails arrive directly in the spam folder of an email inbox.
Predatory publishers rely on the publication fee-based business model that is also used by many open access (OA) journals. However, in the case of a quality-assured OA journal, this fee is charged only after a decision has been made to accept a publication based on the results of the peer review process.
The current research does not show that there is a quality assurance problem in the field of OA journals in general. Even the frequently cited "sting" of Bohannon in Science in 2013, due to a lack of a control group, failed to establish that there is a greater quality assurance problem in the OA journal sector than in the subscription journal sector. Also, the results of the Bohannon study at the time were unsurprising, as Bohannon's "fake paper" was submitted to 121 journals that were already listed in the U.S. Librarian Beall's "blacklist."
An extensive study by Müller in 2009 showed that "most OA journals use peer-review procedures". Some OA publishers are taking advantage of open publishing to use new and open quality assurance procedures. These are discussed under the term "open peer review." For example, articles are openly peer-reviewed to give as many people as possible the opportunity to critique them.
The blog "Retraction Watch", which is well worth reading, shows that diverse discussions about the quality assurance of a publication in science take place independently of the publication in an OA journal or a subscription journal. Even in renowned subscription journals such as Nature and Science, articles are repeatedly retracted due to identified deficiencies. In the past, renowned publishers such as Elsevier have also had to discontinue entire subscription journals due to quality problems.