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Every day I get email invitations to attend conferences and publish in journals. That may not seem unusual for an academic, except many of these are to write or speak on topics about which I know nothing. In the past few days, I have received invitations to speak at conferences on immunology, ocular disease discovery, prenatal molecular diagnostics, systems and informatics, functional foods and bioactive compounds, and embryology and IVF. While I could possibly contribute to the last of these, as an anatomist I certainly would have nothing to say at any of the others.
And the numerous invitations to send manuscripts to journals are no better. I am not sure whether to feel honoured or bemused to think I could contribute to journals on women’s health and gynaecology, contemporary women’s studies, and criminology, let alone on otolaryngology, nursing and healthcare, tourism and human geography.
Welcome to the world of predatory conferences and journals. These conferences are run by "for-profit" companies. Anyone can set up such a company and advertise to all and sundry. The same applies to the companies running many of the journals. One "publisher" that has approached me publishes 75 journals, and has only existed for a short period of time.
The appearance of predatory journals is a consequence of the emergence of open access publishing. This is an exciting development in legitimate science publishing, because it makes ideas and recent research available far more readily and rapidly than conventional scholarly hardcopy journals. It is based on an author pays, rather than subscriber pays, model. Unfortunately, it has had a troubling and misleading side — the rise of open access journals that promise much (rapid publication, wide readership) but fail to deliver.
The rise of these predatory (junk) journals was so distressing for one librarian at the University of Colorado that he published his own blacklist of these journals: Beall’s list of predatory journals. This existed for five years and was widely consulted by academics to provide them with some idea of journals they should not use, unless they didn’t worry about the quality of the journal in which they published, and/or were desperate.
What is wrong with these journals? Simply, they lack rigorous peer review, are frequently expensive for the authors, and on occasion publish material that may be damaging and misleading to serious research. They also damage the reputation of properly peer-reviewed and high-quality open access journals.
Unfortunately, Beall’s list led to complaints it was damaging the reputation of some open access publishers included. It was also widely conceded to contain flaws.
As a result of legal threats, his blacklist site was deleted, only to be replaced recently by another index of untrustworthy titles, published by Cabell’s International, using publicly available, specific criteria. The latter contains about 4000 journals, an indication of the size of the problem.
Predatory journals amount to little more than academic scams. Looking like scholarly journals (sometimes with similar titles), they allow authors to submit whatever they wish in return for paying an article processing charge. Publication is virtually guaranteed and can be added to the authors’ CVs. Where does this leave universities and individual academics? And why should those outside universities be interested? First, scams are everywhere, and sometimes they look real.
Second, use of our critical faculties will decrease the chances of falling for them. Third, we should beware of hype and marketing about the latest great breakthrough. Ask where it has been published and whether other scientists and clinicians looked closely at it before publication. In other words, was it peer-reviewed?
Claims about breakthroughs and miracle cures are everywhere. How many of these appeared in predatory journals or weren’t published at all? We can all be deceived, especially when in desperate need of a cure for some intractable disease. Buyer beware.
- Gareth Jones is emeritus professor of anatomy at the University of Otago.