Predatory journals

Spreading pseudoscience for a quick buck

Just because a piece of research is published in a journal doesn’t mean it’s legitimate. But how are we to know that? In this age of being able to find nearly anything online, what’s stopping us from coming across the abstract of a piece of bad research and taking it as scientifically valid, whether we’re students working on a project or journalists reporting on a story? The answer is: almost nothing.

What are predatory journals?

Predatory journals are ones that lack ethical editorial practices such as peer review and have such low publishing standards that they’ll publish just about anything (sometimes for a price). Researchers estimate that there are roughly 8000 of these journals and they exist in every field, providing fodder for further research and headlines for stories that we’re all duped into believing even though the evidence doesn’t hold.

It’s no surprise that these have popped up if you think about the opportunities that come with supposed expertise in an area. In academia, those on the tenure-track must publish, and they are judged by committees made up of faculty from various fields. Those who don’t know what to make of the reputation of various journals often fall into the trap of judging scholars based on quantity rather than quality. Many scholars have been duped by invitations from predatory journals to publish their work there – after an important paper that they’ve spent months or years writing has been rejected by legitimate journals (sometimes simply because they receive more manuscripts than they can possibly publish), they may be happy just to be published somewhere.

But while predatory journals do pose a danger to the integrity and reliability of published research and damage the legitimacy of publishing, they aren’t all full of garbage research. The occasional piece from a well-known or senior researcher who was duped into publishing there helps them gain and maintain credibility. Sometimes they even list scholars on their editorial board without their permission in an effort to look more legitimate (and sometimes scholars are so chuffed to be asked that they say yes to offers without much investigation).

Predatory authors

Not all authors in predatory journals are innocent victims. Some seek out these “come one, come all” repositories so they can pad their CVs. These “predatory authors” aren’t interested in critical evaluation of their work, only publication, and as a result, we see the publication of pseudo-scientific claims and flat-out bad research that can’t be replicated and should have never seen the light of day.

University of Colorado Denver librarian and researcher Jeffrey Beall coined the term “predatory publishing” and published a list of predatory publishers from 2010-2017. It was meant to help researchers identify and avoid journals with unethical practices. But because there was too much grey area for some, it’s since been removed after complaints from some journals and scholars (despite being lauded by most). Other lists are now run anonymously.

These days we’re simply swimming in fake data with no real way to tell – sometimes even the scientists themselves can’t – if research is legitimate. Do you know how to tell if an article or journal is legitimate? And how do we measure this problem against another known issue in scientific publishing – the replication crisis that plagues research in even the most prestigious journals?

Further reading:

How I became easy prey to a predatory publisher (Science, 2019)

Predatory journals could damage the legitimacy of scientific publishing (Phys.org, 2019)

Stop this waste of people, animals and money (Nature, 2017)

Predatory publishers: the journals that churn out fake science (The Guardian, 2018)

Many academics are eager to publish in worthless journals (The New York Times, 2017)

Predatory journals and their effects on scientific research community (Biochemica Medica, 2017)

List of Predatory Journals (Anonymously published)