Black lists, white lists and the evidence: exploring the features of ‘predatory’ journals

New research published today in BMC Medicine looks to identify the features of potentially ‘predatory’ journals: online journals that charge publications fees without providing editorial services or robust peer review. Here to tell us about their work and how it can help authors, are David Moher and Larissa Shamseer, two authors of the research.

Black list

Crime stories are typically portrayed as a fight between good and bad. Publishing biomedical research is similar. A few years ago the (now defunct) Scholarly Open Access website listed journals and publishers presumed to be bad, a ‘black list’.

To get on the black list, its curator, Jeffrey Beall, used a number of criteria, such as comprehensive instructions for authors that are easily identified on the journal’s website, from the Committee on Publication Ethics and the Open Access Scholarly Publisher’s Association. If he felt the journal and/or publisher did not meet these criteria he added it to his list. He coined the term ‘predatory’ journals and publishers to describe these entities.

We like to describe them as illegitimate entities (i.e., not authorized by the law and/or not in accordance with accepted standards or rules); we have deliberately avoided using the descriptor ‘journal’. It’s a harsh term but one we think is warranted since, the results of our research published today in BMC Medicine, their operations appear to be quite a departure from the standards followed by legitimate, credible journals.

These illegitimate entities advertise themselves as following best-practice publishing standards. Yet they appear to circumvent everything scientific, from carrying out peer review to digital archiving of content (a requirement of Medline-indexed journals).

Predatory invitations

Despite several limitations of the black list, including the inconsistent and unilateral application of non-evidence based criteria used to identify journals, it became popular and it’s easy to see why. It filled a need. Increasingly large volumes of invitations started appearing in the e-mail in-boxes of the scientific community. These invitations appeared to come from journal editors essentially indicating that the recipient, is smart, and has made wonderful contributions to the journal’s discipline(s), and requesting them to please submit a manuscript to said entity. Usually the correspondence indicates the said entity has an impressive impact factor and will provide a quick and thorough peer review.

Established legitimate journals don’t regularly solicit manuscript submissions through email, and according to our recent findings almost never promise rapid publication. The dilemma is whether and how to respond to such email invitations. In academia, where the ‘publish or perish’ mantra prevails, such invitations seem like a less arduous task with a greater likelihood of publication compared with the very competitive world of biomedical publishing with low, to very low, publication acceptance rates.

This should be the bottom line – getting your research published so that others, including patients, can read it and make informed decisions – although often the driver is getting published to enhance ones’ CV. If they were interested, prospective authors could have gone to the Scholarly Open Access website and see whether the journal was listed. Although the site is not functional anymore it is possible to view its cached contents through an Internet archive – the Wayback machine.

Other initiatives have started appearing, including the Think, Check, Submit campaign that includes a list of considerations for prospective authors to think about and check on when selecting a journal to submit to. The campaign has broad support across biomedical publishers and encourages authors to check whether a journal affiliates with recognized industry initiatives, including whether open access journals are vetted through the Directory of Open Access Journals, a ‘white-list’.

We’ve often wondered about the journals on black lists, white lists, and how they compare to each other and traditional subscription journals (many of which now have open access options). Along with several colleagues we rolled up our sleeves and compared many journal-level characteristics from 93 illegitimate entities (from the Scholarly Open Access list), 99 legitimate open access journals (from PubMed Central) and 100 subscription-based ones (Abridged Index Medicus).

Differences in open access, subscription and illegitimate journals

Today we report our results in BMC Medicine and propose an evidence-based list of ‘red flags’ that authors can look for when scrutinizing a journal’s website for legitimacy (Table 10). We think the paper is informative and we hope you’ll find it useful and practical. The bottom line is that there are several important differences between presumed legitimate journals and their illegitimate counterparts.

List of evidence-based, salient features of suspected predatory journals

The websites of the illegitimate entities look unprofessional (are fuzzy and/or have knock-off images), promote fake impact factors, do not appear well-versed in ethical policies, reporting standards, such as registration and reporting guidelines, and several other activities associated with best practice scientific publishing.

The author processing charge is substantially cheaper for illegitimate entities (median – $USD100) compared to legitimate open access journals (median – $USD1865) and subscription-hybrid ones (median – $USD3000).

Although the papers published in these entities are not typically indexed on traditional biomedical databases, such as Medline, they can be identified through some search engines, such as Google Scholar. They can also be uploaded to PubMed Central if the research was funded by organizations with certain open access policies. Papers from these entities are now permeating the legitimate scientific literature and are being included in CVs for grant applications and promotion and tenure dossiers, likely undetected by evaluators.

Organisms die due to a lack of oxygen. We need a similar approach to these illegitimate entities. If they are cut off from receiving manuscripts they will cease to exist. Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Emperor’s New Clothes is a cautionary note about promoting pretense. The same can be said of illegitimate entities posing as emperors within the publishing world.

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