Why are these articles worth anything to the predatory journals? And more to the point, how do predatory journals manage to make $75 million annually?
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Explore This IssueFebruary 2020
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By that time, the author truly has no good alternatives. No publisher will consider publishing an article that, technically, belongs to another company. The author could choose to walk away from the article—and all of the time and sweat that was poured into said article—but it’s just as likely that the author will swallow the cost.6
More commonly, the predatory journal commits a much more straightforward version of an advance fee scam. In some cases, the author may not be informed of publication fees until after the copyright has been transferred. In other cases, the predatory journal will publish the submitted article immediately, without the usual proofreading and peer review that one would expect from a legitimate journal. The article is then left to languish, largely unread, in a journal that no one has heard of. In fact, 60% of articles published in a predatory journal will never be cited by another article.7 In either case, the publisher pockets the fees, while providing the author with meager service in return.
The Problem with Predation
Why would anyone submit an article in a predatory journal? The problem starts with the fact that there is no easy definition of what a predatory journal is.
Librarian Jeffrey Beall, the University of Colorado, first brought national attention to the problem of predatory journals. He went on to create Beall’s list of potentially predatory publishers.8
Note the use of the past tense. In February 2013, the OMICS Publishing Group and Canadian Center for Science and Education both threatened Mr. Beall with civil action for including them on his list. A few years later, in 2017, Frontiers Media SA demanded the University of Colorado investigate Mr. Beall for research misconduct.9 At that point, Mr. Beall decided this project was not worth the grief it was bringing him, and he removed his list from the internet. In the end, predatory journals could count Jeffrey Beall among their victims.
That’s not to say that Mr. Beall wasn’t on to something. In 2013, John Bohannon conducted an experiment: He submitted a fatally flawed article to more than 300 journals on Beall’s list. When I say fatally flawed, I mean it was flawed in every imaginable way: The alleged authors came from universities in Africa that don’t exist; the conclusion discusses experiments that did not appear in the methods section; finally, the text was translated into French, and then back into English—using Google translate.10 Despite these fatal flaws, at the end of the experiment, 82% of the journals on Beall’s list accepted the article for publication.
Mr. Beall eventually abandoned his eponymous list because he ran—hard—into a fundamental truth: In the absence of overt, well-documented malfeasance, it is difficult to say which journals are predatory and which are well intentioned, but sloppy. Because of this, in place of Beall’s black list, some have proposed using a white list, such as the Directory of Open Access Journals. The directory, which is maintained by the Infrastructure Services for Open Access, includes journals that meet certain standards, including peer review and an appropriate level of editorial quality control.11
White lists and black lists are great tools, but one cannot hope to vet accurately every journal, leaving the aspiring author stuck in the middle. In the absence of a true litmus test, a coalition of publishers and other stakeholders from 10 countries noted that predatory journals tend to share the following characteristics:12