“Greetings of the day!”
My email account used to be flooded by these cheerful salutations, referring to me as an esteemed colleague or a thought leader.
I have to admit: at first, I enjoyed receiving these messages. Normally, when I log into my email account, I’m greeted by messages—punctuated by red, capital letters—that announce dire consequences for missing yet another mandatory requirement. This was a nice change of pace.
The messages would then proceed to flatter me: The author would note that he admired my accomplishments in my field, often citing some article I had written as particularly insightful.
The email would then go in for the kill: The author, who just happened to be the editor of a journal I had never heard of, would invite me to publish my next article in his publication.
As a pessimist, I am rarely disappointed. Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate unearned flattery as much as the next person. That said, when the author starts kvelling like my mother, it is hard not to be a little suspicious.
By the time I reached the end of the email, I knew enough to delete it—in fact, I now have an email filter that automatically deletes any message that includes the phrase “Greetings of the day!” I later learned that these messages were coming from predatory journals. From the sobriquet, it is not difficult to divine that these journals have nefarious intent. But what is the motive, and more to the point, how could an author suffer from publishing her work?
The Spanish Prisoner & the Nigerian Prince
The predatory journal is an indirect descendant of the Spanish prisoner scam, which dates back to the 18th century. The setup was simple: A wealthy patron was being held prisoner—unjustly, of course—in a prison in Spain.1 The mark would be contacted by purported businessmen who would spin a tale about trying to spirit the wealthy patron out of the country. They just needed help coming up with the money for the ransom. The mark would be reassured that the patron would, of course, pay him generously for his help. Eventually.
The scam moved from Europe to Africa in 1920, when P. Crentsil wrote a letter to a resident of Ghana, declaring that he had magical powers. Calling himself “the Professor of Wonders,” Crentsil wrote that he would be willing to use his supernatural abilities for the benefit of the recipient of the letter—for a small fee.2
These are all examples of an advance fee scam, which is also known as the Nigerian 419 scam—Nigerian, in honor of the country of origin of many of the early missives and 419 to signify the part of the Nigerian penal code constructed specifically to deal with these crimes.
The classic example of a Nigerian 419 scam is the tale of the Nigerian prince. In this variation, the mark receives an unsolicited letter from an alleged member of the Nigerian royalty, who needs the help of a trustworthy soul to move his fabulous wealth out of the country. At first, the mark is asked only for a letter, documenting his willingness to help. Subsequently, the mark is told about a fee or a bribe that must be paid to move the funds. If the mark forwards the fee, then other, unforeseen calamities inevitably emerge, each of which can be resolved with just a little more cash. The scam continues until the mark realizes that there is no Nigerian prince or runs out of money—whichever comes first.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines an advance fee scam as a scheme in which “the victim pays money to someone in anticipation of receiving something of greater value—such as a loan, contract, investment, or gift—and then receives little or nothing in return.”3
With predatory journals, instead of money, an unsuspecting author is duped into handing over something else of value—an article. It is difficult to place a dollar value on a case report, but for those of you who have written one, you know that it is not zero. A good discussion section might require several hours for research and rewrites; obviously, an article about original research takes exponentially more time, since it takes time to perform experiments or to calculate P values.
To the authors of these articles, time is money. But 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?4
The Business of Publishing
When you submit an article for publication to The Rheumatologist—and I hope you will!—a number of administrative requirements must be met. Articles must be a certain length; images must have a specific resolution. And then there is the matter of signing the publishing agreement.
When you publish an article in The Rheumatologist or a medical journal, there are always forms to be signed. One of those forms is actually a contract between you and the publisher. In general, this contract transfers the copyright for the article from you to the publisher.5 This is why, when I want to reproduce an image that I had previously published, I have to contact the publisher for permission. I may be the author, but I no longer own the rights to the work. Those rights belong to the publisher.
As I enter my third year as medical editor of The Rheumatologist, I know exactly how many times an author has asked me about these agreements—zero. I am not surprised. In the publishing industry, these agreements are so standard, I fully expect most authors just skip to the signature line.
The system works because of societal norms. Regardless of what the agreement actually says, it is generally understood that there is also a non-verbal contract between author and publisher: The author hands over the rights to the article. The publisher publishes the article. As long as everyone plays by the rules, everyone wins. Quid pro quo.
Some predatory journals have figured out how to get more quid for the quo by noting these standard contracts have a standard loophole: These contracts generally commit the publisher to publishing an article, but they don’t generally specify when the article will be published.
When you submit an article to The Rheumatologist, we publish it as soon as we have space to do so. As with most journals, our goals are aligned with those of our authors: We want to publish good content; authors want their good content published. None of us benefits from holding an article back from publication.
Imagine, for a moment, an alternate scenario in which you submitted your article to a predatory journal for publication. Months later, you realize that you still have not seen your article in print. For most of us, this would be a problem: You can’t list an article on your curriculum vitae as being in press forever. Also, unpublished articles cannot inform debate or influence a field. In the meanwhile, if a similar article is published by a competing journal, it will reduce the impact of your hard work.
At first, you might send polite inquiries, each of which would be greeted by polite reassurances that the queue was long and the article would eventually be published. Eventually, it might occur to you just to resubmit your article to another journal for publication.
That’s when the predatory journal pounces. When you contact the predatory journal to inform them of your plans, they cheerfully note that they would be delighted to return the rights to your article to you—for a fee.
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?
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
- They use false or misleading information. For example, they may exaggerate their impact factor, or they may incorrectly claim that they are indexed by PubMed;
- They lack transparency when it comes to publishing fees; and
- They use aggressive, indiscriminate solicitation, which often comes in the form of multiple emails or offers to publish topics that should fall outside the journal’s scope.
The problem is that, like the best scam artists, predatory journals have learned to adapt. Gone are the days when awkward language like “Greetings of the day!” might have tipped you off. The coalition noted that “as scientific publishers experiment with new formats and business models online, it has become increasingly easy for fake publishers to masquerade as legitimate ones.”
In the absence of an easy answer, the most important thing an individual author can do is simply to be aware that these predatory journals exist. As in any confidence game, the con only works if the con artist can gain your confidence. Having a healthy distrust for journals that seem a little too interested in you and your work is probably a good place to start. In academia, we often say “publish or perish,” but predatory journals have shown us that there is a third choice, which is a lot worse.
Philip Seo, MD, MHS, is an associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore. He is director of both the Johns Hopkins Vasculitis Center and the Johns Hopkins Rheumatology Fellowship Program.
- Shilling E. The nine lives of the Spanish prisoner, the treasure-dangling scam that won’t die. Slate. 2016 Dec 15.
- Ellis S. The origins of Nigeria’s notorious 419 scams. Newsweek. 2016 May 9.
- Scams and safety: Advance fee schemes. Federal Bureau of Investigations.
- Shen C, Björk B. ‘Predatory’ open access: A longitudinal study of article volumes and market characteristics. BMC Med. 2015;13:230.
- Copyright transfer agreement: Example of CTA.
- Chambers AH. How I became easy prey. Science. 2019 May 10;364(6440):602.
- Brainard J. Articles in ‘predatory journals’ receive few or no citations. Science. 2020 Jan 10;367(6474):129.
- List of predatory journals. https://predatoryjournals.com/journals.
- Straumshein C. No more ‘Beall’s list.’ Inside Higher Ed. 2017 Jan 18.
- Bohannon J. Who’s afraid of peer review? Science. 2013 Oct 4;342(6154):60–65.
- DOAJ (Directory of Open Access Journals).
- Grudniewicz A, Moher D, Cobey KD, et al. Predatory journals: No definition, no defence. Nature. 2019 Dec 11;576(7786):210–212.