May 28th, 2018

Predatory Journals Are Such a Big Problem It’s Not Even Funny

I’ve made fun of academic spam numerous times on this site.

It’s those emails from dubious “predatory journals,” written in cheerful but awkward prose, with flowery praise and open invitations to submit research on various scientific topics.

You know, the emails that start:

Dear Dr. Paul E.
Greetings for the day!

Most of my coverage has been on how (unintentionally) funny they are. By carpet bombing anyone with a scientific or academic affiliation with these emails, their ability to match content areas with the recipients often misses the mark. For example, I receive an inordinate number of invitations to submit papers to fish-related journals. Go figure.

But there’s a darker side — just like spam of the non-academic variety, the true motivation of these emails is profit. They make their money off publication fees (only revealed after a paper is accepted) and by sponsoring affiliated bogus conferences.

Dr. Sharon Bloom, Executive Associate Editor at Emerging Infectious Diseases, kindly shared with me a presentation she gave this year on the topic at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. It outlines in startling detail the pervasiveness of this predatory journal problem, and why it is growing.

One might wonder why the predatory journals have exploded (by some estimates there are more than 10,000), and what some of the hazards are for academic medicine in general, and ID in particular.

Part of why they succeed is because they co-opt markers of credibility, to fool people into thinking they’re the real thing. Journal titles are carefully crafted to sound similar to established, credible journals. Here are a few ID-related publications (from the Hyderabad-based OMICS Group publisher):

  • Journal of AIDS and Clinical Research
  • Journal of Infectious Diseases and Diagnosis
  • Virology and Mycology
  • Advances in Molecular Diagnosis
  • Journal of Bacteriology and Parasitology
  • Journal of Antivirals & Antiretrovirals
  • Archives of Parasitology

The first one is a particular problem for this readership, as it draws many highly regarded research groups who consider it a good back-up option for their research. You might think the awkward introductory text on their homepage would raise suspicion:

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a disease caused due to HIV virus that affects the human immune system tremendously eventually leading to death. HIV is considered as one of the fatal cause of death in the present times.

Good grief. Sounds like a 6th grade science report — grade B-minus.

Predatory journals have other tricks. Many make up their own impact factors. Distinguished names may appear on the front page as members of the editorial board — though it appears that some of these individuals are listed without their even knowing. Indeed, some might not exist at all — in this sting from last year, a fictional researcher with dubious credentials applied for and was accepted to numerous editorial boards.

Some predatory journals advertise that they are “Indexed in PubMed,” because selected articles are deposited into PubMed Central under open access policy agreements with certain funders. Take a look again at the Journal of AIDS and Clinical Researchthe appearance of these articles in PubMed gives little clue that this is not a legitimate journal.

After submission to these journals, there’s no or trivial peer review, no obvious quality control, and no editorial board oversight. A paper submitted to the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology consisted of just 7 choice words — and was accepted. Another person wrote a paper on nuclear physics using his phone’s autocomplete function — also accepted. In case you want to do the same, I’ve embedded the how-to video at the bottom of this post.

Further evidence of shallow (if any) peer review is that some papers are submitted and then accepted for publication within 1-2 weeks — an impossibly fast turnaround time for real peer review, revision, and resubmission.

Here’s are a few examples Sharon shared with me:

As Editor of Open Forum Infectious Diseases, I can assure you that these rapid turnarounds are only possible if the “peer review” is a rubber stamp — one that reads “Accept”.

And speaking of OMICS — here is Sharon’s summary about this particular publisher (slide #6/43), for which the word prolific barely does it justice, and this review should make legitimate researchers, funders, and publishers squirm:

The predatory journals also thrive by exploiting the academic’s need to publish — leading to what the New York Times called “a new and ugly symbiosis”:

Many faculty members — especially at schools where the teaching load is heavy and resources few — have become eager participants in what experts call academic fraud that wastes taxpayer money, chips away at scientific credibility, and muddies important research.

But it’s not just poorly resourced schools. There are numerous publications in these journals from highly-esteemed institutions (including one on the East Coast that begins with “H”), as well as many studies that cite funding from federal agencies.

In short, these journals represent a profitable and exploitative fraud — as bad as the Nigerian Prince who wants to give you money (provided you share your bank account number), or a phishing scheme that takes control of your computer and its passwords after you click a provided link.

So what should we do? Here’s some excellent advice from Michael Lauer, NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research:

Simply put, publish where you cite. If you are not familiar with a particular journal, then consider speaking with your local academic librarian as well as consulting resources from the publishing community (e.g. Think Check Submit) and the federal government (e.g. Federal Trade Commission).

If that’s too difficult, take a look at the graphic at the top of this post, which just about says it all.

(Graphic courtesy of Madhu Pai; slide Sharon Bloom, both with permission.)

12 Responses to “Predatory Journals Are Such a Big Problem It’s Not Even Funny”

  1. Charles Carter says:

    If institutions value publications regardless of the publisher, I can’t imagine your exhortations having much effect. These publishers succeed because there is demand for them. It’s more a systemic problem. I’d hope most authors are not being duped and resort to these journals only as a last resort. Do you think otherwise?

    • EIDeditor says:

      I have found most authors to be duped. Often the situation involved a less experienced first/submitting author and after a couple rejections, they submit to a junk journal without realizing how junky it is. Since all authors are supposed to sign off before a resubmission (junk journals don’t require this) the senior authors are apparently failing to sufficiently supervise where the manuscripts are resubmitted. From junior to senior authors, we need to do a better job vetting online journals (the Think, Check process of ThinkCheckSubmit.org).

      With over 100 J AIDS CLIN RES articles now in PubMed (see above), by really reputable researchers, its easy to assume the journal is legitimate…because researchers around the world tend to assume PubMed vets the journals that appear in searches. But the existence of PMC Open Access Agreements with 40+ institutions, agencies, and funders we now have thousands of articles appearing in PubMed that are from junk journals. Poor author vetting of journals. Poor red-flagging of journal quality in PubMed.
      https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2017/09/07/confusion-journals-pubmed-now/

  2. John Muller says:

    Dr. Sax,
    Thank you for bringing to our attention the oft-overlooked Journal of AIDS and Clinical Research! We are pleased to learn of a journal that has recognized “HIV is considered as one of the fatal cause of death in the present times.” We have long suspected that HIV is one of the most fatal of the fatal causes of death. It may even be more fatal than the serious, dangerous, severe, and critical non-fatal causes of death!
    On a more serious note, you bring up an issue that warrants serious attention. Junk journals are diluting and polluting the science, while the scientific community either sits idly by or, even worse, directs its attention to maintaining expertise in a way that is both ineffective and disheartening (think requirements for maintaining board certification). The medical community continues to lose some of its best to burnout, while the voice of junk science gets louder. The advice to “publish where you cite” is an excellent first step, but whether that will be followed and whether that will be adequate remains to be seen.
    John Muller, MD, MPH
    (Comments are my own and not those of the Navy.)

  3. Michael Schatman says:

    I think that it’s important to distinguish between “predatory” journals and those that are open-access and advertise. As the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Pain Research (which has a Thomson-Reuters Impact Factor expected to approach 3.0 next month), we are compelled to advertise, although not in an aggressive manner. A journal can be of high quality without being associated with a professional society, as we have proven.

  4. Academia is part of the problem. For the most part, established scientists are the strongest opposition to any new idea.

    Any talented scientist who spent time in the trenches knows it well, come out with something new and really important and good luck getting that funded, let alone published in a high impact journal.

    Only a small fraction of those disrupting findings ever sees the ink from high impact journals.

    That is fodder for the OMICS.

  5. Maria says:

    Dr. Sax, I believe you may get offers from predatory journals related to fish because of the use of “fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH)” for detecting HIV infection.

  6. Dr Kumar Saurabh says:

    In India, to get a promotion as Assistant Professor or Associate or Professor u must have a minimum of 2 original articles as first author. Moreover that doesn’t demand that journal must have a pubmed indexed journal. In these circumstances there is high probability of proliferation of these predatory journals

  7. Samson Isa says:

    Feels like there are more journals than researchers nowadays!

    Really helpful tips from Dr Sax on how to avoid predatory journals.

    The responses above advanced some important reasons why researchers can fall prey – can’t swear that there aren’t researchers who simply want the easy way out.

    I quite like the point that been indexed with pubmed does not necessarily confer legitimacy. As far as I know (been a previous Editor of a professional association journal), suppositories/databases don’t necessarily vet validity of materials!

    I think dealing with predatory journals has to be on multiple dimensions. 1st steps can include: information /access/enablement for individual researchers, research institutions to develop standards for publications they would accept, making this problem a front burner in professional meetings e.t.c.

    Lastly, Dr Sax, I am rather puzzled you seemingly found it convenient to mention Nigeria (a whole country) with respect to fraudulent behavior of some publishers. Yet, you were unable/unwilling to fully disclose names of those ‘highly esteemed institutions’ and federal agencies sited as providing funding for studies published by dodgy journals!

  8. Jaan Naktin says:

    I have seen examples of this in the evaluation of Lyme disease patients in my clinical practice. Patients are smart enough to search the literature, and have provided articles of dubious merit in defense of their assertions regarding Lyme disease manifestations and treatment.

    Such examples are noted here:

    https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/108920
    https://file.scirp.org/pdf/OJBD20120100002_41126150.pdf

    It is interesting to note the flimsiest of articles used to support the contention that hematological disorders could actually be caused by Lyme disease, and that one of these articles actually sites the other.

    I am happy you have pointed this out as a major problem, one that is only likely to grow.

  9. Steve Ackland says:

    This is an issue that the ICMJE should take a stance on (although the members of that committee also have a conflict of interest, as do publishers, and even Thomson Reuters).
    There are many reasons why we should not sanction such publications. One is that the availability to the general public of papers in predatory journals increases the work of health practitioners, who will be asked to explain such papers by patients in consulting rooms.

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HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

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