Navigating the safe passage through the minefield of predatory publishing

By: Philip J. Purnell and Mohamad Mostafa, Knowledge E

Like many of the world’s scholars, young researchers at Al-Nahrain University in Iraq have been told they need to publish research articles in academic journals in order to progress in their careers. Aware of the low acceptance rates and lengthy publication delays in traditional journals, many turn to relatively recently launched open access journals that market their quick turn-around and low publishing charges. Dr. Haider Sabah Kadhim, head of Microbiology at the university says these young researchers are being duped into paying 100 – 200 USD on the promise of fast-track publication within one week. He has seen countless academics proudly show their published papers only to be told they won’t count because the journal isn’t on an approved list. Dr. Haider expressed his worry about the long term harm this publishing practice could cause to their careers.

Dr. Haider Sabah Kadhim, Head of Microbiology Department, College of Medicine, Al-Nahrain University, Iraq

The same pressure is felt by the research community across the region, Egyptian Assistant Prof. Hossam El Sayed Donya teaches medical physics at faculty of science King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia. He sees similar challenges and says that some publishers boast of being indexed the top databases like Web of Science, Scopus, and MEDLINE, having Journal Impact Factors and that they assign digital object identifiers (DOIs) to all published articles. Often these promises turn into disappointment when the researcher realises their article cannot be found in the databases, the journal doesn’t really have an impact factor or that the DOI is not deposited in the Crossref database. Prof. Hossam said there is a need for information and guidance in both English and Arabic for early career researchers that teach them the signs to look for in a good journal/publisher and those to avoid.

Dr. Hossam El Sayed, Faculty of Science, King Abdulaziz University, Saudi Arabia


The dilemma

Modern scholars are coming under increasing pressure to demonstrate their academic productivity, by which their output is determined by the number of research papers they have published and their impact is determined by counting the citations to each researcher’s articles. Indeed, universities and promotion committees often set targets and thresholds for academic progression based on publications and citations. Universities do this because they also operate in an increasingly competitive space and are themselves responding to pressure for a good performance in the international university rankings such as Shanghai, Times Higher Education, QS and others that count publications and citations to the articles published by the entire university faculty.

One enviable mark of a high-quality journal is being indexed in a renowned database such as the Web of Science, Scopus or MEDLINE. An even more elite group of around 10,000 high impact journals are given Journal Impact Factors which are listed each year in the Journal Citation Reports – the JIF is calculated as the ratio of the journal’s citation impact to the volume of research papers it publishes. Millions of researchers are incentivised to publish in ‘Impact Factor journals’ and ambitious scholars are easily enticed into sending their manuscripts to journals that prominently display their Impact Factor. The problem here is that many questionable journals state that they are indexed in such databases when they’re not. Or they announce their ‘Impact Factor’ even when it has not been provided by Clarivate Analytics (formerly ISI and Thomson Reuters), the owner of the Journal Citation Reports and provider of the Journal Impact Factor. Most young academics don’t realise that many of these questions can easily be checked online:

Is the journal indexed in Web of Science?

Is the journal indexed in Scopus?

Is the journal indexed in Medline?

Likewise, once an article has been published in a journal, it is easy to check that the publisher has deposited the digital object identifiers (DOIs) in the Crossref database. Once the DOI has been correctly deposited, then it officially exists and people all over the world can find the article through search engines like Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic, and even more importantly they can accurately cite it pointing fellow academics to the DOI link. Again, a quick check for DOIs is freely available here:

Is this DOI deposited in the Crossref database?


Open Access

The frustration of the academic community by rising subscription prices and a feeling of having to pay twice when research has been funded by public money and then published behind a subscription wall led to the open access movement by which the reader pays no charge to access the results. However, once an article is accepted, the author is usually asked to pay an article processing (or publishing) charge (APC) which often costs hundreds, and can easily run into thousands of dollars, a fee which in many developing countries is covered by the researchers themselves. Under pressure to publish and with little guidance on journal choice, some academics are falling prey to unscrupulous publishers who charge APCs but do not provide a professional publishing service, these have been termed ‘predatory publishers’.


Predatory publishing

Such publishers may exaggerate or misrepresent their services by claiming to be based in a traditional publishing hub while hiding their real location, claiming to provide rigorous peer review but publishing far too quickly for that to be possible or presenting editorial boards of academics who do not know or agree to be listed. Defining a publisher or publication as ‘predatory’ however, is no simple matter and sometimes there is a fine line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, e.g. at what point do repeated calls for papers become ‘spam’? Some publishers have found their journals on a predatory publishers blacklist while at the same time being indexed in one of the prestigious databases assumed to be whitelists. One university librarian, Jeffrey Beall maintained a list of ‘probable, possible and potential predatory publishers’ since 2008 (no longer available) and which most recently listed more than 12,000 titles and publishers each included for questionable publication practice based on a list of over 50 criteria.

There is no universally agreed definition of a predatory journal or publisher, indeed nor is there a standard for a ‘high quality journal’. Most people who provide advice on identifying predatory journals start by warning people to watch out for spelling mistakes, typos and grammatical errors on a journal’s website or submission instructions. But equating imperfect English with questionable publication ethics in regions where millions of non-native English speakers are engaged in education and research is itself, an assumption that should be taken in context. Native-level English should not be a pre-requisite for publishing quality research in quality journals, there must be other ways to ensure safe submission of manuscripts and evaluation of journals and publishers.

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and now boasts more than 10,000 members. It has produced a code of conduct and a range of guidelines for authors, editors and peer reviewers. Most serious publishers now adhere to the COPE Code of Conduct and guidelines and this is one of the first things authors should check for.


Think, Check, Submit

Researchers need to be routinely trained on how to conduct a rudimentary evaluation of a journal. They need to be trained on what to look for and what are the tell-tale signs that should set alarm bells ringing. So, what can the busy researcher do to distinguish good journals from bad?

Several international publishing associations have pooled their resources and launched the Think. Check. Submit. campaign – this was launched during the 2015 meeting of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers, ALPSP. It leads the researcher through the three main steps and includes a check list for researchers to look through before they submit their manuscript to any journal. In the Arab region, we believe that following the Think. Check. Submit. campaign will help the regional research community avoid these pitfalls and publish safely, to view the initiative click here:

Think. Check. Submit:

Think. Check. Submit (Arabic):