Beware of Predatory Publishers

Substandard Journals Exploit Open-Access Model

The e-mail began, “Dr. Susan E. Bates, Hope you are doing well Doctor!” It was from a publishing group that “would really be grateful to you if you can assist us to successfully release the upcoming issue by your energetic and enthusiastic submission of manuscript which will be published under respective Journal for this wonderful year.”

That clumsily worded e-mail, from someone who used only an initial for his last name (should I reply to Mr. D.? Dr. D?.), invited the submission of any type of content within 10 days and was but one of many such e-mails that I had received from apparently new open-access (OA) journals.

 I hope I can still find that paper.


So I decided to investigate. I discovered that there are ongoing discussions in the scientific community about OA publishing and so-called “predatory publishers” that exploit the OA model.

The Open Access movement began in the 1990s as a worthy initiative to provide the public with unrestricted, free access to scholarly research publications. As journal subscription fees charged to libraries steadily increased and expensive download fees for individual articles became commonplace, access to scholarly research was becoming more limited for scientists, physicians, journalists, patients, and others. The cost barrier is particularly angering because most research is publicly funded and papers are peer reviewed by researchers who are not paid for the work.

OA journals, on the other hand, can be freely read on the Internet because the publishing is not funded solely through subscriptions. These journals allow for research data to be in the public domain where it can be easily accessed; can be more egalitarian than some established journals that, at times, seem to favor well-known or well-funded investigators; and provide a venue for the publication of negative data, which can be as important—if not more so—than positive data, but are often harder to publish.

In addition, it may be easier to get papers published in OA journals than in “high-impact-factor” journals. The impact factor is a ratio based on the average number of citations to recent articles published in that journal. Some scientists consider more-established journals such as Nature, Cell, and Science to be more desirable to publish in because of their higher citation rates.

Unanticipated was the flood of OA journals that emerged as a result of the OA initiative. Unfortunately, some of those publishers have been labeled “predatory,” a term coined by academic librarian Jeffrey Beall at the University of Colorado in Denver (Nature 495:433–435, 2013). Predatory publishers produce journals of questionable quality, often simultaneously launch numerous journal titles on a wide range of topics, and seem to care more about profit than science. If they go out of business because they are not profitable, all traces of their published papers may disappear.

Some of the techniques that predatory publishers use to fool people into thinking they are scholarly publishing groups include:
o They maintain sophisticated Web sites, some reminiscent of those of established journals, complete with links to other scholarly sites.
o They have mission or vision statements that refer to the importance of open access.
o They note plans to index in PubMed or PubMed Central, whether PubMed has decided to accept the journal for indexing or not.
o They use names that appear to tie the journals to traditional journals or imply an association with academic institutions.

Clues that things are not as they appear:
o The Web address (URL) may link to an address that is obviously someone’s home or a small office (or in some cases, there’s only a Web contact form).
o The Web site lacks a substantial archive of journal articles.
o The editorial board is made up of young scientists or editors who have no real control of content.
o The publishing group has no specialization and has launched numerous journals in disparate fields.
o The publishing group or journal has not met the rigorous standards to be indexed in PubMed (but may highlight other places where it’s indexed).
o Impact factors are obtained from sources other than Journal Citation Reports.
o The Web site or journal contains typographical and grammatical errors.

Leaving aside the problem of predatory publishing, is there a real problem with the launch of hundreds of new journals? Some critics argue that there is little scientific rigor in the review of the articles that are submitted. That lack of rigor is a potentially serious problem, particularly in light of the recent focus on the lack of reproducible results in our high-impact journals.

I also worry about the competition for time from scientists already hard at work trying to fund their research endeavors. I am concerned that it will become more difficult to find original science if the number of journals continues to rise exponentially. Inevitably there will be duplication of research effort, and we may lose track of research published in obscure journals that were discontinued because they weren’t profitable enough.

But it’s the predatory journals, seemingly bereft of scientific integrity, that are of most concern. In 2012–2013, Science orchestrated a sting operation: It submitted a spoof paper—one that was obviously flawed, by a fake author at a nonexistent university—to some 300 open-access journals. More than half accepted the paper for publication (Science 342:60–65, 2013). Meanwhile, Nature has reported on efforts by Beall, who maintains a Web site listing predatory publishers (, as well as on the “Directory of Open Access Journals” (DOAJ) Web site (, which indexes almost 10,000 open-access journals and plans to tighten its criteria to weed out substandard journals. DOAJ will require all of the publications it lists to reapply on the basis of stricter criteria; it estimates that 10 percent of the journals will not be able to pass the reapplication process (Nature 512:17, 2014).

There are plenty of credible OA journals that have succeeded as scholarly endeavors; the late Teh Jeang of NIAID helped create the award-winning OA journal Retrovirology. Still, we need to do some investigation before accepting an invitation to submit our papers for publication, write a review article, agree to perform peer review, or be on editorial boards. We should look carefully at each of those journals to be sure it is indexed in PubMed; has a track record; practices academic peer review; prominently displays its policy for authors’ fees; and has an active and involved editorial board, as well as that our papers will join other scholarly publications.

Don’t be fooled by logos on the site or quotes from prominent scientists that are meant to persuade you to submit your work for publication. Read the publisher’s Web site carefully, research the publisher, and ask the publisher for its track record or history of publications.