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Open Access Medical Journals

Promise, Perils, and Pitfalls

Baker, Eileen F., MD, PhD; Iserson, Kenneth V., MD, MBA; Aswegan, Andrew L., MD; Larkin, Gregory L., MD, MS, MSPH; Derse, Arthur R., MD, JD; Kraus, Chadd K., DO, DrPH, MPH for the American College of Emergency Physicians Ethics Committee

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000002563
Invited Commentaries

The number of both print and electronic open access (OA) journals has increased dramatically. Although electronic availability of information on the Internet may offer greater potential for information sharing, it also gives rise to “predatory” journals and deceptive publishers. In this Invited Commentary, the authors describe both the opportunities and potential perils that come with OA publications.

Definitions for four models of legitimate OA are provided: the gold model, the green model, the platinum model, and the hybrid model. Benefits and risks of each model are discussed. The authors also distinguish between legitimate OA journals and predatory journals, highlighting several existing tools and resources for distinguishing between the two.

Finally, the authors provide a checklist to help authors evaluate the policies and processes of journals and thereby avoid predatory publications.

E.F. Baker is emergency physician, Riverwood Emergency Services, Inc., Perrysburg, Ohio, and assistant professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences, Toledo, Ohio; ORCID:

K.V. Iserson is professor emeritus, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona; ORCID:

A.L. Aswegan is emergency physician, Union Hospital, Elkton, Maryland.

G.L. Larkin is professor, Summa Health System and Northeast Ohio Medical University, Akron, Ohio.

A.R. Derse is Julia and David Uihlein Chair in Medical Humanities, professor of bioethics and emergency medicine, and director, Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, Institute for Health and Equity and Department of Emergency Medicine, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

C.K. Kraus is system director of emergency medicine research, Department of Emergency Medicine, Geisinger Health System, Danville, Pennsylvania.

Funding/Support: None reported.

Other disclosures: None reported.

Ethical approval: Approved by the ACEP Ethics Committee.

Correspondence should be addressed to Eileen F. Baker, Riverwood Emergency Services, Inc., 12621 Eckel Junction Rd., Perrysburg, OH 43551; e-mail:

Recently, the number of both print and electronic open access (OA) journals has mushroomed.1 This may be a reaction, in part, to the “publish or perish” demand placed on academicians to have manuscripts appear in the peer-reviewed literature. Simultaneously, the convenience and availability of Internet communication has led to greater electronic access to information. Of concern is the explosion in the number of “predatory” journals and publishers that deceive and prey on naïve academic authors. Although OA publications (defined below) promise greater information sharing, readers and authors must become better informed about predatory publishing practices, which are more common among OA publications than in traditional, subscription-based models.

In this Invited Commentary, we describe these journal types with an eye toward recognizing predatory publications. We explore the nature of OA publishing, as well as the dangers introduced by predatory publications. Finally, we provide a checklist to help authors avoid predatory publications.

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Journal Publication Models

In the conventional, subscription-based model for journals, publishing costs are covered by advertisers, and electronic or print subscriptions are paid for by libraries, individual reader subscriptions, Internet site charges, and pay-per-view charges. OA publication models cover costs in other ways. The three most common OA publication models are referred to as the gold model, the green model, and the platinum model. A fourth, hybrid model, combines traditional and OA methods.

In the gold model, authors submit their work to OA journals that send them out for peer review. Legitimate OA journals then may charge a publication fee, but only if the article is accepted for publication. Advertising revenue and funding from institutions or foundations provide the overhead costs for some gold-model OA journals. Any publication fee may be paid by the author, their employer, or their research funder. Many OA journals do not charge fees for articles from low-income countries (usually based on World Bank data).2

The green model involves placing articles in an online OA repository, also known as self-archiving. The two main types of repositories are discipline-specific repositories and institutional repositories. Discipline-specific repositories contain works from scholars in a specific subject area, such as medicine or the biological sciences, and are funded by one or more sources in that community. Most discipline-specific repositories accept works from any authors regardless of their institutional affiliation. Institutional repositories serve researchers from a particular institution, such as a university, and are funded by the institution itself. This online repository serves to improve the visibility and impact of research from that specific institution. Both discipline-specific and institutional repositories may accept preprints (drafts of research papers that have not yet been peer reviewed), postprints (drafts of research papers after peer review but before final layout),3 or both, so it is important to note that not all repository submissions are peer reviewed.

Using the platinum OA model, publication and access are free to both authors and readers.4 Nonprofit foundations and societies, institutions, or governments may fund the publication. Authors retain copyright to their work, which may also be published on the author’s web page or be housed in institutional or discipline-specific repositories.1 Promoters of this model note the advantage of an independent scholarly journal publishing projects outside the commercial mainstream.5

In a fourth model, hybrid OA journals publish many non-OA articles with funding from their parent organizations, traditional subscriptions, and advertising. They also publish a variable (often small) number of OA articles, using fees to cover the publication costs.

The Open Access Directory provides a more comprehensive review of funding sources in its description of OA journal business models.2

The advantage of the OA model to readers is that articles are available without the need for payment or subscriptions. This may allow greater information sharing, which is the mission of research and scholarship. Additionally, OA publications provide a publication avenue for authors in developing nations, who often encounter difficulty publishing in “Western” journals, even while facing demands to publish “internationally” for career advancement.1,4,6

The main disadvantage of the OA model is the potential conflict of interest that comes with accepting publication fees for articles. Because peer review is a core quality control mechanism in scientific publishing, the peer review process ideally should be as rigorous for OA journals as it is for conventional, subscription-based journals. A potential bias in the OA publication model is publishers generating revenue by accepting marginal papers to maximize publication fees. This concern hangs over many new OA journals that lack a reputation for peer review quality equivalent to that of long-standing, subscription-based journals. A transparent peer review process may indicate a legitimate OA journal. Wicherts7 developed a 14-item tool assessing the transparency of a journal’s peer review process as it is described on the journal’s website. This tool shows promising reliability and validity in predicting academic quality in new OA and subscription-based journals.

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Predatory Publishers

Although many OA journals adhere to appropriate, ethical scientific standards, others are “predatory.” Predatory journals (also known as pseudo-journals) use questionable marketing and peer review processes. They not only charge fees to authors or institutions for publication (a standard practice among legitimate OA journals) but also charge for reviewing articles and use deceptive practices to acquire and retain authors, editorial board members, and articles for publication. Diminishing the quality of scientific publications, they do not adhere to the peer review standards for scientific journals that have been developed by the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME), the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, and the Council of Science Editors.8 The most significant deception is that scientific articles submitted to these journals may never be available to anyone.

The use of fee-based publishing does not make a journal predatory, but charging authors simply to submit their articles is typically a sign of a predatory journal. To be legitimate, a journal’s publishing (not submission) fees must be transparent to the author throughout the submission process. In contrast, predatory journals not only charge submission fees and shortcut (or eliminate) any peer review but also frequently employ deceptive solicitation methods. These include sending spam e-mails to junior investigators and scientists in low-income settings with promises of guaranteed publication or inclusion as members of the journal’s editorial board without responsibilities.9 Frequently, publishers of these journals “hijack” legitimate journals by creating a website with the same or a similar name as a reputable journal and soliciting manuscripts via spam e-mails, leading authors to believe that their work is being solicited by the legitimate journal.1 In extreme cases, predatory journals even use fake names for editorial board members.10,11

There have been attempts to identify and classify predatory journals and their publishers to protect research integrity, to adhere to standards of research publication ethics, and to advance scientific inquiry. These efforts have not been without controversy, posing their own questions of ethics and scientific integrity—notably, the process and transparency by which journals are deemed predatory. As an example, in 2010, Jeffrey Beall from the University of Colorado, Denver, created one of the most well-known lists of predatory journals in an online blog, ScholarlyOA, colloquially known as “Beall’s List” ( In January 2017, Beall’s website was disabled and its content was removed, for unclear reasons.12,13 Although Beall’s List used principles set forth by international scientific publication groups, he mistakenly identified some legitimate journals from low- and middle-income countries and was criticized for being biased against OA publishing in general.10 Subsequently, Cabell’s Scholarly Analytics has created a subscription-based “Journal Whitelist” and “Journal Blacklist” to aid scientists and institutions in determining which journals are reputable.14

Several scholarly associations have partnered to create standards for OA publishing, including the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA).15 WAME has proposed an algorithm for identifying predatory journals.10 The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) is a membership organization that exists “to be the one-stop shop for users of open access journals” with members showing “commitment to quality, peer-reviewed open access.”16 DOAJ, COPE, OASPA, and WAME have partnered to develop the “Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing.”17 These principles include having a peer review process, a governing body, an editorial team, a defined publishing schedule, and archiving plans, among other criteria.17 COPE has elucidated core practices for editors of scholarly journals and publishers/owners “to preserve and promote the integrity of the scholarly record through policies and practices that reflect the current best principles of transparency and integrity.”18 These include how allegations of misconduct are adjudicated, authorship, conflicts of interest, peer review processes, and postpublication discussions and corrections.18

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Finding Balance Given the Need to Publish

Undoubtedly, authors would prefer to publish all of their work in a reputable journal, but this may not always occur. Three situations in particular may tempt researchers to consider predatory journals as avenues for publishing: (1) when they get negative results, (2) when they feel that the results must be published quickly, and (3) when they do not believe that their article will be accepted in a nonpredatory journal.

Conscientious scholars recognize that failure to publish insignificant results can be a moral peril of its own.19 Low-impact or opportunistic journals can seem appealing considering that even well-designed studies have been shown to have much lower odds of being published if their findings are negative and support the null hypothesis (adjusted odds ratio = 0.39 [95% confidence interval: 0.25, 0.61]).20 Furthermore, even when well-designed randomized efficacy trials are completed and published, negative trials can experience significantly longer delays to ultimate publication (median 3.0 vs. 1.7 years for negative vs. positive trials; P < .001).21

Knowing this, researchers may feel that their only option for publication may be to approach a predatory OA journal. Ethically, their justification may be that their study not only has expended valuable resources but, more important, has exposed vulnerable human patients during their trials. The problem, however, is that the scientific and medical communities often disregard results published in predatory OA journals because, by definition, these journals lack transparent peer review. The same holds true for wanting to use these journals to publish important results quickly. Additionally, most major medical journals have a method to request “fast track” review if the authors (and the journal editors) believe that timely release of the study’s results are vital.

When authors feel that their work will not be published in a high-ranking, nonpredatory journal, for whatever reason, they may knowingly pursue publication in substandard journals. In fact, Shen and Bjork1 assert that most authors are not tricked into publishing in predatory journals but, rather, submit their work willingly, anticipating that their publication lists will not be scrutinized closely. Underlying motivations for such behavior may include a variety of beliefs, such as “some publication is better than no publication,” “it’s good to get it off of one’s desk,” or “any publication can help one hit faculty performance targets and advance an academic career.”4 The validity of these beliefs may vary both within and between institutions, but most academic promotions are based on solid, peer-reviewed publications that consider both impact factor and journal quality. Legitimate but low-impact journals are legion and provide ample opportunity for publishing more humble scholarship that will still aid promotion and stand up to peer review. And although many of these legitimate but lower-impact, peer-reviewed journals are not OA, one can use social media to further disseminate or promote one’s work.

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Methods to Avoid Predatory Publications

Academic authors would like a shortcut to identifying legitimate, nonpredatory OA scholarly journals in which to publish; unfortunately, such shortcuts do not exist. Although there are lists of possibly predatory journals22 and publishers,23 they are neither completely current nor validated. Similarly, DOAJ, the main source for “white-listed” journals, has made errors of both inclusion and omission.

There are, however, steps one can take to maximize the chance of identifying OA journals that are legitimate and nonpredatory while avoiding those that are not. Vetting OA journals requires looking at both positive and negative factors. Recognizable negatives or “red flags” serve as the most obvious screen; the presence of any one of them indicates the need for further investigation. Keep in mind that new, legitimate OA journals may demonstrate one or two of these factors because of their inexperience. Finally, authors should try to verify some of the information that journals provide and should not hesitate to ask reference librarians and experienced colleagues for assistance. This is not always an easy process.

Table 1 provides a list of questions to ask when considering whether to submit an article to an OA journal. Answering these questions provides the best possible picture of any publication. The questions were compiled primarily from the OASPA,24 COPE,25 and an article by Beaubien and Eckard.26 The preferred answers align with a legitimate OA journal.

Table 1

Table 1

Authors should verify all information provided on an OA journal’s website, such as listed impact factors, other rankings, and inclusion in prestigious academic indices.27 Predatory OA journals often make false claims. Finally, search the journal in an Internet search engine to see whether there is any negative information, including claims of fraud.6

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Unquestionably, journals require a source of income to survive. OA journals provide an opportunity for increased sharing of information that is appealing both to junior faculty and to researchers in developing nations. A rise in predatory journals, however, may tarnish these scholars’ success and threaten the integrity of scientific inquiry. Both legitimate and predatory OA journals exist. We have highlighted some tools to distinguish between them. Academicians must understand the differences between OA publications so that they are not surprised by the costs involved with publishing in legitimate OA journals or by the potential lack of visibility for and general disregard of their work when published in predatory OA journals.

Acknowledgments: Written for the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) Ethics Committee.

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References cited only in Table 1

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