This Editorial is accompanied by the following Invited Commentary:
Elia N, Iriarte P. A predatory world. Eur J Anaesthesiol 2019; 36:805–806.
Open access is a term used to describe online data that is available free of charge. Predatory open access journals have multiplied to become a very real threat to scientific research and the credibility of science itself.1 Although there is not a universally accepted definition, predatory open access publishing is a fraudulent business model that charges the authors under the pretence of legitimate publication but fails to provide an adequate editorial service. The consequence is a poor or nonexistent peer-review process combined with doubtful editorial ethics.1,2 It is not only naïve authors who might be drawn in; anyone who publishes is likely to become a target for spam emails seeking article submissions and indiscriminate invitations to join editorial boards and attend fake conferences, risking stolen editorial identities and unethical attempts to inflate curricula vitae.
Knowledge of the risks that this poses may be low among researchers and clinicians, and increasing awareness may be the only way to counteract the current threat.2
The spread of predatory open access publishing is of epidemic proportions. In 2010, Shen and Björk3 identified 1800 predatory journals and 53 000 published articles with a respective increase of almost five-fold and eight-fold in 2015, with an increasing trend. All scientific areas seem to be affected, not just biomedical fields. A recently published study demonstrated specifically that the number of potential predatory journals (n=212) covering the broad field of anaesthesiology, including critical care and pain medicine, was more than double the number of legitimate journals in the SCIMAGO journal rank (n=106).2,4 The total number of published articles in potential predatory journals related to this field was 12 871 and the median requested article processing charge (APC) by these journals was 634.5 USD.2
The profile of the authors who have published in or cite from predatory journals is largely that of young inexperienced scholars from developing countries.5 Africa, particularly Nigeria and South Africa, and Asia, particularly China, India, Pakistan and Malaysia seem to be most affected,6 but Europe does not go untouched. There are data to indicate that 5% of a sample of 46 000 Italian researchers seeking promotion,7 and over 5000 German researchers, have published in potentially predatory journals that were also the editorial targets for around 6% of scientific articles from the United States.3 More data from over 2000 biomedical articles from 200 potential predatory journals reveal that more than 50% of corresponding authors were from high-middle or upper-middle income countries.8 Moreover, even researchers from prestigious and leading institutions, such as the National Institutes of Health or Harvard University, have also been involved.8
Although the reasons for growth in predatory publishing may be complex, part of the blame lies with the rush to publish or perish, fuelled by the drive for academic promotion. The added attraction of fraudulent promises of an easy route to publication is too much of a temptation. The geographic spread of the submissions might be due a lack of serious scientific mentorship and scientific tradition, and to less control by policymakers. However, the need to increase personal bibliometric data and expand the curricula vitae by editorial board membership, for example, provides the temptation that predatory publishing needs, even in respected organisations, for ambitious individuals seeking prestigious positions and to aid fund raising.9
The detrimental business model of the predatory publishers destroys the long-lasting ‘gentleman's agreement’ between researchers, journals and readers that have ensured the scientific quality, and ethics, of the editorial output. Researchers may submit low quality, or even fake articles, and because the journals do not apply the correct editorial control, the readers receive articles of unknown scientific quality. As inexperienced clinicians can use the information in their clinical practice, there is the potential for a negative impact on the quality of care. Other researchers may use flawed data from these journals for further analyses and new (and also flawed) research hypotheses. This can also feed into academic promotions and fund raising.5 Identity may be stolen to fill fake editorial boards, something that may well be detrimental for distinguished scholars, usually opinion leaders, who might be unaware of this. Lastly, predatory publishing is also a ‘hot topic’ on the general and social media undermining the reputation of science in the general public.5
Identifying predatory from legitimate journals is sometimes difficult. For many years it was decided by the Beall list, a blacklist managed by Prof Jeffrey Beall that included potential, probable and possible predatory open access publishers, and journals following internationally recognised criteria of ethics and legitimacy (https://beallslist.weebly.com/). Beall shut down in 2017 after being heavily criticised for subjectivity and low specificity and after reported pressure from his employer and some publishers. The list was used for several investigations on this topic and has been currently updated by anonymous researchers (https://beallslist.weebly.com/). In moving away from the concept of a ‘blacklist’, identification should be based on the ability of researchers to check the necessary characteristics of journals and publishers, and on ‘quality indexing’ (Fig. 1).2,4
The most reliable indications that should raise suspicion are fake reported location of the journal office (not a credible location after checking by Google street view); English errors on websites and spam emails; mimicking the name of a legitimate journal; limited or absent information on APCs, article handling processes, ethics rules and editorial policy; invitation to submit articles, to join reviewers or the editorial board by promotional email or in websites; and undue promotion of fake indexing or metrics such as Global Impact Factor, Index Copernicus or fake impact factor.2,10
Despite a high level of control for the inclusion of journals, some predatory journals appear in databases, and indexed in PubMed and SCOPUS.11 PubMed, PubMed Central and MEDLINE are all managed by the US National Library of Medicine but have slightly different selection criteria. The weakness of indexing criteria in PubMed Central may lead to the leak of some articles from predatory journals into PubMed. The SCOPUS database is used worldwide as a metric for the evaluation of scholars for funding or promotion. The evaluation (and re-evaluation) of journals to be included in SCOPUS is based on the judgment of an advisory board, and the journals’ standing, performance and characteristics analysed in an automated algorithm. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) is a free, donation-funded, community-curated directory that provides high-quality indexing of open access peer-review journals (https://doaj.org/). Evidence suggests that the DOAJ has the best specificity for the inclusion of predatory publishers and journals among major directories and databases due to the very stringent criteria for registration (https://doaj.org/).
Produced with the support of several scientific organisations, such as the Committee on Publication Ethics, the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association and legitimate publishers, the Think. Check. Submit. campaign ‘aims to educate researchers, promote integrity and build trust in credible research and publications’.12 This checklist guides scholars in the assessment of the legitimacy of journals through a step-by-step process and should be used in case of doubt about legitimacy.12 Researchers should also use the DOAJ to check the inclusion before submitting their article to an open access journal. DOAJ provides a user-friendly website that allows the search of more than 13 000 journals and 4 million articles free of charge.
Scholars should also speak up if they have concerns about the ethics and quality of the editorial process after submitting their article to a journal. SCOPUS gives the opportunity to users and stakeholders to provide feedback about poorly performing journals, leading to a re-evaluation of the mentioned journals and, eventually, to their exclusion.
The role of senior researchers is pivotal in the protection of young scholars who need to understand that to publish in predatory journals must not be considered a way to avoid rejection or thorough peer-review because these are the real safeguards of science quality. They also need to understand that submitting articles, serving as reviewer or editorial board member for predatory journals and publishers, or even to attend one of their conferences can be detrimental to their career.
In 2012, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment was developed with the aim of promoting best practice in scholarly research through the involvement of all contributors to scientific research and their different disciplines (https://sfdora.org/). The aims of the declaration include moving from quantity to quality, with less importance on ‘metrics’, for research evaluation, fund raising and promotions. This may reduce in future the rush to publish or perish.
The epidemic spread of predatory open access publishing is a serious threat to the scientific community and, potentially, to patient safety. As always in medicine, countermeasures should start from a deep knowledge of the causal factors. Education should not be limited to scholars but also to organisations, publishers and academia.
Acknowledgements relating to this article
Assistance with the Editorial: none.
Financial support and sponsorship: none.
Conflicts of interest: none.
Comment from the Editor: this Editorial was checked and accepted by the Editors, but was not sent for external peer-review.
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