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Neurology Editors Identify the Red Flags of Predatory Publishing

Article In Brief

Seven editors of neurology journals discuss the impact of predatory publishing and why it undercuts scientific integrity and patient care.

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About a decade ago, researchers and physicians started receiving requests to publish in journals that were unlike the usual publishing queries. These journals offered quick turn-around, little, if any, peer-review, and the requirement that the submitter had to pay to publish.

Now academic neurologists say they get 10 to 15 emails from “predatory publishers” daily, along with requests to serve on their editorial boards. Neurology Today asked editors at several neurology journals to discuss the proliferation of these journals, the consequences of publishing in them, and red flags that people might look for when approached with offers to publish.

Everyone interviewed wanted to make it clear that there are many open access journals, like PLOS Biology or Nature Communications, that require payment to publish, but these publications have stringent acceptance guidelines, with a strong peer-review process.

The hope, they said, is that discussion about “predatory publishing” will encourage conversation about them in medical schools and other institutions where young doctors and researchers might be more vulnerable to their offers.

Comments from these editors are excerpted below: Neurology Editor-in-Chief Robert A. Gross, MD, PhD, FAAN, professor of neurology at University of Rochester Medical Center; Neurology: Clinical Practice Editor John Corboy, MD, FAAN, professor of neurology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora; JAMA Neurology Editor-in-Chief S. Andrew Josephson, MD, FAAN, chair of neurology at University of California, San Francisco; Neurology: Genetics Editor Stefan M. Pulst, MD, FAAN, professor and chair of neurology at the University of Utah; Annals of Neurology Editor-in-Chief Clifford B. Saper, MD, PhD, FAAN, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School; and Epilepsia Editor-in-Chief Michael R. Sperling, professor of neurology at Thomas Jefferson University.

How would you define “predatory publishing” and how long has it been going on?

Dr. Saper: Predatory publishing occurs when publishers accept papers with minimal review or publication standards and charge substantial fees for publishing. Virtually all of the journals that send mass emails asking for papers fall into this class. These journals also try to take names that can be confused with those of established journals and assemble false-front “editorial boards,” which use the names of academic neurologists with, or in some cases, without their approval.

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“A new, third aspect is that I get a lot of requests for what are for-profit conferences. They are held all around the world, inviting people to come present, and they tell you how much they appreciate your work even if your work has nothing to do with the conference.”—DR. MICHAEL R. SPERLING

Dr. Josephson: This has been going on for at least a decade, and we're seeing more and more of it in the past five years or so. Part of it is that in a world of electronic-only publishing and an expanding number of researchers, it's easy to create a publication that makes money through a publish-for-profit model.

In my inbox every morning there are at least five to 10 of these requests, and I always add them to my spam folder, so there are probably many, many more that are filtered each day. There are also invitations to serve as a member of an editorial board or to play some leadership role in these journals, where I am sometimes promised a discount for publishing in a non-peer-reviewed manner.

Dr. Sperling: It came on my radar like it did for many people; I started receiving these emails.... Now I get anywhere from 10 to 20 emails a day, inviting submissions, asking me to be on boards.

A new, third aspect is that I get a lot of requests for what are for-profit conferences. They are held all around the world, inviting people to come present, and they tell you how much they appreciate your work even if your work has nothing to do with the conference. The last manuscript request I received was from a dental journal and they cited a paper I published about epilepsy as the reason for the request. They don't pay attention at all to see if the topics are relevant.

It's an enormous business. Faculty know that they have to publish in order to be promoted at a university in an academic line. It is international in scope, with a large overseas component.

Dr. Pulst: Often, it's not clear where the journals are based or where the conferences are being held. When I Google the location, it is often an empty field or mini-mall.

What are the consequences of publishing in a predatory journal?

Dr. Josephson: There are a number of ramifications, but the main concern is that they're putting science out there, which has not been rigorously evaluated. Putting incorrect or even fraudulent data out there can lead to real harm in neuroscience, both to patients and physicians. It's also about the real spirit of publication, which is to advance science, not to be driven purely by the bottom line.

Dr. Pulst: Some universities now give demerits if you publish in a so-called predatory journal. That's probably not as much of an issue in the US, but I get worried because I see a lot of titles cropping up that are very close to established journals.

Dr. Sperling: There are guidelines being imposed now by various granting agencies in Europe, but the US is still in a state of flux about open access. Societies rely on publication fees to exist, so there are challenges with open access. You really need a strong peer review process. When someone sends me a study, there's no way to know if the data are real.

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“Authors are not as careful as they could be. At Rochester, if youre publishing a study, we ask several questions: Do you know the editorial board of the journal? Are they well respected? This is where mentorship should come in, and we need guidelines for avoiding the purely predatory journals.”—D. ROBERT A. GROSS

At our journal, there are at least two reviewers [for each submission], sometimes more, and I read as co-editor. If someone wants to fabricate data, if they're really good at it, sometimes you can't tell.

But if someone sends me a study that says they did brain surgery and the patients were 96 percent seizure-free, I know that's impossible, that the results are too good to be true, that it's usually 70-75 percent, and I start questioning the methods.

How has predatory publishing affected neurology journals?

Dr. Gross: It's hard to know if it's affecting neurology as a field, because then you'd have to know where all the people are submitting. But as a journal, we are getting more submissions than we possibly can publish. When I took over 10 years ago, we were getting 4,000 submissions yearly and now it's closer to 5,400. If predatory journals are having an effect, it's not making much of a dent in our submissions.

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“I dont think these hundreds of predatory journals have affected submissions, because the number of submissions we get is rising exponentially, even with the expanding number of publications we have.”—DR. JOHN CORBOY

The closed access model has been the traditional path for biomedical publishing for years and years, but the idea behind open access was supported by the NIH, with the idea that if taxpayer dollars were supporting the research, taxpayers should be able to see the research. We had to think about how we were going to do that, and over what timeframe, still acknowledging the proprietary nature of some work. The answer was to allow closed access for up to 12 months, and then the article is uploaded into the public space.

But once open access started, a lot of publishers started offering open access only, and some funding agencies require it. We have a pay-for-publication option at Neurology, with two of our journals being open access only; the cost throughout the biomedical publishing world varies from journal to journal, and even within the Neurology family. It's not a small amount of money for some researchers. Biomedical journals vary between $1,000 to $4,000 to publish.

Dr. Corboy: There is increasingly significant pressure to review quickly, and that's not a bad thing—it's the right thing to do. To pay to publish in a journal that has peer review and publishes quickly—that's not a bad thing. And pharmaceutical companies are perfectly happy to pay. They certainly can afford to advertise and reach whatever market they intend, and they have skilled public relations people who use the journals to their advantage.

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“Putting incorrect or even fraudulent data out there can lead to real harm in neuroscience, both to patients and physicians. Its also about the real spirit of publication, which is to advance science, not to be driven purely by the bottom line.”—DR. S. ANDREW JOSEPHSON

I don't think these hundreds of predatory journals have affected submissions, because the number of submissions we get is rising exponentially, even with the expanding number of publications we have.

Dr. Saper: This has relatively little impact on high visibility journals such as Annals of Neurology, because the papers that are submitted to us would not ever end up being published in a predatory journal. In fact, it probably has only modest impact even on low visibility traditional journals (for example, those with impact factors less than 2).

The main impact is on faculty who pay to have their paper published, without it receiving the kind of peer review that improves it (or prevents it being published if the work is in error). And there is an impact on society in general when we have more “false news,” that is, low quality work that may contain erroneous results, but which will clog up PubMed and be citable. This low regard for integrity and the truth is turning into a defining issue of our times, on multiple fronts.

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“Some universities now give demerits if you publish in a so-called predatory journal. Thats probably not as much of an issue in the US, but I get worried because I see a lot of titles cropping up that are very close to established journals.”—DR. STEFAN M. PULST

What are some red flags of predatory journals? And is there anything being done to teach these flags to the most vulnerable—young researchers and medical students?

Dr. Gross: Authors are not as careful as they could be. At Rochester, if you're publishing a study, we ask several questions: Do you know the editorial board of the journal? Are they well respected? This is where mentorship should come in, and we need guidelines for avoiding the purely predatory journals.

There was a list, published by Dr. Jeffrey Beall at the University of Colorado, but it's now defunct. And there's also the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), which proposes to list reputable open access journals. The problem is that Beall's list and the DOAJ have some of the same journals; our office of Academic Affairs recently developed such a guide.

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“The main impact is on faculty who pay to have their paper published, without it receiving the kind of peer review that improves it (or prevents it being published if the work is in error).”—DR. CLIFFORD B. SAPER

There was a study, published in Nature in March 2017, for example, where researchers created a woman named Anna O. Szust, which means “fraud” in Polish to apply for editor positions. The hypothesis was that these predatory publications would accept anyone, and a lot of them did, even though she had never published an article. [After all, she didn't actually exist.]

The concern is that there are unsuspecting people who are submitting to journals that they later wish they hadn't.

Dr. Josephson: If a young researcher falls for one of these emails, that would be a real shame. We certainly have journal clubs for our trainees, where important articles are selected and dissected with a faculty advisor, but the topic of predatory journals themselves is not really part of common medical curricula.

There are some articles out there on how to spot a predatory journal, and the best thing we can do is help people recognize the red flags, as institutions and individual researchers, so that fewer articles are submitted to these journals. At the end of the day, if the money dries up, and no one submits to them, I hope they will not be able to survive.

How to Identify a Predatory Journal

The editors interviewed by Neurology Today offered a few tips for what to look for in offers from predatory journals:

  • They promise a quick turn-around review.
  • The offer [up front] the strong likelihood of publication.
  • There is little or no peer-review process.
  • The name of the journal is similar to a well-known journal.
  • The publishing location of the journal itself is unclear.

Link Up for More Information

• Sorokowski P, Kulczycki E, Sorokowska A, Pisanski K. Comment: Predatory journals recruit fake editor https://www.nature.com/news/predatory-journals-recruit-fake-editor-1.21662. Nature 2017; 543:481–483.