“Dear Rod J. Rohrich,
You are officially invited to submit a paper for publication in the next issue of our brand new Journal of Reconstructive and Plastic Surgery and Dermatologic Science. We are interested in Case Reports, Brief Communications, Original articles, abstracts, media reviews and more.
Please submit your article online at XXX or simply email it to us by replying and attaching your paper.
We are happy to offer you a low publication charge of only $1128 (United States Dollars). Please submit before the end of the month in order to make our publication deadlines for the next issue.
We look forward to hearing from you soon.
p.s. If you’d like to be an Editorial Board member, let me know.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received unsolicited e-mails like the above message in the past 3 years. Sometimes the subject matter and journal titles aren’t even in fields of medicine in which I have training or expertise. Sometimes the topics are on target, and the journal title is eerily similar (but different enough) from titles that I know, trust, and submit to. Occasionally, I have to do a double-take to see if I read the letter correctly. I typically just delete these e-mails without a second glance, but I’m left wondering if it was a legitimate call for papers or something more nefarious. I know from speaking to many of my plastic surgery colleagues from across the world that I am not alone in this experience; far too many of us receive these requests and similar messages for us to not feel like we are being actively solicited or even preyed upon. But, I do know that for PRS Global Open we solicit authors to write articles on specific topics via e-mail as well. I know our e-mails are clearly from me and my editorial team, but the rapid uptick in spam has got even me very confused. Soliciting articles in and of itself is not inherently malicious, but then how does an author know the “good” from the “bad?” This confusing landscape encouraged me to publicly explore in the pages of this journal the difference between a legitimate open access journal and a predatory one.
It is my hope that with this piece, we can continue the good work of so many global editors, to educate the community on how to tell the difference between true open access medical journals, and those that seek to take advantage of vulnerable authors.
PREDATORY JOURNALS: A WORLDWIDE EPIDEMIC
Although it may seem relatively easy to spot a spam e-mail, or protect yourself from a “snake-oil salesman” or “scam artist,” the truth is that in the world of global academic publishing, predatory or pseudo journals are actually thriving: a recent study estimated 8,000 active predatory journals with over 400,000 total articles in 2014.1 They are the equivalent of a “get rich quick scheme,” promising a fast, easy, and inexpensive route to publishing a work. And although quick, facile, and cost-effective publication is the goal of most legitimate open access journals as well, in many cases if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. So why are these journals problematic?
- Sham or nonexistent peer review does nothing to help improve scientific community or better the academician’s work.
- The predatory journals “provide young researchers who may not know better and academicians in search of quick publication with a low barrier to publication.”1
- Some promotion committees across the world focus solely on the quantity of publications and not the quality of the paper or the journal in which it appears1; predatory journals take advantage of this flaw in the system and propagate it.
- Predatory publishers minimize the hard work that legitimate publishers and editorial staff put into academic publishing: copyediting, layout, image correction, marketing and press relations.1 They also do not provide true (or any) peer review or any other editorial services2, all of which require staff time and resources to administer. The open access article processing fee pays for these overhead costs; predatory publishers simply post papers online, removing the quality checks and controls of the editing and publishing process, and simply take most of the article processing charges (APCs) as pure profit.
In short, predatory publishers offer very few—if any—services to the author. This, in turn, cheapens all the hard work that editorial offices, publishers, copy editors, and web engineers do at legitimate journals and publishers.
Many across the publishing industry feel that with predatory publishing, we are witnessing a short-lived—yet problematic—trend that will soon self-destruct as people become more aware.2 Others warn that predatory publishing is still on the rise and that it is “extremely damaging to the scientific record and must be stopped.”2 It is my opinion that both of these may be simultaneously true: spam e-mails from predatory publishers may be easily spotted and filtered out by academicians. For those of us with healthy skepticism and easier access to publishing in legitimate journals, predatory journals may be nothing more than “an annoying nuisance to many in the developed world.”3 But, unfortunately, those in the developing world are coupled with more of a need to publish and fewer resources to be able to identify the predators. Studies have shown that “the majority of authors in predatory journals are inexperienced and based in developing countries,”3 but anyone anywhere is at risk.
As a former president of the World Association of Medical Editors, I’m keenly aware of the harm that these predatory journals do to our colleagues who are early in their careers and eager to publish sooner than later. As the Editor-in-Chief of PRS Global Open I’m also aware of the damage that these illegitimate open access journals do to the reputation of legitimate, credible ones; it is an uphill battle to counter the perception that these predatory journals have cast across what is truly a force for good in the democratization of information.
CASE REPORT: THE CRIMINOLOGY RESEARCHERS AND A PREDATORY JOURNAL
When discussing predatory journals theoretically, most can get an earnest sense of the dangers, but one might still think the risk is real. To make the message more clear, we talked to a group of authors who were victims of predatory publishing to discuss what happened and the resulting fall out:
Alessio Degl’ Innocenti, PhD, MBA, Helle Wijk, RN, PhD, and Eirini Alexiou, MD, PhD, received a convincing e-mail inviting them to submit to a journal in their field, Forensic Science and Criminology. These Swedish researchers looked at the journal website, reviewed the name, aim, and scope of the journal, and were pleased with description of the editorial process. So, they submitted their paper.
Then, they got a bill for approximately $2,000. An APC is expected in an open access journal, but will typically not be requested until after acceptance of the article. Legitimate open access journals will be up-front about their APCs in multiple locations throughout the website and submission process. These researchers had no prior knowledge of a fee. “We argued that this was not stated either on their web page or in the Instructions for Authors and they immediately agreed to decrease the invoice to 1,000 US Dollars,” Degl’ Innocenti4 wrote.
The authors agreed to the lowered price and, upon publication, they reached out to the publisher for a DOI number for their article, since one had not appeared in the final publication. The publisher never replied. They could no longer be reached via the same communication channels Degl’ Innocenti was previously using.4 “We finally understood it was a predatory journal since they suddenly couldn’t be reached anymore,” he told us.4
The authors wanted to publish their article legitimately, and on the record, with a DOI number. But no other journal in their field would publish the article since it was technically published elsewhere. They requested to retract or withdraw their manuscript several times without any results.
“The damage is tremendous for us,” Degl’ Innocenti wrote. “The data we were publishing was the result of many years of work by a team of several researchers and assistants.”4
Fortunately, these criminology researchers found a way out. They never signed a written transfer agreement to the predatory publisher. As of this writing, they were using this information to remove the article from the predator journal and hoped to submit to a legitimate journal soon. The predatory journal did not refund their money.
Drs. Degl’ Innocenti, Wijk, and Alexiou offered this warning to any authors picking a journal for submission:
“Thoroughly assess members that claim to be delegates of the editorial board and check if you can find the “professors” on the Internet. Also, look [at the Journal’s contact] email addresses. Do they only have one or two addresses with almost the same address? Does the address direct you to a person or only to an “information” general in box. If so, there is a risk that it could be a predatory journal.”4
Imagine this happening to hundreds of authors and researchers across multiple fields. Not all of them are fortunate enough to get their papers “back.” This is an epidemic that we cannot end through cease-and-desist letters or force; education is the only way to move beyond the predators into the unfettered promise of open access publishing. With the rapid growth of journals—both legitimate and predatory—it is growing more difficult to successfully identify predatory journals.1 But, there are some good traits to explore that might be very informative. Let’s look more closely at the traits that define predatory and legitimate open access journals.
WHAT IS, AND WHAT IS NOT, A PREDATORY JOURNAL?
The lists that follow are cultivated from the works of Laine and Winker,1 Clark,3 Gillis,5 and accumulated experience.
TOP WAYS TO SPOT A PREDATOR
- APC payment is required upon submission
- May claim to offer peer-review, but no valid reviews are offered and/or no revisions are requested
- All articles are accepted
- Does not follow standard policies advocated by organizations including the World Association of Medical Editors, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, the Committee on Publication Ethics, and the Council of Science Editors
- Sends frequent mass e-mails soliciting articles and promoting fast, in expensive APCs
- Offers Editorial Board membership with few or no criteria; may not actually list an Editor or Editorial Board at all
- No physical address or valid phone number is provided for the publisher and/or editorial office
- Website has a proliferation of broken links and/or grammatical errors
- Does not have or offers a fake International Standard Serial Number
- Additional fees not previously mentioned, such as fees for withdrawing, proof corrections, and so on
- Not listed or falsely claims to be listed in SCOPUS, Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), Web of Science, and so on
- Solicits articles on topics that are not close to the recipient’s areas of study
- Difficult to stop receiving e-mails from the journal, even after attempts to unsubscribe
- If it seems too good to be true, it just might be! (Fig. 1)
TOP WAYS TO SPOT A LEGITIMATE JOURNAL
- APC payment is required after acceptance
- Offers true peer review; reviewer concerns are relayed to author; revisions are frequently requested
- Maintains a rejection rate, even if it is small (acceptance is NOT guaranteed)
- Follows standard policies advocated by organizations listed above; details how it adheres to these policies in publicly-available information for authors
- May solicit articles, but likely in a more targeted fashion or via traditional call for papers; publication times and APCs may be more realistic
- Criteria for serving on Editorial Board are available; Editorial Board positions may typically be earned by meeting specific criteria; Editorial Board is clearly posted
- Valid address and phone number provided
- Website largely functions as it should
- Has a legitimate International Standard Serial Number
- All fees are listed up front
- Clearly and accurately states what bodies list and index it
- Knows whom it is soliciting articles from
- Will stop sending e-mails if asked
Every rule has its exceptions, however, and fitting one or more of the criteria above does not necessarily define a journal as predatory or legitimate. For example, a broken hyperlink or slow response to an “unsubscribe” request does not necessarily mean the publisher is a predator. Although there is no way to detect with 100% accuracy, we have witnessed the rise of several potentially useful, if not occasionally controversial, tools to detect predatory journals.
Beall’s List of “potential, possible or probable” predatory journals was created by Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado Denver, who is credited with actually coining the phrase “predatory journal.” At its peak, Beall’s List included 1,200 publications and a thousand publishers. Although the list was a good start and a useful resource, Beall’s “one-man” approach to judging whether or not a journal was indeed predatory proved controversial for not being accurate and not having a clearly fair appeals process. Beall deleted his list in January 2017 citing threats from publishers and internal pressure.5,6
In June 2017, a new blacklist of deceptive scholarly journals5 was launched by Cabells International, a U.S.-based publishing services company. As of this writing, Cabbells “Journal Blacklist” includes almost 4,000 deceptive journals. The group uses 65 criteria to determine a journal’s legitimacy, aiming to systematize the method of determining illegitimate open access journals. It says that its appeals process is fair and clear, but may take a long period of time. The service is available by subscription only.5
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
As with spam filters and cybersecurity, no tool can be foolproof in detecting predators. The onus is on you to be a “smart” user. My team and I have a few takeaway tips that might help differentiate the legitimate from the predatory or deceptive journals:
- If an Editorial Board is listed, and you recognize a person you know, reach out to that person and ask more about the journal. If that person was not aware that he or she was on the Editorial Board of this journal, it is a good indicator that they’re illegitimate. “Deceptive journals are known for using academics’ names without telling them.”5
- Try to call the Editorial Office or Publisher if the phone numbers are listed. If there is no working phone number, no listed phone number, or no one ever returns your phone call, this should raise a red flag.
- Check their references. If the journal says it’s listed or indexed in SCOPUS or PubMed Central or DOAJ, check those lists out and verify. This should be rather simple.
- “If it seems too good to be true …” If you’ve ever peer reviewed an article, you’ll know that it is not an instantaneous process. If your proof is delivered within days of submission, that should be a sign that the peer review process did not occur.
- Don’t pay up front. Open access publishing is not “pay to play.” APC fees should only be collected after review, revision, and acceptance of an article.
The American Society of Plastic Surgeons has a patient education campaign called “Do Your Homework,” where patients are encouraged to find board-certified plastic surgeons to perform their surgeries. If we expect patients to be savvy consumers, we must expect our academic and other publishing plastic surgeons to do their homework as well. Know before you go, and check out what you’re buying before you pay.
There are many legitimate open access plastic surgery journals out there; PRS Global Open is proud to be one of the first and we work very hard to counteract the negative perceptions created by predatory journals every day.
Open access publishing has the strength to disseminate academic literature across the globe. In the medical arena the potential to positively influence patient outcomes, safety and care worldwide is nearly limitless. Predatory journals are a distraction from that goal, and a dangerous one at that. The battle to overcome the predators begins with an active and informed authorship. Delete the spam, warn and educate your colleagues, and do your homework before you submit to any journal.
Together we can reinforce the legitimate open access publishing movement against these “Predators-in-Chief” and push onward to the true work of disseminating academic research, cases, and conclusions to operating rooms, clinics, and classrooms across the globe.
The authors wish to thank Alessio Degl’ Innocenti, PhD, MBA, Helle Wijk, RN, PhD, and Eirini Alexiou, MD, PhD, for sharing their experience with us. The authors additionally acknowledge Holly Weinstein for her work on the illustration that accompanies this editorial. Holly Weinstein and second author, Aaron G. Weinstein, are married.