Wolf with Euro bills

17: Predatory journals: How to identify them?

Have you ever wondered how to spot a so-called predatory journal? These type of journals are not really interested in your paper, – your research, or of high quality. They seem to be mostly keen on collecting fees from authors in return for what they promise – to publish your paper FAST. Yet, this might be a no-win situation. At the end, you don’t have a good publication, you might damage your reputation and certainly waste money. We want to show you how to avoid falling into the predatory journal trap that only exploits researchers and focuses on profits.  

We first came into touch with a predatory journal many years ago: In our inbox there was a message from the Editor of an international medical journal. The email started in a friendly way and invited us to consider reviewing a recently submitted paper to the journal. So far so good, but we wondered why they had picked us as potential reviewers. Neither of us had any expertise in medical research, certainly not in the specific medical topic of the paper under review. So why would they ask us for a review? How did they even find us? We wrote a friendly message back to the Editor to explain that we couldn’t accept reviewing the paper due to lack of expertise. We never received a response on our message. 

What we thought was just an editorial lapse in judgement turned out not to be the exception. In the years to come, we regularly received similar requests from international scientific and academic journals, completely off-topic! We still get them! Imagine, what would happen if we accepted the invitation to review – without any qualification to do so? This was our personal way of becoming aware of so-called predatory journals and their publishers’ business practices.  

Nowadays, your inbox or your spam folder might be flooded with requests to submit your paper to any number of these journals. They can find you very easily. If you have published in a respected journal, if you attended a conference or your name and email address come up on projects or other research-related websites, you will be asked to submit, review papers or even to join their editorial boards. 

We all should be aware of these practices, because they pose a threat to the very integrity of the academic ecosystem. Therefore, we think it crucial to summarise the main features of these journals for you and how you can identify them. To help, we’ve created a very useful checklist, our Predatory Journal Test that you can consult to find out whether your submission will go to one of these type of journals. 

I. Define: What are predatory journals?

1. Predatory journals

The term ‘predatory journal’ was coined by Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado, who observed and systematically analysed a growing number of exploitative academic journals charging author fees without proper quality-check of the submitted and published papers. These journals act as predators and consider the authors, often new or inexperienced ones, as their prey and lure them into their traps. Authors feel attracted by the promise to get published quickly and are willing to pay for this service. Some authors might feel compelled to take the irresistible offer, despite assuming or even knowing that it is a false promise.    

Predatory journals (also called deceptive or scamming journals) are accused of applying poor academic standards and practices in their editorial and peer-review processes. They apply poor ethical procedures by claiming to live-up to the established quality control standards in peer-review, but do so only on a superficial level. They simply exploit the situation that researchers (in particular young and inexperienced ones), are under pressure to publish in journals. A newer and more recent form of predatory journals are the so-called hijacked journals, where predatory journals impersonate t established, legitimate journals and pretend to be the original journal and lure authors in to submit to them. Even more unethical!

2. A short history of the rise of predatory journal publishing

Predatory journals arose with the onset of the open-access movement. Suddenly, many new publishers came on the market and started their journals as online-only. Many of these initiatives had the best of intentions to capitalise on the possibility to share research papers on the Internet, but some unfortunately saw it as an opportunity to make financial profit at the expenses of the publishing system. 

Towards the end of the first decade of the 2000s,  people began to notice the increasing practices of predatory journals. Jeffrey Beall, the most renowned, started to set up a list of predatory journals in 2008. Quickly, the list grew to several thousand journals and publishers accused of unethical journal publication practices. In 2011, Beall’s list included 18 publishers. By 2016, that number had grown to 923 publishers. The problem had ballooned into a danger.

This journal blacklist, based on 52 criteria developed by Beall, was forced to shut down after almost a decade due to increasing threats and political issues. Selected publishers, journals but also members of the open-access community had objected against Beall’s understanding of predatory journals. Threats of legal cases by some of the publishers he had labelled as ‘predatory’ resulted in Beall taking the list down. Inside academia, Beall had received a lot of recognition for his list and for systematically analysing and identifying predatory journal practices, which many scholars were using to avoid falling into these journals’ traps. 

The archived version of Beall’s list is available at Beall’s List of Predatory Journals and Publishers.   

Since the closing down of Beall’s list, several successor initiatives have appeared ‘Cabell’s International’ offers ‘The Journal Blacklist’ on subscription basis. A good review of the value of this list is available on the Scholarly Kitchen Blog. An anonymous group started the initiative ‘Stop Predatory Journals’ listing some 1,300 possible predatory journals, based on Beall’s list. The number of predatory journals and papers published in these journals is continuously growing. A study by Shen & Björk (2015) revealed a rise of active predatory journals from 1,800 in 2010 to 8,000 in 2016. On the above-mentioned Cabell’s Blacklist currently almost 12,000 so-called predatory journals are listed (Andersen 2019). 

For further details on the rise and development of predatory journals see the articles by Allen (2018)Butler (2013)Dadkhah & Borchardt (2016), Eriksson & Helgesson (2017), and Straumsheim (2017).

3. What do predatory journals in practice look like? 

What are the exact practices that so-called predatory journals apply? Let’s get a quick overview of the potential issues of misconduct and unethical behaviour that you may find from predatory journals: 

Predatory journals:

  • do not apply a standardised peer-review process 
  • may not send your paper to peer-reviewers or may not apply any editing or improvement of them before publishing 
  • publish a high number of low-quality papers 
  • are more likely to publish fake or hoax papers, as they do not identify them as such due to their poor quality control 
  • send spam emails to thousands of researchers asking them to contribute to the journal  
  • list members on editorial boards without those people agreeing or knowing of it  
  • make up names of editorial board members or authors  
  • copy material, design and advertise as established and legitimate journals 
  • may even hijack established journals by setting up journals with identical names and similar websites  
  • inappropriately or fraudulently use ISSN  
  • make up or fake journal metrics such as impact factors and others  
  • state wrong or misleading information about the size and the location of the publisher  

4. Why avoid predatory journals?

All the behaviours listed above should give you enough reason to assume that an ethical and respected scholar would not consider publishing in any of these outlets. Yet, it seems many, particularly, young and inexperienced researchers that feel the pressure to publish papers still fall for these journals. Don’t do it! Even if the temptation is high, you are harming yourself: 

  • You might get charged an exorbitant rate for publishing your paper. 
  • You might first be notified – after acceptance of your paper – that you have to pay a fee at all. 
  • Your paper eventually will no longer be accessible if the publisher doesn’t have a long-term storage policy. 
  • Your credibility as young scholar can be damaged by publishing in these journals.
  • A publication record in predatory journals is anything but helpful in finding and attracting research grants or academic positions.

II. How to identify predatory journals? 

Yes, you can get around predatory journals. We looked into the traps and obstacles for you and came up with a set of 25 criteria that can help you to identify unethical or deceptive behaviour in journal publications. 

The list below is a selection of what we think are the most prominent and easy to spot indicators. We looked through the various available lists of criteria to identify predatory journals: One provided by Beall, Eriksson & Helgesson (2017), Rele et al. (2017), Shamseer et al. (2017), the ‘Think, Check, Submit’ initiative and the anonymous initiative Stop Predatory Journals. From the multitude of criteria (over 65 items) provided, we made a concise selection for you that should enable you to check yourself. 

1. Selected criteria of predatory journals 

#1: The journal asks for a submission rather than publication fee.
Even if your paper does not get accepted, you will still have to pay the fee. The fees are typically rather low compared to established, legitimate journals (e.g. < EUR 150). 

#2: The journal promises a very fast publication process. Typically 72h to a very few weeks, which makes it rather unrealistic that a proper peer-review process is going to be applied. 

#3: The journal defines no clear publication date. There is no regular publication activity visible. The journal does not state a fixed number of issues and volumes to be published per year. 

#4: The journal claims or seems to be rather new. It has a very low number of published papers and issues so far. 

#5: The aims and scope of the journal are not defined or rather vague. 

#6: The journal publishes papers that are far outside the scope of the journal. 

#7: The journal requests manuscripts to be submitted via email.

#8: The journal has a very high acceptance rate of papers. Papers are also accepted within very short time. 

#9: The paper titles and abstracts contain errors. 

#10: The journal claims to be very international but has no or very few papers from well-known or international authors. 

#11: The journal has a very small editorial board or an editorial board that is still to be announced. The names mentioned are not well-known researchers. 

#12: The journal does not list contact addresses of editors, editorial board members or the publisher. Contact addresses can also be incomplete. 

#13: The Editor-in-Chief of this journal is also the Editor-in-Chief of (many) other journals with widely different subjects.  

#14: The journal has a poor and unprofessional looking website. It is not very informative and contains factual mistakes and language errors. 

#15: The journal sends open calls/unsolicited emails to many authors to invite them to submit papers to them. 

#16: Communication from the journal includes poor language, spelling mistakes or grammar errors. 

#17: The journal is not transparent about the editorial policies that they apply. 

#18: The journal claims to have an impact factor despite the fact it is a new journal in which case it cannot have an impact factor yet. 

#19: The journal requires authors to transfer copyright despite claiming it is open access. 

#20: The publisher of the journal is not a member of a recognised professional body that commits to best practices in publishing, e.g. 

#21: The journal is not indexed in any of the established journal databases such as 

#22: The journal’s contact email address is non-professional and non-journal affiliated (e.g. @gmail.com or @yahoo.com). 

#23: The journal is listed on Beall’s list of predatory journals or any other journal blacklist. 

#24: The journal (if it is open access) is not listed on the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). The DOAJ is a kind of whitelist for open access journals as certain criteria must be met in order to be listed.  

#25: The journal is not read or known by your colleagues. They do not publish in nor read this journal. 

2. Is the journal you want to submit to a predatory one? 

The more criteria on the list above that are NOT met by the journal you are aiming for, the higher the likelihood that it does not fall into the category of so-called predatory journals. However, if a journal you want to submit your work to, does meet one or several of the above mentioned criteria, it does not mean definitively that it is a predatory journal. There can be, for example, new journals with the best of intentions which cannot have a large number of high-quality papers from many well-known authors yet. These can still be very decent journals. It can, sometimes, be hard to define what a predatory journal is due to a lack of a global definition, as pointed out so well by Cobey et al. (2018).  

Take our Predatory Journal Test including all the criteria listed above. Within a very short time, you will know whether you can submit to your journal in mind, or whether you are about to become prey to predatory publishing practices and would be better off going somewhere else. 

Conclusion: 

Predatory journals and deceptive publishing practices are a pain! They make academic life more difficult. You don’t want your well-crafted paper based on many hours of hard work to end up abused by a corrupt publisher for their personal gain and thrown in the trash. Being aware of the practices of predatory journals is the first step. Take your envisioned journal through our Predatory Journal Test and make sure your paper, your money, and your career are in safe hands. 

Relevant resources:  

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