Papers published in ‘predatory’ journals attract little attention from scientists, and get cited much less than those in reputable publications, an analysis shows.
Predatory journals are those that charge authors high article-processing fees but don’t provide expected publishing services, such as peer review or other quality checks. Researchers and publishers have long voiced fears that these practices could be harming research by flooding the literature with poor-quality studies.
But the authors of the analysis, posted to the preprint server arXiv on 21 December1, say their findings suggest papers in predatory journals have “very limited readership among academics”, and therefore have little effect on science.
The researchers picked 250 predatory journals from the more than 10,000 titles included on a list of such publications curated by Cabells, a publishing analytics company in Beaumont, Texas. They then selected one paper published in 2014 from each of the 250 journals. Using the Google Scholar search engine, they manually checked how many times each paper had been cited in the five years since its publication.
Around 60% of the papers hadn’t attracted any citations at all, and 38% were cited up to 10 times. Less than 3% of the papers attracted more than 10 citations, and none got more than 32 citations (see ‘Limited readership’).
The authors also analysed a random sample of 1,000 articles published in 2014 in reputable journals indexed in the Scopus database. By contrast, each of those articles had an average of around 18 citations, and only 9% of the papers were not cited.
The lack of citations to articles in predatory journals could indicate that the harm these publications cause might have been exaggerated, says Bo-Christer Björk, an information systems scientist at the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki who co-authored the study. “If people don’t cite, they probably don’t read those articles,” he says. “They have very little impact on the research of others.”
The results aren’t surprising — not many academics thought predatory journal papers were highly cited anyway, says Matt Hodgkinson, head of research integrity at the open-access publisher Hindawi in London. But he cautions that the study is small. “A sample of 250 articles is low considering the estimated volume of articles in suspected predatory journals,” he says. Hundreds of thousands of papers are now published in predatory journals every year. A 2015 study that Björk co-authored found2, for instance, that such journals increased their publication output from 53,000 articles in 2010 to around 420,000 in 2014.
Björk acknowledges that his team’s latest analysis looked at only a small number of papers, because the laborious process of manually counting citations limited the amount of data that could analysed. But he argues that a sample of 250 is large enough to be confident in the study’s conclusions.
Hodgkinson stresses that, despite the findings, predatory journals still pose a threat to science and to scholarly publishing in several ways. They trick researchers and institutions out of payments, refuse to reject flawed papers and tarnish the reputation of legitimate open-access journals, he says.
Björk, B.-C., Kanto-Karvonen, S. & Harviainen, J. T. Preprint at https://arxiv.org/abs/1912.10228 (2019).
Shen, C. & Björk, B.-C. BMC Med. 13, 230 (2015).