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Hijacked-journal tracker helps researchers to spot scam websites

Journals on shelves in at a university library.

Research journals are being cloned online to scam scientists.Credit: MShieldsPhotos/Alamy

Hijacked journals — scam websites that impersonate legitimate titles — have duped unsuspecting researchers out of author fees for years. Now, a tool will help researchers to check the validity of titles they are considering before they submit their work.

The online spreadsheet, called the Retraction Watch hijacked journal checker, lists more than 150 titles and associated web addresses of allegedly hijacked journals. It has been put together by Anna Abalkina, an economics researcher at the Free University of Berlin, and scientific-misconduct blog Retraction Watch.

The tool’s creators say that it could help to prevent researchers being fooled by fake journal websites. But others say that simply listing affected titles might not be enough to address the problem, which is exacerbated by broader issues in scholarly publishing.

Cloned titles

Hijacked journals usually exist in the form of ‘cloned’ websites that appear similar to those of the legitimate journals, but contain subtle changes in the web domain that go unnoticed at first glance. Some of these bogus journals also have hijacked International Standard Serial Numbers, or ISSNs — eight-digit codes used to identify periodicals — and some are indexed in mainstream bibliometric databases such as Scopus. Although they look similar to the real journal and collect fees from would-be authors, these publications do not peer review submitted manuscripts, and only sometimes actually publish them.

The phenomenon is not new. Almost a decade ago, Nature reported that scammers had cloned the websites of two European science journals, duping hundreds of researchers into paying author fees. There have also been previous attempts to oust hijacked journals. Researchers have published lists of affected titles in peer-reviewed articles, and the now-defunct blog of University of Colorado librarian Jeffery Beall listed more than 100 allegedly hijacked journals before it was closed down in 2017.

Abalkina and Retraction Watch’s effort, launched at the World Conference on Research Integrity in Cape Town, South Africa, this month, will be updated as more hijacked journals are identified.

Tackling the problem is important because research databases often import articles from Scopus, and in doing so can inadvertently include non-peer-reviewed papers masquerading as legitimate research, says Abalkina. Last year, Retraction Watch reported that a World Health Organization (WHO) library on COVID-19 research included more than 380 papers from hijacked journals. The WHO told Retraction Watch that it is now reviewing these citations.

Papers from hijacked journals that are indexed in Scopus can persist even after the journal itself has been shut down, Abalkina adds. “It means that these papers can be cited.”

Fake knowledge

“The issue with hijacked journals is that not properly peer-reviewed manuscripts available open access on a sham website become a source of ‘insights’ for policymakers, researchers, and medical doctors. This could put hundreds or thousands of people in danger,” says Salim Moussa, a marketing researcher at University of Gafsa in Tunisia. He adds that previous efforts to flag bogus journals have failed to put a stop to the scams, and some authors willingly submit their papers to them. “Hijacked journals are a manifestation of a much deeper problem in scholarly research and publishing.”

Junior researchers might turn to hijacked journals if under pressure to get a paper published in titles that are indexed in citation databases such as Scopus and Web of Science, Moussa says. “Hijacked journals will continue to exist as long as there are researchers desperate enough to pay article processing charges for publishing their manuscripts in them.”

The hijacked-journal checker will prevent some researchers falling victim to cybercrime, says Mehdi Dadkhah, an information-technology scientist who has just completed a fellowship at Ferdowsi University of Mashhad in Iran. But he warns that many researchers will not be aware of the tool or even know what hijacked journals are.

However, Mohammad Khosravi, a computer scientist at the Persian Gulf University in Iran, says that he thinks hijacked journals are becoming less dangerous to scholarly communication because researchers increasingly favour journals from big publishers that are technically “very difficult” to hijack.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-01666-3

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