Predatory journals are a global and growing problem contaminating all domains of science. A coordinated response by all stakeholders (researchers, institutions, funders, regulators and patients) will be needed to stop the influence of these illegitimate journals.
With few barriers in place, ‘predatory’ (illegitimate) journals are flourishing (see Box 1). We recently documented just how well some of these journals have done and how far their reach has expanded1. Previous conventional wisdom suggested that predatory journals were mainly a concern for low-income countries2; however, our assessment of the current epidemiology of articles from these journals suggests a substantial number of articles from corresponding and senior authors from upper-middle- and high-income countries. In our sample of 1,907 biomedical articles in predatory journals, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and China were in the top ten contributing countries. The top institutions included a US Ivy League school, and several national-level taxpayer-funded sources were in the top ten funders (including the top-listed National Institutes of Health). This expanding net of activity is also reflected by the large number of participants included in these studies, including more than 2.1 million people and over 8,000 animals. Predatory journals are now undeniably everyone’s problem and studies published in these largely non-indexed, non-archived journals that lack both transparency and scientific rigour represents a colossal waste of scarce human, animal and financial resources. This “corruption of the communication of science”2 is particularly troubling in our era of diminishing funding for biomedical research in some regions of the world.
There have previously been many calls to stymie the spread of predatory journals; nevertheless, their continuing rise suggests that stronger decisive action is needed. Although we recognize that there are no easy, ‘quick fix’ solutions, we believe that a concerted stakeholder-driven response must begin to address this issue (Table 1). Here, we summarize the factors that have contributed to the success of predatory journals. We then recommend actions for relevant stakeholder groups to address the continued proliferation of these journals.
What has enabled their success?
To mount an adequate response to predatory journals, we must first understand what these journals are and define some factors that may have contributed to their success (Box 1).
For researchers, the pressure to ‘publish or perish’ combined with a lack of awareness of predatory journal practices has resulted in a broad spectrum of faculty and research staff publishing their work in these journals. This has likely been compounded by low author processing charges (APCs) and the promise of rapid publication, which undoubtedly appear attractive to many scientists, including those seeking academic positions and those applying for promotion. Similarly, institutions, regulators and funders, particularly those in upper-middle- and high-income countries, may have felt this problem does not affect them and as such have not developed programmes to either educate their researchers on the problem of predatory publishing or disincentivize publishing in these journals. Finally, patient advocacy groups may not have been aware of the burden of predatory journals and, as a result, have not provided a voice of concern to oppose publication in these sources.
What can stakeholders do?
Here we outline actions various stakeholders can consider taking to avoid the spread of predatory journals.
Scientifically responsible and ethically minded researchers must first recognize that work published in predatory journals is unlikely to be indexed or disseminated in a consistent manner; as such, it will likely never be read or used by anyone. We hope this recognition alone will disincentivize prospective authors from submitting manuscripts to predatory journals. Moreover, as more academics appreciate the threat posed by predatory journals, the reputation of scientists and their institutions that continue to publish in these entities will likely be diminished.
For those researchers that have consciously decided to avoid predatory journals, the next major barrier they may face is distinguishing illegitimate entities from legitimate journals. At this time, the onus to differentiate these still lies with the individual researcher. As such, scientists must educate themselves on the characteristics of predatory journals. We recommend the following:
Researchers should cross-check the journal they are considering submitting to against the Centre for Journalology's empirically derived list of predatory journal characteristics3. Importantly, no single trait consistently defines predatory journals, for this reason, it is important that researchers make an overall assessment of journals before submitting.
Researchers should check to see whether the entity they are considering submitting to is a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE, https://publicationethics.org), and, if open access, whether it is listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ, https://doaj.org).
Researchers should stay up to date by engaging with campaigns such as the Think, Check, Submit campaign (http://thinkchecksubmit.org) that provide guidance on how to choose trustworthy journals to submit their research to.
Learned/scientific societies should actively promote awareness of predatory journals to their membership. Educational efforts could also be promoted through these societies.
Research institutions must begin assessing and acknowledging the threat that predatory journals present to both their reputation as well as their academic integrity. Our institution, The Ottawa Hospital, has developed a comprehensive programme to address these issues. A publications officer position was created (served in by K.D.C.) to support and educate researchers on topics related to publishing, assess current publication practices, help improve reporting quality within manuscripts and also suggest legitimate venues for manuscript publication4,5. The publications officer conducts regular seminars across the institution, is available for one-on-one consulting and hosts a website of resources for researchers (http://www.ohri.ca/journalology). In addition, a refresh of the institution’s publication guideline has been undertaken to explicitly state that the institution does not support publication in predatory journals (https://osf.io/2963d/). We recommend other institutions adopt similar practices. At present, publication guidelines or policies are not standard, thus where these do not exist they should be implemented. Where they do exist, they should be expanded to address predatory journals. In addition, institutions should dedicate resources towards educating their trainees and researchers about the risks of predatory journals. Institutional libraries and librarians may have a unique role to play in this regard. As stewards of scientific dissemination and integrity, librarians must first be aware of predatory journals and next actively educate researchers. Potential methods of dissemination should promote active exchange with researchers (for example, live chat webinars), not merely static web postings.
Unfortunately, the quantity (rather than quality) of publications is still routinely used as a metric for hiring, promotion and tenure in many institutions. We recommend efforts to disincentivize publication in predatory journals and rewards should only be provided to those that follow best practices. Institutions will need to perform an audit of published/completed studies that could be provided to their faculty. For example, formal assessment of journal quality could be performed on curriculum vitae submitted with promotion applications. Such audits could also be tied to demerit points for those that publish in these journals; likewise, departments/divisions that provide evidence of the reduction of predatory publications could be rewarded. An additional mechanism for institutions to consider is policies explicitly excluding use of institutional open access publishing funds towards publication in predatory journals. Ultimately, mechanisms must be instituted to deter researchers from continuing to publish in these illegitimate journals.
Funders, like institutions, must first assess the current threat that predatory journals have created that may potentially diminish their reputation. We identified a number of large, national-level agencies funding these studies. However, we only assessed a sample of articles; thus, there are undoubtedly many more taxpayer-funded studies that have disappeared into predatory journals. Funders must demand value for their investment, and funding non-indexed work represents an extremely poor return on their financial investment to grantees. In response to this, we recommend funders (similar to institutions) perform an audit of published/completed studies that could be fed back to the identified grantees. Similarly, funders could establish formal policies and mechanisms to discourage publication of future studies in these journals. Our recommendation for audit and feedback would provide an opportunity for funders (and institutions) to evaluate how successful these types of policies are in discouraging publication in illegitimate journals.
Legitimate journals should take steps to further distinguish themselves from predatory journals. We reported that the completeness of reporting in predatory journal articles was significantly worse than similar assessments of legitimate journals1. Thus, legitimate journals could further differentiate themselves by increasing endorsement and enforcement of widely accepted reporting guidelines to improve study transparency (http://www.equator-network.org); the Transparency and Openness Promotion (TOP) guidelines offer another way for these journals to separate themselves and provide operationalized standards of conduct6. Legitimate open access journals should also register to be indexed in the DOAJ and be transparent regarding journal operations. In addition, legitimate journals could re-evaluate eligibility criteria for APC waivers to further increase access to authors. For instance, many authors from higher-income countries remain ineligible for these waivers; however, some of these authors (for example, students) may not have access to funds to pay for APCs.
Opening the black box of peer review may be another important way legitimate journals could further differentiate themselves from predatory journals7. Currently, there is limited empirical evidence on the process and standards that legitimate journals employ to evaluate scientific manuscripts; thus, perhaps it is not surprising that some researchers have difficulty distinguishing between the review processes of predatory and legitimate journals. Using a transparent, publicly auditable peer-review process could help legitimate journals clearly distinguish themselves from the shoddy review practices of predatory journals.
As already mentioned, publication in a predatory journal represents an enormous waste of human, animal and material resources. Given these are gross research inefficiencies, they place the problem of predatory journals squarely within the purview of regulators. For instance, preclinical studies we found used more than 8,000 animals and have little chance of being disseminated as the studies are often not indexed or permanently archived1. As such, other researchers have limited opportunities to learn from these reports and potentially reduce or refine animal use in future experiments. This is in direct conflict with the ‘3Rs’ (reduce, refine, replace animal use) subscribed to by most lab animal regulatory bodies. To combat these issues, we recommend that regulatory bodies adopt policies that tie study approval to dissemination plans; within these dissemination plans, requirements to avoid publication in predatory journals could be included. To do this effectively and to expedite audit, an operationalized and agreed definition of what constitutes a ‘predatory journal’ will be required. Moreover, to protect study participants, regulators could consider audit and feedback of publishing practices of those seeking ethical or regulatory approval of studies involving patients and animals. A potential barrier to these suggestions may be the specific remits that regulatory agencies, and possibly funders, must operate within. As such, their ability to implement these actions may be curtailed by jurisdictional limitations. Nevertheless, regulatory agencies must adapt and re-evaluate policies to keep pace with changes in the publication landscape.
Patients and public
Despite widely read articles regarding predatory journals that have been published in the lay press8, we suspect that the public has underestimated the burden of predatory journals on patients and laboratory animals. The massive number (more than two million) of patients reported in our sample of predatory articles likely agreed to participate in these studies due to a sense of altruism and perhaps a desire to contribute to the healthcare of future patients1. Publication of these studies in illegitimate journals poses a major ethical dilemma as the knowledge gained from these studies is very unlikely to be used. As such, we think the public has a vested interest to draw greater attention to the problem of predatory journals. We also recommend patients seek assurances from other stakeholders that the results of their contributions will not end up in a predatory journal.
Many patient advocates now sit on funder and institutional boards. As such they can play a vital role in helping ensure that best publication practices are promoted through these mechanisms. Similarly, patient groups can help inform elected officials concerned with biomedical science about the dangers of predatory publications. Finally, there may be a role for the public in identifying predatory publications (for example, people could tag articles from suspected predatory journals that have permeated social media, #predatorypub).
Aside from these recommended actions, we also believe that research into illegitimate journals must continue. Although we have opened ‘Pandora’s box’ and provided an accounting of publications in predatory journals, further research is needed. An empirical understanding of authors’ potentially varied motivations to publish in these journals is still needed, and different strategies to counter predatory journals should be formally evaluated. In addition, distinctions between predatory entities acting with nefarious intent and journals that have been labelled as predatory but are simply running low-budget operations due to financial constraints need to be explored and better distinguished. Similarly, the effects of including these studies in systematic reviews and meta-analyses and other meta-approaches need to be investigated. We hope that stakeholders will heed this call to action, meet to discuss, invest in the initiatives described, and continue to study the expanding problem of predatory journals.
M.M.L. is supported by The Ottawa Hospital Anesthesia Alternate Funds Association. D.M. is supported by a University Research Chair.