‘Suspect’ journals take scientists for a ride

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Speed read

  • Some journals prey on researchers, going for their money, but not providing proper peer review
  • Pressure to publish draws scientists, especially in developing countries, to publish in such journals
  • Investigation and regulation is needed to ensure proper peer review, experts say

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Some 'journals' are out for profit, not to carry peer-reviewed science — and researchers in the developing world are targets, reports Yojana Sharma.

Under pressure to publish to advance their careers, many scientists, especially in developing countries, risk falling prey to a growing number of substandard and unethical journals that adopt dubious and dishonest practices to turn a quick profit.

Writing in Nature in September, Jeffrey Beall, a library expert at the University of Colorado, Denver, in the United States, who monitors 'suspect' journals on his Scholarly Open Access blog, says some publishers exploit the open access model by asking authors to pay to appear in journals "of questionable and downright low quality". [1]

While open access journals are a boon to developing country researchers and research libraries, the predators and poor-quality publications "are just under everybody's radar", Kenneth Foster, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, tells SciDev.Net.Beall claims that what he calls "predatory journals" are "dishonest and lack transparency. They aim to dupe researchers, especially those inexperienced in scholarly communication." Many of these journals will accept almost any article as long as the author pays the fee.

He began to take a close interest in such journals in India, together with the country's Society for Scientific Values (SSV), an independent science plagiarism watchdog in New Delhi, after his own research was plagiarised and misused.

Passing off as prestigious

Scientists usually learn of suspect journals after their work has been plagiarised in them, or when they have been named as members of journals' editorial boards without their knowledge or permission.

The journals that cause particular concern charge authors for publishing their article without providing high-quality peer review or editing, so that plagiarised, recycled or false research is not weeded out. Often they have "important sounding names", notes Foster, typically starting with 'International', 'British' or 'American' to gain prestige whether or not they really have such links.

There is no internationally accepted term to describe these journals. After all, substandard or bogus research occasionally appears in prestigious journals, despite their strong emphasis on peer review. And "even subscription journals have 'bottom-feeders' that do little or no peer review", points out Stevan Harnad, professor of cognitive science at the universities of Québec in Canada and Southampton in the United Kingdom.

But whatever the term — substandard, suspect, bogus or predatory — the journals employ unethical practices.

Some substandard journals "have genuine-sounding editorial boards but closer scrutiny may reveal that they are not experts in the field served by the journal", says Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, a blog that tracks retractions from scientific journals arising from misconduct.

Rather than adding to the body of knowledge, "it is just a business," says India's SSV president Kasturi Chopra.

But unlike for-profit journals that conduct proper peer review, many substandard journals accept whatever papers are offered, trawling for material through unsolicited bulk emails or by mining lists of conference participants.

Pressure to publish

Young researchers in developing countries can be easy prey. The pressure to publish has risen dramatically because career advancement depends on it — publications can embellish a job application.

Nigeria's National Universities Commission (NUC) insists that lecturers publish in foreign academic journals to become professors, says Farooq Kperogi, a communications academic at Kennesaw State University, Georgia, United States, who has written in Nigerian newspapers about questionable journals.

A few years ago, an NUC survey found that 23 per cent of articles in a sample of Nigerian academics' CVs had been published in substandard journals based in Nigeria and abroad.

Although the NUC did not define substandard, it pointed to a journal in which some 90 per cent of articles in every issue were authored by the faculty from one university, with a "few from friends" in other universities to "create the semblance of spread".

"Nigerian researchers are disproportionately the victims of these publishing scams," Kperogi tells SciDev.Net. He says he is surprised by the lack of awareness in Nigeria of 'bait and switch' scams that lure researchers into submitting an article, only later informing them that there is a publication fee.

Researchers often do not realise they are being duped, he says. "In fact, the assumption is entrenched in academic circles in Nigeria that the higher the fee charged [by the journal], the higher the quality."

Suspect in Pakistan

Isa Daudpota, a Pakistani academic who has researched the issue in his home country by cross-checking the names of scientists on editorial boards and contacting them by email to see if they knew they were listed as such, says he has unearthed instances the of "use of fake journals", some even approved by Pakistan's Higher Education Commission (HEC).

These journals can demand high payments for speedy publication of material without proper review and editing, and may include the names of prominent international academics without their knowledge. When alerted, the academics "were horrified to find their names had been used".

Raghavendra Rau, professor of finance at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, said he had only heard about his name being used in one journal from colleagues.

In another case, an academic even took action to have a website shut down, though Daudpota believes this should be left to the HEC.

Sometimes, Daudpota claims, journals and academics use each other. "It can be a short cut to promotion and privileges. Some editors and authors who have been associated with fake journals have gained through financial rewards, including national honours and promotions," he says.

For its part, the HEC has said that it investigates "all complaints received".

Struggle for quality

China appears to be home to the largest number of substandard and suspect journals.

Most Chinese publications are published under the auspices of the state and few outside the country took any notice until English-language versions began to emerge to bolster the appearance of Chinese academics in 'international publications'.

China now says it conducts annual inspections of journals and is pushing up quality by investing in editorial standards.

But Cao Xingion, an associate professor in the school of law at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, who has looked into academic misconduct in China, alleges that some substandard journals pay academic inspectors to get a higher rating in the inspections.

Meanwhile in Africa, university librarians are involved in the struggle to maintain quality.

"We stick to the core journals with obvious quality levels," says Nasra Gathoni, president of the Association for Health Information and Libraries in Africa, based in Nairobi, Kenya. "In our situation, we always try to involve the faculty. They can advise us about quality in their disciplines."

Freedom versus regulation

Around the world, the need for regulation, particularly on a national level, is widely recognised. But journals cannot simply be shut down on the basis of a few suspicions, says Foster. If they have an International Standard Serial Number (ISSN), they are legal. "There are real intellectual freedom issues," he notes.

Some researchers say it is risky to rely on email alerts from concerned academics. Ethical publications may inadvertently, or maliciously, be included on such lists.  

So what can be done?

Most of those quoted in this article argue that regulatory bodies such as the University Grants Commission in India, NUC in Nigeria and HEC in Pakistan should issue advice so that universities can then act by discontinuing or improving substandard university-owned journals.

Chopra says ministries and funding agencies should keep their own blacklists and insist on scientists publishing only in above-board journals as a condition of funding which again raises the issue of defining 'above board' and 'substandard'.

Daudpota in Pakistan goes further.

"The HEC should investigate them and then aggressively get these journals removed from the web, and compel Pakistani academics associated as editors or contributors to sever their connections immediately and remove mention of such publications from their résumé.

"Benefits — financial and professional — obtained through such publications should be withdrawn. The big fish in particular need to be tried in a court of law."

Link to article in Nature


[1] Nature doi:10.1038/489179a (2012)

[2] Current Science, vol. 103, no. 11 (2012)