‘Predatory’ journal sting operation uncovers seamier side of academic publishing

An undercover operation by University of Sussex academic Dr Kasia Pisanski involving 360 scientific journals has found that 40 of 120 so-called ‘predatory’ journals offered a fake, unqualified applicant a position on their editorial board without checking the veracity of her CV, or even that she existed.

In contrast, none of the 120 journals ranked as quality publications (those with an official impact factor) on the Journal Citation Reports ‘whitelist’ accepted the applicant.

‘Predatory publishers’ collect fees from researchers and accept papers without first vetting the papers for quality (for instance through peer review), despite claiming otherwise. Many researchers might respond to flattering invitations from these journals, without checking whether they are reputable. Worse yet – some scholars submit their papers wittingly. Academics undergo immense pressure to publish and build reputations as active members of the scholarly community, sometimes at any cost.

Dr Pisanski, Marie-Sklodowska Curie Research Fellow at the University of Sussex, alongside researchers at the University of Wrocław in Poland, decided to take action and investigate after receiving daily spam invitations to submit their papers to, or even become editors of journals entirely outside of their fields of expertise.

They emailed 360 journals (120 suspected predatory journals, 120 from the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), and 120 indexed by JCR) with an application – a CV and cover letter – for an editor position. Their applicant was in fact a non-existent researcher called Anna O. Szust (whose name means “Anna, a fraud” in Polish). The book chapters listed on her CV were fake and not indexed in any online database. The publishers were fake, too. In fact, Szust had never published a single research paper and had no editorial experience.

Publishing their results in Nature, the authors found that 40 ‘predatory’ and 8 DOAJ journals appointed Szust as editor — often within days and without any vetting whatsoever. No JCR journals accepted Szust, and 48 JCR titles, 45 DOAJ titles, and 15 ‘predatory’ journals responded to the email but did not offer her a position.

Speaking about the research, Dr Pisanski said:

“The bottom line is that predatory publishing is harmful for everyone. Without a qualified editorial board, papers published in these types of journals are unlikely to have undergone any kind of quality check, including peer review. It could result in (and probably already has) thousands of scientific articles that have essentially gone ‘un-checked’ – for quality as well as for errors, ethical misconduct or conflicts of interest.

“Predatory publishing threatens to give the open-access movement – a good thing – a bad name. In fact it puts the credibility and authority of the entire academic publishing system at risk.”

The authors hope that their study will alert others to the problem of academic journals that do not provide quality control. However, awareness alone is not enough.

“Those who reward academics for publishing must make efforts to assess journal quality and to reward only best practices," Pisanski adds.

By: Patrick Reed
Last updated: Friday, 24 March 2017