Warning over coronavirus and predatory journals

Epidemiologists, virologists can expect to be targeted. Here's what to watch out for.

23 June 2020

Dalmeet Singh Chawla

Vectorios2016/Getty

With hundreds of predatory journals appearing and disappearing on a regular basis, researchers need to be vigilant in their approach to unfamiliar publishers.

While predatory journals can be difficult to define and identify, a common distinguishing characteristic is that their publishers try to exploit the open-access publishing model by charging the fee and then fail to provide editorial services.

Simon Linacre

Lists of predatory journals have been widely used to keep track of emerging titles. One of the best-known, Beall’s List, was retired in January 2017. (The list remains online.)

In June 2017, Cabell’s International, a scholarly services firm headquartered in Beaumont, Texas, launched a pay-to-view list of predatory journals. At launch, there were 4,000 journals on the list. Today, there are 13,000.

Simon Linacre, the firm’s director of international marketing and development, spoke to natureindex.com about the state of predatory publishing and what the firm is doing to tackle the problem.

Q: What should researchers be aware of when it comes to predatory journals?

A: The modus operandi of predatory publishers is to fool authors into submitting their articles for publication and charging them a fee, and they do this by adopting the characteristics of legitimate journals.

For example, 40% of the journals on our Predatory Reports list have an ISSN, but many of these are faked, stolen, or just made up. A similar proportion (41%) purport to be based in the US — the largest amount of any country — but very few actually are, giving fake addresses such as vacant lots in US towns.

Predatory publishers can be very adept at following new trends, and I am worried that some may try and take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to start up new journals to publish the huge output of new articles on the subject.

We already have 41 journals specifically about epidemiology on the Predatory Reports list and another 35 on virology (0.6% in total). We could see this grow rapidly over the next 12 months, so researchers in these areas should be particularly careful now about where they submit their papers.

Q: The launch of your list seemed like fate, given the closure of Beall’s blog earlier that year. How did it happen?

A: I’m glad you said it was fate, because there’s a misconception that somehow our list took over from Beall’s List. We had started the development of our product two years earlier, in 2015.

We have avoided looking too deeply at the journals Beall listed, to make sure our list was completely independent. But that’s something we’re starting to do now, going through, methodically, the journals and publishers that Beall had highlighted.

Q: What changes have you seen in predatory publishing since the launch?

A: As far as we can gather, predatory publishing is increasing. But it’s not because the total number of journals is growing exponentially. What is growing exponentially is the churn. That means the lifecycle of predatory journals is shortening.

There are journals on our list that have existed for a decade or more, however there are a lot that pop up and after a year or so they disappear.

Q: Have any publishers or journals contacted you, disputing being listed in your list?

A: Yes, but the numbers have been unbelievably small, probably less than 0.1% of the total population. The vast majority of predatory publishers couldn’t care less if they’re on the list or not.

Q: What is one trend in predatory publishing that researchers and institutions should be wary of?

A: Journal hijacking, where scammers appropriate the URLs of legitimate high-ranking journals to a fake version, which looks similar. From a web technology standpoint, it’s quite difficult to pull off, but if you do, you have a steady stream of people wanting to submit papers.

There are eight hijacked journals on our list, but in the last 6 months alone, we’ve spotted 3 hijacked journals imitating legitimate journals run by 3 different major publishers.

Another way that predatory publishers try to fool researchers is to call their outlets the 'American Journal of X' or the 'British Journal of Y', when actually these names are not that common for legitimate, good quality journals.

Q: What should institutions do to tackle predatory publishing?

A: The main thing is education. The level of support that PhD students and early career researchers get in getting published is very small. The question of how to get published is hardly ever addressed formally during training or development at universities.

People are still fairly naive when it comes to what it means to be published and how to create optimal strategies to get published. They are also fairly naive when it comes to the threats that reside in scholarly publishing, in other words, the pitfalls of publishing in a predatory journal.

As a researcher, you have to arm yourself completely with all of that information to make an optimal decision about where to publish.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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