A Scholarly Sting Operation Shines a Light on ‘Predatory’ Journals

The New York Times today reported that researchers writing for the journal, Nature, found that There are now thousands of fake open-access journals, about as many as legitimate ones.

The authors created a fake 'Editor" that they then applied to numerous 'scientific journals.' The applicant’s nom de plume was not exactly subtle, if you know Polish. The middle initial and surname of the author, Anna O. Szust, mean “fraudster.” Her publications were fake and her degrees were fake. The book chapters she listed among her publications could not be found, but perhaps that should not have been a surprise because the book publishers were fake, too.

Yet, when Dr. Fraud applied to 360 randomly selected open-access academic journals asking to be an editor, 48 accepted her and four made her editor in chief. She got two offers to start a new journal and be its editor. One journal sent her an email saying, “It’s our pleasure to add your name as our editor in chief for the journal with no responsibilities.”

"Little did they know that they had fallen for a sting, plotted and carried out by a group of researchers who wanted to draw attention to and systematically document the seamy side of open-access publishing. While those types of journals began with earnest aspirations to make scientific papers available to everyone, their proliferation has had unintended consequences," according to Gina Kolata, writing for The New York Times.

Traditional journals typically are supported by subscribers who pay a fee while authors pay nothing to be published. Nonsubscribers can only read papers if they pay the journal for each one they want to see.

Open-access journals reverse that model. The authors pay and the published papers are free to anyone who cares to read them.

Publishing in an open-access journal can be expensive — the highly regarded Public Library of Science (PLOS) journals charge from $1,495 to $2,900 to publish a paper, with the fee dependent on which of its journals accepts the paper.

Not everyone anticipated what would happen next, or to what extent it would happen. The open-access business model spawned a shadowy world of what have been called predatory journals. They may have similar names to legitimate journals, but exist by publishing just about anything sent to them for a fee that can range from under $100 to thousands of dollars.

The fee often is between $100 and $400, said Jeffery Beall, scholarly communications librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, as the journals compete for paying customers. Of course, it is easier for predatory journals to have low fees because their expenses are minimal.

The researchers decided not to list any of the fake journals that they uncovered in the sting, saying that some have names so close to those of legitimate journals that it would be confusing.

The investigators, writing about their sting operation in Nature, said they had seen young colleagues fall for the blandishments of predatory journals, not realizing that the emails they received were from publications that only wanted their money. Dr. Pisanski and her colleagues wanted to help researchers understand how fake journals operated.

"The emails can be very flattering,” Dr. Pisanski said, telling the recipients they are “eminent researchers” and “inviting” them to contribute. When researchers respond and send in papers, “they are published at lightning speed, often without peer review,” she said.

But not everyone who publishes in these journals is an innocent dupe. Dr. Beall, who until recently published a list of predatory journals, said he believes many researchers know exactly what they are doing when they publish there.

“I believe there are countless researchers and academics, currently employed, who have secured jobs, promotions, and tenure using publications in pay-to-publish journals as part of their credentials and experience for the jobs and promotions they got,” Dr. Beall said.

In an ironic conclusion, Dr. Pisanski and her colleagues told the journals that accepted Dr. Fraud that she wanted to withdraw her application to be an editor. But it was not easy to withdraw.

Dr. Fraud remains listed as a member of the editorial boards of at least 11 of those journals. She is also listed as a member of conference-organizing committees. At least one journal she did not apply to also listed her as an editor.

And, Dr. Pisanski and her colleagues wrote, Dr. Fraud is even listed as an advisory board member of the Journals Open Access Indexing Committee. Its mission? To “increase the visibility and ease of use of open-access scholarly journals.”

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