Publishing in peer-reviewed journals can be rewarding — it allows us to share our research with peers and can advance academic careers. However, it can also be difficult and frustrating. Journals on average reject 75 percent of submissions, according to an APA report (American Psychologist, 2014). Peer review can take months and often requires authors to make significant changes to articles prior to publication.
So just imagine the joy psychologists might experience upon receiving an email from a journal (with a name very similar to a respectable APA journal) that invites them personally to submit a paper for a forthcoming issue. The journal promises peer review within one week and publication within two weeks. Imagine further that the journal claims to have a high impact factor, partly due to the fact that its content is freely available worldwide.
As the old adage goes: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Unfortunately, there is a high likelihood that such an invitation has been sent by a "predatory publisher." While these publishers initially focused on biomedical sciences, a growing number now target psychologists and social scientists.
What are predatory publishers?
Predatory publishers are counterfeit scholarly publishers that aim to trick honest researchers into thinking they are legitimate. They use spam email to solicit research manuscripts, which they quickly accept and publish in their many online open-access journals. Though they claim to peer review articles, many conduct no peer review at all or carry out a minimalist or pro forma review, accepting and publishing flawed manuscripts that most legitimate journals would reject.
Predatory journals are supported by fees charged to authors upon acceptance of their manuscripts, and their goal is profit. The journals want to accept and publish as many manuscripts as possible to increase their revenue. This income strategy conflicts with peer review, which, when done properly, often results in manuscripts being denied publication.
Predatory publishers have fooled many honest scholars into believing that they are legitimate. Experts at mimicking respected publishing houses, they use sophisticated spam techniques, pandering to researchers through personalized spam that praises a researcher's earlier work while inviting a new submission. Other spam emails appeal to authors needing to publish in journals that have earned an impact factor. Companies now exist that supply fake impact factors to questionable journals, metrics they then display in their spam email advertising.
Problems caused by predatory publishing
Predatory publishing harms the scientific community in numerous ways. First, authors may be misled into investing their money and intellectual capital in a journal that they think is high impact and stable when it is neither. Some predatory online publications exist for very short periods of time and are rarely cited in journals that are indexed by reputable databases.
Second, predatory publishing has created a substantial body of published literature that is branded as science, but has not passed through adequate peer review, which is a primary form of quality control. For many readers, reporters and the public, the distinction between authentic and junk science is not readily discernable, yet these publications are readily accessible by anyone.
Compounding the problem, comprehensive academic indexes such as Google Scholar routinely index the junk science, mingling it with authentic research in search results. How are learners, such as high school and college students, supposed to tell them apart? Moreover, new research builds on already-published research, as anyone who has ever compiled a literature review knows. Writing such reviews now requires additional skill and more effort, for the author now must filter out unvetted research.
What can be done?
Researchers and academic disciplines benefit from open access to well-managed, high-quality journals. So what can be done to protect the integrity of open-access publishing?
First, researchers need to develop a "scholarly publishing literacy" skillset to recognize and avoid predatory publishers. Researchers can no longer assume that all scholarly journals are trustworthy and must be on guard against the perils of predatory publishers. Educating graduate students, fellows and junior faculty about predatory publishing should become a routine part of mentoring. (See sidebar for tips from APA staff on how to avoid predatory publishers.)
Second, scholars can refuse to serve on the editorial boards of predatory publishers, which seek to enhance their reputations by creating affiliations with scholars at reputable academic institutions.
Finally, the process of scholarly evaluation must adjust to reflect the new reality of scholarly publishing. Tenure and promotion committees must more carefully scrutinize candidates' publishing records. A quick scan of a CV is no longer sufficient, for journal titles that look authentic may not be. To be fair to those seeking promotion and tenure, this recommendation needs to be combined with the first — educating scholars about appropriate venues for scholarly publishing.
The world of publishing is quickly evolving. Electronic media are increasingly supplanting print media; journals are increasingly accessed through subscription packages rather than subscriptions to individual journals; and funding agencies and professional associations are increasingly pushing for free public access to scientific publications. The challenge before us is to protect the integrity of scholarly publishing even as we adapt to new technologies, circumstances and demands.
By Jeffrey Beall, DSc, a librarian at the University of Colorado Denver & James M. Dubois, PhD, the director of the Center for Clinical Research Ethics at Washington University in St. Louis.
- This article was originally published in the April 2016 Monitor on Psychology