Image credit: George Probst | Moment. Image courtesy of Getty Images.
Image credit: George Probst | Moment. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

As contributors, editors, and designers at IMMpress Magazine, we take great pride in the work that we publish. Every article is reviewed by several editors before it is published online or becomes a permanent part of our printed magazine. The same can be said of the millions of scientists who publish in reputable peer-reviewed journals whether they are online or print, open access or subscription. The process is lengthy and stringent.
While it is the ultimate goal for most to get our work into one of the top-tier journals, many of us will publish our work in journals with lower impact factors. As scientists, we know that in the digital age, submitting a paper to a journal can be a relatively pain-free and simple task; at least at the submission stage. Click a few buttons to upload your files and you’re done. After a period of review, editing, and re-submissions, your paper is finally accepted and will be published online and in print. Huzzah! It’s time to sit back and continually monitor your h-index. Having published in a reputable journal means something to you as a scientist and you can only hope it will mean something to a hiring committee further down the road. But what if you’re having significant trouble publishing your work because you come from an unknown institution, are relatively unknown in the field, or English is not your first language? What are your options?

Here’s the scary part. There is an increasing number of online-only, open-access, for-profit journals aptly described as “predatory”. Predatory journals will accept almost anything in exchange for a fee. In 2012, an investigation by Science led to a sting operation where a bogus paper was submitted to a lengthy list of questionable journals. Of the 255 journals that reviewed the article, about 60% did not undertake any form of peer-review. However, even for the journals that did perform a review, 70% ultimately accepted the piece. At the end of the investigation, only 39% of the journals had rejected the work, including PLoS One.
Since then, several other reports have been published where authors have put together completely meaningless and poorly written papers, submitted to some of these predatory journals. As before, their work was often accepted. Even a paper where a single, repeated sentence (with profanity) constituted the entirety of the manuscript was accepted with no revisions. Almost insultingly, these publishing houses often claim that the papers they publish in their journals are “peer-reviewed”. In one newspaper report, the bogus paper that the author submitted was accepted and the author was asked to be an editor for that journal. Even after admitting to being a newspaper reporter, the journal continued to ask the author to review the paper.

Not only does this kind of activity hurt the indexes for publication of quality research, but it also besmirches the good name of reputable, online-only, open-access journals, like the PLoS family of publications. Luckily, some organizations and academics are trying to combat and sort through the plethora of disreputable journals.  For example, it is the aim of Jeffrey Beall, an academic librarian at UC Denver, to catalog open access publishers and review the quality of their practices. While some say that he might be too critical, his list of over 550 publishers and journals of questionable quality certainly provides a guideline of what to look for when determining the quality of an online, open-access source.

Navigating to one of the websites on Beall’s list, warning lights go off well before reaching the “instructions for authors”. If the names of the publishing houses don’t give it away (e.g. Scholarly Research Journal’s [sic]), then their websites with flashing banners, poor font selections, and terrible advertisements certainly will. Though these signs were easy to spot, this is not always the case and Beall’s list makes it easier for the rest of us.

Besides damaging the reputation of open-access journals, these predatory journals may also prop up anti-science activist groups. If it were easy for a reporter to put together a bogus paper and have it accepted, then it would be just as simple for a group of anti-vaccine activists or any other group of ill-informed individuals. A body of false statements, paid to be published in a “peer-reviewed scientific journal” might appear credible to untrained eyes. In today’s society where information can travel the world online in a matter of moments, one can imagine how this might get out of hand very quickly.

The acceptance of online-only, open-access sources as reputable publishers has grown over the past decade and it is important to note that the intention of this article is not to cast a shadow on open-access publishing. Unfortunately, in science today, it can be very difficult for many researchers to publish their work. Predatory journals have been capitalizing on these scientists with a tempting, but flawed route to immediate publication. Over time, the use of resources listing credible, peer-reviewed publications will ideally result in the elimination of disreputable publishers and an improvement to the overall reliability and rigour of scientific literature.

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Leesa Pennell

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