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Tackling predatory and cloned journals to safeguard research impact and integrity

A discussion of research culture and practices in the context of predatory and cloned journals, with Dr Matthew Salter

It’s every researcher’s goal to achieve visibility of their work - pursuing publication in its own right and/or as a means to impart the benefit of their research findings. But what if that motivation to contribute to the scientific record is exploited and causes more harm than good? It’s the problem facing the research community in the growth of predatory and cloned journals.

Dr Matthew Salter
Dr Matthew Salter
Founder & CEO
Akabana Consulting
Amanda De Amicis
Amanda De Amicis
Content Writer

It’s every researcher’s goal to achieve visibility of their work - pursuing publication in its own right and/or as a means to impart the benefit of their research findings. But what if that motivation to contribute to the scientific record is exploited and causes more harm than good? It’s the problem facing the research community in the growth of predatory and cloned journals.

Turnitin has previously explored the scourge of fake journals, and jumped at the chance to learn more about the topic in our interview with Dr Matthew Salter, a voice of authority in the research publication space. Founder & CEO of Akabana Consulting, he runs an independent STEM publishing and editing consultancy that provides publishing, editorial and promotional services to scholarly societies and publishers. With extensive experience across publishing and former roles within academia and industry, he is well placed to share his insights on the phenomenon.

In this article, Matthew helps us shed light on how and why predatory and cloned journals exist, the warning signs or ‘red flags’ to watch out for, and addresses the fundamental question: how can we nurture the responsible conduct of research to avoid such threats to research integrity?

What constitutes a predatory or cloned journal and how big is the problem?

“Real journals exist to validate, disseminate, curate, and make discoverable original research. Predatory journals, on the other hand, exist simply to make money for their owners and have no real interest in the preservation of the integrity of the research record or working for the benefit of society.”

— Dr Matthew Salter, Akabana Consulting

Those seeking a straightforward definition of predatory journal practices so as to avoid them more easily, may be disappointed. Lacking agreement on a firm set of criteria, there is no universally accepted definition. Nonetheless, Matthew Salter points to a useful description featured in the Nature academic journal: “Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritise self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterised by false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial and publication practices, a lack of transparency, and/or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices.”

Matthew notes it is a similar premise in the case of cloned journals, however they involve “elements of a legitimate forged replica of an authentic journal that exploit the title and ISSN of legitimate journals with slight variations in text, numbers, or website URL”.

In their comprehensive 2022 report "Combatting Predatory Academic Journals and Conferences", IAP (Interacademy Partnership) confirms that predatory research publication schemes are affecting at least 1 million researchers worldwide, and are responsible for the loss of billions of dollars by producing wasted or compromised research. And if you’re wondering how many predatory journals are in existence globally, estimates put the figure in excess of 15,000 - clearly, not a small-scale problem.

Furthermore, as part of the abovementioned IAP study, over 80% of the 1,800+ participants across 112 countries acknowledged that predatory journals and conferences qualify as a ‘serious problem or on the rise in their country’. A common denominator was low and middle income status, with South Asia identified as a particular hotspot for predatory publishers.

Case in point, 400+ academics and researchers in Pakistan were recently found to have submitted research papers to a cloned journal that had accrued approximately 150 falsified studies in its publishing record. It’s alleged that some academics were genuinely deceived, while others were actively complicit in the fraudulent practice. The scandal prompted Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission to vow to strengthen their journal recognition system (HJRS).

How did we get here?

To interrogate the rise of predatory and cloned journals reveals a complicated set of circumstances. Understanding how fake journals infiltrate the research landscape and entice researchers also means looking at systemic factors that breed pressures and demand for the ‘solution’ they sell.

A consideration necessary to unpack is the ‘publish or perish’ mentality that is helping drive the predatory publishing industry. In their editorial ‘Predatory journals: A sign of an unhealthy publish or perish game?’, Petter Nielsen and Robert M. Davidson comment on how predatory publishers prey on an ‘urgent and unfulfilled need’ tied to expectations of researchers. It’s a need rooted in published paper targets or quotas associated with institutions/employers, and the reality that reputable journals are unable to accept all or even most of the submissions they receive. The authors note that “if numbers are all that matters, other questionable and unhealthy behaviours may emerge, for example, the tendency to publish in predatory journals if reputable journals are out of reach” - whether deliberately or inadvertently.

And logistically speaking, momentum in the ‘open access model’ of publishing has enabled fake journals to exploit or ‘game the system’ that takes advantage of researchers - especially early-career researchers - who are desperate to publish work and grow their research reputation. In Matthew’s own words, “predatory journals are an unwanted and unintentional side product of the growth in online and open access journals. Whilst it is fair to say that essentially all predatory journals are open access (it is hard to identify one that is not), this *does not* imply that all open access journals are predatory”.

Matthew points to the B2B nature of traditional subscription publishing models, which require a formal relationship between the client institutions and publisher, and are typically managed by skilled and experienced library professionals. Compared to this, the majority of OA journals operate B2C models in which the transaction relationship is between the publisher and individual researchers or research groups. This makes it easier for unscrupulous publishers to launch and operate predatory journals, as the chances of a predatory publisher getting caught is lower.

Furthermore, individual researchers are generally not attuned or motivated to check for predatory journals and often prioritise seeking out the quickest and cheapest way of getting published rather than checking publisher bona fides, with the result being that they can fall victim to a scam. Also, given the ease with which predatory publishers can fold up their tent and start up again somewhere else under a new name, means that keeping tabs on their activities is an ongoing struggle.

The causes of fake journals are multi-layered and intersecting, with Matthew identifying several factors:

  • Pressures on researchers to publish as many papers as possible, as quickly as possible.
  • Rapid growth in the number of journals which makes it difficult to determine predatory and genuine journals.
  • Low barrier to entry to establishing an online presence which makes it relatively easy to set up something that looks like a journal.
  • Lack of awareness on the part of authors about the risks of publishing in predatory journals.
  • The difficulty of identifying predatory journals unambiguously.
How can researchers detect predatory and cloned journals?

Although the research and publishing communities don’t have a unified response to the predatory publishing industry, we can gain the upper hand through the predictability of their actions, or modus operandi. And with Matthew contending that most researchers don’t intend to publish in a fake journal, it means there is plenty of scope for researcher education to mitigate the problem.

To this end, he draws our attention to a series of reliable markers or ‘red flags’ that researchers should look out for and build into their research due diligence, to ensure they don’t fall into predatory traps. It requires researchers to be critical of journals they don’t know and ask themselves: does this look like a proper journal and does it have the hallmarks of the journals I know and trust? It also means asking colleagues and mentors if they have encountered the journal and being thorough and discerning in your evaluation of the journal’s website and the availability of identifying information.

Download Matthew Salter’s full checklist to help researchers avoid publishing in predatory and cloned journals.

Why are predatory journals so damaging?

Put simply, because predatory publishers carry out little or no validation of the scientific results they publish, they undermine the integrity of the scientific record and weaken the research community. Although using a predatory journal allows researchers to get published rapidly, to do so risks reputational damage for both researchers and the institutions they represent - even if your research does stand up to research rigour and scrutiny. Furthermore, because predatory journals do little to publicise the work they publish, articles published there gain little visibility. And of course, if you change your mind and want to take your paper elsewhere, it’s difficult or impossible to withdraw once submitted.

According to Matthew, “Publishing in predatory journals can result in your work becoming “lost science”, as these publishers rarely curate their output or make it discoverable. This can damage things like the growth of your h-index (not everybody cares about this, but many do) and your ability to gain funding for your work (everybody cares about that).” Of course, researchers’ self-interests are just the tip of the iceberg in the damaging effects of predatory publishing.

Matthew highlights the following broader risks to the research community and the public interest:

  • They publish unvetted or barely vetted research that compromises the integrity of the research literature. Depending on discipline, it could also pose a risk to human life and health.
  • Compounding the problem is that predatory journals have little to gain for carrying corrections or retractions and generally do not offer a formal process for doing so.
  • Articles published in predatory journals can promulgate incorrect or misleading information. This problem can be exacerbated when they are picked up unwittingly by the mainstream media and spread more widely.
  • Because predatory journals do not validate research or add any real value, they siphon off public money for no benefit to the research community and society.
  • They can also perpetuate the untruth that publishing OA is synonymous with publishing in predatory journals and make researchers reticent to publish open access at all, with the result that authors and readers miss out on the benefits of genuine, high-quality open access publishing.
  • All of the above conspire to reduce further public trust in science and scholarship.

For those researchers willing to drop their standards and take a risk in selecting a journal, Matthew explains that the risks of engaging with predatory journals far outweigh the fallacy of benefit: “publishing in predatory journals calls your judgement, honesty, and professionalism as a researcher into question. Publishing in predatory journals is not something that you want on your CV. It will do nothing to enhance your chances of getting hired, employed, promoted, or winning tenure.”

What can we do to defeat predatory publishing?

In an effort to build awareness of predatory publishers, there is a temptation to try to identify and publicly denounce rogue journals that fall under the category. Readers may recall ‘Beall’s list’, which is a now archived, informal list of potential predatory and “hijacked” journals and publishers, previously maintained by US librarian Jeffrey Beall. Although a well-meaning intention - to offer warnings to researchers - such ‘blacklists’ have their pitfalls, including concerns over accuracy, bias, and legal liability.

In turn, a ‘whitelist’ to house trusted publishers has been proposed as an alternative, but this alone can also have its shortcomings. Indeed, the IAP caution how an over-reliance on “binary ‘safelists’ and ‘watchlists’ that endeavour to delineate good practices from bad ones fail to address this complexity and risk disadvantaging less-established journals and conferences and overlooking questionable practices creeping into established ones.”

Another instinct for some in the fight against fake journals is the idea of imposing legislation or punishment on players in the industry through a form of a centralised clearing house. Matthew advises us that he is unaware of any legal proceedings that have come to fruition in the case of predatory journals, and points to the inherent difficulty of this premise: who would take the lead in determining unambiguous criteria for identifying a predatory journal and creating an agreed list of offending publications? Such efforts would be best suited to established publishers but would open them to accusations of conflict of interest and of attempting to place restrictions on possible competitors. And even when a journal is identified, how do you pin down perpetrators who hide behind a fraudulent entity?

Rather, Matthew contends that nurturing researcher due diligence through education and promoting a culture of research integrity is the most effective method of tackling predatory journals. He points to mentorship, institutional resources, and consultation with relevant industry groups to guide on best practice and navigating the pressures of research promotion.

Matthew says the research community is taking the issue of predatory journals seriously, and is making substantial investment in initiatives to help strengthen research integrity habits and educate researchers on selecting reliable open access journals and books. He praises the ‘Think check submit’ resource that is especially valuable for early career researchers, and also points researchers to the following resources:

Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ
Open Access Scholarly Publishing Association (OASPA
The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE

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