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Predatory publishers’ tricks, and how to avoid them

Catherine Sharp1 July 2022

Think Check Submit logoFully open access journals are on the rise. There are now nearly 18,000 of them listed in the trusted Directory of Open Access Journals. Many of these are so-called diamond open access journals – free of charge for authors and readers – but some of the most popular fully open access journals employ the gold model, where authors are charged a fee (otherwise known as an article processing charge) to publish. This fee may be paid through an agreement between the author’s university and the publisher, as with UCL’s transformative agreements, which include almost 600 reputable gold fully open access journals, or may be paid by the author or their funder.

Funders and universities support fully open access business models. They provide much greater cost transparency than the traditional subscription model (which is based on paying to read, rather than to publish). However, as most authors are aware, it has also opened the door to disreputable publishers who exploit gold open access by charging authors fees for publishing services that they don’t deliver. This is a particular problem for early career researchers, who may find themselves duped into paying a fee and signing away their copyright, only to find the research published in a shoddy journal, without peer-review, alongside poor-quality papers. Disreputable journals may charge authors not only to publish, but also to withdraw their research once they discover the hoax. At best, this is a frustrating and costly mistake; at worst, it damages careers.

How predatory publishers disguise themselves

It’s all too easy for early career researchers who are keen to be published to fall victim to flattering emails offering speedy publication, especially where there’s no mention of a charge up front. Some publishers have very sophisticted techniques for trapping the unwary. A case described by the University of Groningen Library, which UCL SLMS researchers have also spotted recently, is particularly clever and alarming. Here’s what to look out for.

  • You receive an email asking for a discussion about your research, or inviting you to publish in a special theme issue. The email is well-written, and refers to your previous research and/or publications.
  • The email gives the title of the theme issue as if it were the title of a reputable journal. This is designed to convince you that you are being invited to submit to the reputable journal, but in fact the email is hazy about the journal title. The UCL example read: ‘I am helping to plan a special theme issue on [our emphasis] Trends & Innovations in Public Health’; the Groningen one: ‘I am organizing a theme issue on [our emphasis] Trends in Immunology. Note the misleading capitals that make the special issue theme look like a journal title. The Trends journals are reputable journals, but this invitation is about a special issue on this topic, not a special issue in a Trends journal.
  • The publisher/society mentioned in the email has a convincing website, but is actually fake or disreputable. The society mentioned in this example was European Society of Medicine. A quick search for this organisation raises alarm bells: it has been accused of lots of predatory activity, including inviting researchers to submit to very poor-quality conferences.

This sort of sophisticated predatory activity, which has even convinced senior professors, is constantly evolving. Ultimately, authors may find themselves having paid to publish without peer-review or quality assessment in a journal with no academic merit – or to attend a conference promising top-quality delegates and sessions that turns out to be anything but.

How to protect yourself and your research

The ‘Think Check Submit’ initiative is designed to help researchers ensure that they publish in reputable journals. Its guidance, much of which can be applied to conferences, too, has been developed by trusted publishing industry groups and librarians. Below are the key questions that Think Check Submit recommends you ask yourself before submitting to any journal. Follow this guidance whenever you are considering submitting in response to an unsolicited email, even one originally sent to a senior colleague, or to a journal that you don’t know well.

Do you or your colleagues know the journal?

  • Have you read any articles in the journal before?
  • Is it easy to discover the latest papers in the journal?
  • Name of journal: is the journal name the same as or easily confused with that of another?
  • Can you cross check with information about the journal in the ISSN portal?

Can you easily identify and contact the publisher?

  • Is the publisher name clearly displayed on the journal website?
  • Can you contact the publisher by telephone, email, and post?

Is the journal clear about the type of peer review it uses?

  • Does the website mention whether the process involves independent/external reviewers, how many reviewers per paper?
  • Is the publisher offering a review by an expert editorial board or by researchers in your subject area?
  • Does the journal guarantee acceptance or a very short peer review time?

Are articles indexed and/or archived in dedicated services?

  • Will your work be indexed/archived in an easily discoverable database?
  • Does the publisher ensure long term archiving and preservation of digital publications?
  • Does the publisher use permanent digital identifiers?

Is it clear what fees will be charged?

  • Does the journal site explain what these fees are for and when they will be charged?
  • Does the publisher explain on their website how they are financially supported?
  • Do they mention the currency and amount of any fees?
  • Does the publisher website explain whether or not waivers are available?

Are guidelines provided for authors on the publisher website?

  • For open access journals, does the publisher have a clear licence policy? Are there preferred licences? Are there exceptions permitted depending on the needs of the author? Are licence details included on all publications?
  • Does the publisher allow you to retain copyright of your work? Can you share your work via, for example, an institutional repository, and under what terms?
  • Does the publisher have a clear policy regarding potential conflicts of interest for authors, editors and reviewers?
  • Can you tell what formats your paper will be available in? (e.g. HTML, XML, PDF)
  • Does the journal provide any information about metrics of usage or citations?

Is the publisher a member of a recognized industry initiative?

UCL’s Open Access Team is keen to help UCL researchers avoid predatory publishers, and would like to hear from any researchers who have experienced predatory publishing activity. Contact us at openaccess@ucl.ac.uk.