Predatory journals and conferences

In this module, we’ll briefly discuss what “predatory” journals and conferences are, the dangers they pose to early career researchers, and how to recognise and avoid them (and also how to choose reputable journals and conferences)

In 2008, a librarian at the University of Colorado, Jeffrey Beall, noticed that there was a sudden proliferation of online journals with apparent shady practices; that is to say, they all charged publication fees to the authors *and* often charged fees to read the journal, and (worst of all) had virtually no quality control in the review process (if indeed the articles were reviewed at all).

He began a list, which he published online, called Beall’s List of predatory journals.  He maintained the list for several years and it was extremely helpful to many researchers, but due to threats of litigation, he has since ceased maintaining it.  However, many others in academia have stepped up to help with the work of identifying and publicly naming predatory journals.  And many people are needed to do this, because in recent years such journals have wildly proliferated.

Once you are in academia as a graduate student, postdoc, or faculty, your university email is generally public.  Predatory journals compile huge lists of such emails and send out many spam emails encouraging you to publish in their journals (they don’t mention the steep prices they pay for that).

The problem with predatory journals is that they can charge anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars for publication, and are usually not open and up front about these charges.  If you get through the “review” process and find out about the exorbitant charges at the very end, and don’t want to pay, they hold the copyright to your article, and you cannot submit it elsewhere (effectively holding your paper hostage).   The other problem is that, even if you fork over the money, such journals also at times charge other people to read the article, which almost no one is going to do.  People won’t be able to access such articles for free through their university libraries either, because libraries only do that for journals they’ve paid for, and libraries don’t pay for predatory journals.  So, publishing in a predatory journal means you’ve just paid big bucks to likely put your article in a black hole.

I get at least one to several emails from predatory journals every day.  Most of them are poorly worded, with spelling mistakes and poor grammar, but a few have gotten clever enough to look slick enough that sometimes I have to take a second look.  The latter are in the vast minority, however.

Here is one example of such a mailing, plucked from my own email:

pred_jour_example

Notice that it doesn’t mention publication fees, but promises blindingly fast “review” with only 7 days from submission to publication (!).  In addition, it mentions it has an “IF” of 4.61.  I’ve noticed recently that these spam journals make a point of mentioning high “IF”s.  “IF” normally stands for “Impact Factor”, which is a way of assessing a journal’s influence… it is a measure of the average number of citations per article per year.  Every year Thomson Reuters publishes the list of impact factors for journals indexed in the Web of Science.   The Web of Science is careful to index reputable journals.  It should be noted as an aside here that there are irreputable journal indexing sites as well, such as the International Science Indexing site, where predatory publishers pay them to list whatever impact factor the predatory publisher wants to appear.  ISI is just one example of many such predatory indexing sites, however.  To be careful, only publish with journals indexed in the Web of Science.

I downloaded the impact factors of journals indexed in the Web of Science from the Thomson and Reuters 2016 report, and histogrammed them:

 

distr_impact_factor_b

The top right plot is simply zooming in on the top left plot… there are a few journals that have impact factor over 50, but they are rare (so rare you can’t even see them in the left hand histogram).  The bottom plot shows the cumulative distribution… using the bottom plot, we can see that an impact factor of 4.61 is above the 90th percentile of all journals.  Wow!  The International Journal of Engineering Research and Development sounds very prestigious!

However, I have become convinced that this latest craze of quoting large “IF” numbers in predatory journal mailings is evidence that “IF” to them doesn’t mean impact factor.  I think it probably stands for “Indicates Fraud”.

So, mailings from obscure journals that quote high “IF”s are a red flag the journals is likely predatory, in particular when it also promises you that your article can be published in a very short period of time (like a week).  Peer review and revision simply cannot be done in a week.

If you’re still wondering if the journal is actually predatory, you can search for it on the Web of Science, which indexes valid, reputable journals.  A nice online interface for doing that is provided by Clarivate Analytics.  If the journal name isn’t found, it’s likely a scam journal.  Also, you can google the journal name, along with the words “predatory” or “scam”.  For journals I find questionable, this rarely fails to bring up a page where people have pointed out reasons it is likely a scam.  For example, because the publishing house is know to churn out scam journals.

In the case of the International Journal of Engineering Research and Development, googling the journal name plus “predatory” didn’t bring anything up (but some other very similarly named journals did), but it also wasn’t found on the Web of Science.   So I tried to determine the publishing house, to see if it was a known predatory publisher (predatory publishing houses usually publish many predatory journals).  The email came from “daum.net”, which is a web portal in South Korea (similar to having a “yahoo.com” or “hotmail.com” internet address).  This isn’t a good sign.  Reputable journals and publishers have their own domain name.

I tried going to the journal web site to get more info.  I didn’t see the name of the publisher there, so I clicked on “contact”.  It gave me absolutely no information about where the journal is based (just an online form you can fill out to contact them).  However, it does say on that page that manuscripts can be submitted to ijerd@editormails.com.  It turns out that editormails.com has no website associated with it, but when I google “editormails.com” plus “predatory” or “scam” I find that it is associated with various other shady journals (however, not all predatory journals use “editormails.com” for their emails, so just because a journal doesn’t use editormails.com for emails doesn’t mean its not predatory).

I did notice on the journal web site that they at least do not charge to read their articles.  However perusing a recent issue reveals that the first paper is an obvious crackpot paper, the second paper is not on any kind of engineering topic, the third paper does not present any kind of cohesive analysis in its review, and so on….  And they have many grammatical, punctuation, and spelling mistakes.  It is clear that none of them have been reviewed.  Which isn’t to say that some of them might not have at least some merit, but without review you cannot trust that the analyses are sound.

In addition, when I looked back five years to the first couple of volumes published in 2015 and looked up the papers in google scholar (it’s fairly quick to do) I found that the 19 papers had garnered 29 citations in 5 years (most of which were actually authors of the original papers self-referencing themselves).  That’s an impact factor of 0.3.  A far cry from the 4.61 touted on the journal website, and puts the journal well below the 1st percentile.

When identifying a predatory journal, you have to do so on the balance of the various evidence: is it indexed in reputable indexing sites like the Web of Science? does the name pop up on lists of predatory journals? does the publishing house name pop up on lists of predatory publishers? can you even find the name of the publishing house? is the journal website full of grammatical mistakes and mis-spellings? if you can access previous papers published by the journal, are they full of grammatical mistakes, run on sentences, and mis-spellings? check the number of citations garnered by some past papers… does it jive with the “IF” factor the journal purports it has? is the journal up-front and clear about their journal charges? Note; if they do mention a journal charge, and it seems quite cheap, that might just be the submission charge, not the publication charge.  No reputable journal has submission charges (ie; a charge just to have the editor read your manuscript).

Lastly, I need to stress here that just because a journal has publication charges does not mean it is predatory.  Many very reputable journals are moving to an “online first” publishing paradigm where authors pay for their manuscript to be made freely available online after review.  These journals are not predatory because the articles go through thorough review, and the publisher does not charge readers for access to the article, and the articles are indexed in reputable indexing sites.

Predatory journal editorial board offers

Sometimes you will get emails from predatory journals offering you a place on their editorial board (“My goodness!  I’ve never heard of this journal but I’m so honoured… I’m being asked to be an editor and I’m so early in my career!  This is wonderful!  I need to call my mum to let her know…” ).

Danger!  If you agree to become an editor of a predatory journal, you will often be responsible for publishing one or more of your own articles per year, and are also often responsible for getting colleagues to submit one or more articles per year (for example as “special issues” that you have to create and manage).  Now, not only will you getting dinged exorbitant charges for your papers to go into a black hole, but you will have to sucker your colleagues into doing it as well.

Predatory conferences

I also frequently get emails about conferences that are usually not even remotely in my field of expertise, but are advertised to occur in tourist destination areas like Valencia, Spain, or Brisbane, Australia, or other lovely sun drenched spots around the globe.  The emails tell me they’d like me to be keynote speaker to talk about my esteemed research.  They also list other “esteemed” researchers who will also be attending.

The problem with predatory conferences is that the list of other esteemed researchers who are supposed to be at the conference is fake, or the actual academic reputation of the listed researchers is wildly exaggerated.  In addition, the companies organising predatory conferences often cancel at the last minute, and the fine print of their registration fee policy means that the registrants cannot get a refund (instead, if anything, you’ll just be given a “credit” towards another conference by the same company).

Even if the conference does take place, when you show up you find that the attendees are not the esteemed researchers promised by the company, but rather a bunch of other poor sots who got conned into going to a scam conference.

To avoid predatory conferences, google the conference name (making sure you spell it exactly… organisers of such conferences trickily try to name their conferences very similar to other, reputable conference names), along with “predatory” or “scam”.  You’ll likely quickly find out what you need to know.   If nothing comes up, go talk to a more senior person in your field about the conference.  If it is a real conference, they should either know about it, and/or be acquainted with one or more of the listed organisers (if the organisers truly are experts in the field).

OMICS is a group infamous for publishing predatory journals and arranging predatory conferences.  Never go to an OMICS conference. OMICS has many subsidiary shell companies now because of the infamy of its name, so unfortunately it is not always apparent that a predatory journal or conference is actually part of that company without doing some digging online.  OMICS is so egregious in their practices, they have actually been sued by the US federal government.

How do you find reputable journals, and reputable conferences?

To find a reputable journal to which to submit your manuscript, take a look at the papers you cited in your manuscript… where did they publish?  That is often a rich source of ideas for reputable journals within your field of research that you can publish in.  Also, take a look at the list of journals your faculty mentors have published in… those are also a rich source of ideas for potential journals.  A list of some reputable journal publishers includes Elsevier, Springer, Cambridge University Press (note: not Cambridge Scholars Publishingthat one is shady), Oxford University Press, XXX University Press (insert name of prestigious university here), SAGE, Taylor & Francis, CRC press, PLoS, Macmillan, and Wiley-Blackwell.  Proceedings of societies like the Royal Society and the National Academy of Science are also (very) reputable.

For conference ideas, ask your faculty mentors or colleagues you trust.  Join the professional organisation associated with your field (for example, for applied mathematicians, SIAM is a good choice, and offers student discounts).  I’m a member of the American Statistical Association, and it also has student discounts.  Professional organisations always have annual meetings.  They also usually have publications that advertise upcoming conferences organised by other entities.  All of those can be considered trustworthy.

 

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