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The difference between a legitimate peer-reviewed journal and fraudulent one? It's not always so clear-but this one's real. [Photo Tamara Spitzer]

Lauren Moretto, a graduate student in ecology at Carleton University, was surprised when she opened her inbox to find an email addressed to “Dear Dr. Lauren Moretto.” Moretto is a master’s student.

Masters student Lauren Moretto started receiving spam from predatory journals shortly after her first publication. [Photo ©Tamara Spitzer]


The email continued: “Hoping for the Best Doctor! I am delighted to inform you that Reproductive System & Sexual Disorders International Journal was planning to release Inaugural issue by mid of this month.” Moretto studies bats. The email then requested a manuscript from Moretto and ended with: “Await your optimistic response and apologies in advance for disturbing your busy schedule.”

Moretto started getting emails from predatory journals when she published her first paper and has been receiving them sporadically ever since. However, many more tenured researchers face a daily bombardment of messages from illegitimate publishers.

With names like American Journal of Indigenous Studies or Molecular Histology & Medical Physiology, predatory publications attempt to appear like reputable journals and take advantage of the open access model of publishing, where researchers can pay a fee for their work to be peer-reviewed and made freely available to the public. However, predatory publications forego the crucial peer-review process and can publish extremely dubious research. “Essentially it’s a means of making money by having scholars pay to publish,” said Pat Moore, who provides research publication support at Carleton University.

A researcher’s professional credence is often determined by the research they have published —publish or perish is a common adage. Academics are often pressured to get as much of their work out there as possible, and predatory journals latch onto this market demand.

Some of the email requests are obvious scams like in the case of Moretto’s, but other predatory publishers do a much better job of appearing legitimate. “At the most egregious end it’s a scam. At the questionable or grey area there are some questions about reputation and quality,” said Moore. “It’s not always black and white,” Moore said, adding that researchers usually consult with her on the legitimacy of a journal a couple times a semester.

Emails from predatory journals vary in how legitimate they appear. Top: spam message sent to Lauren Moretto. Bottom: More legitimate-appearing email sent to Pat Moore. [Photo ©Tamara Spitzer]


To test how low some journals set their standards, researchers have run their own sting operations. In one instance, a researcher submitted a manuscript that consisted entirely of “get me off your f*cking mailing list” while another authored a paper by ‘Maggie Simpson’ and ‘Edna Krabappel.’ The text consisted of computer generated nonsense.

“I thought it was awesome,” said Dr. Fiona McQuarrie, a professor at B.C.’s University of the Fraser Valley, regarding the sting operations. McQuarrie was inspired to run her own experiment where she submitted the text of the two aforementioned faux articles to three different publishers. The “get me off your f*cking mailing list” paper didn’t take, likely because of the profanity in the title, but the ‘Simpsons’ paper was accepted by two out of the three publishers, proving that some of these journals will publish plagiarized nonsense.

Fiona McQuarrie is a professor at the University of the Fraser Valley. She ran her own sting operation to test the low standards of some predatory journals. [Photo ©Fiona McQuarrie]

Well-intentioned scientists can publish in predatory journals by mistake, but there are also researchers that overzealously submit manuscripts to add to their list of publications on a CV. “The predatory journals become a way for these researchers, or even activists with agendas, to attribute legitimacy to their work. This false information—this bad science, gets out there and because it’s in an academic journal, it’s not questioned,” said McQuarrie. “I think that’s really dangerous.”

McQuarrie also has colleagues that have accidentally been involved with questionable publishers. “They pretend that it never happened and hope it never shows up if somebody Googles their name,” she said.

Being published in a non-accredited journal can be damaging to a researcher’s reputation, and after the research is published, it can be difficult to have the work appear in a reputable peer-review journal. Kelly Cobey, publications officer at the Ottawa Hospital’s Centre for Journalology, said many of her clients come to her “mortified” and “upset” after they found out they have been scammed.

Kelly Cobey is the publications officer at the Ottawa Centre for Journalology and has authored studies in predatory journals.
[Photo ©TheOttawaHospital]

In a column Cobey wrote for Nature, she described the case of a senior scientist colleague who mistakenly submitted a manuscript to a non-reputable journal. The journal charged the researcher $979 (U.S.) after which the researcher rescinded his submission. He then sent his manuscript to a peer-review journal, but the illegitimate journal published his article regardless. The researcher had to pay the predatory journal charging a redaction fee of $319 (U.S.). The peer-review journal published the research regardless, but Cobey described the scenario as “burdensome for all involved”.

Cobey also wrote that “In my two years as publications officer, the role has mushroomed.” The proliferation of predatory publications is difficult to track as phishing scam operations tend to be ephemeral in nature, and a journal’s legitimacy may be difficult to distinguish with an unclear peer-review process.

A study conducted in 2014 estimated that there were 420,000 faux articles published annually around the world in 8,000 different journals – nearly a 700 per cent increase since 2010. “And it’s been another four years of growth since then, so you can imagine how many there are out there now,” said Cobey.

Public funding also ends up supporting research appearing in fake journals. In a paper entitled Stop this waste of people, animals and money, Cobey and colleagues sampled 2,000 biomedical articles thought to be from predatory sources. Around 17 per cent of the articles reported their funding source, nearly all which from academic institutions and government agencies. “It’s a really inefficient use of money for the government because the work is not going to be built on, shared, or used,” said Cobey.

Cobey also said that in a time of fake news and science scepticism, efficacy of the scientific process is especially important. “Predatory journals have the potential to degrade trust from the public,” said Cobey. “It creates a lack of transparency and issues of trust for both researchers and members of the public.”

To mitigate the phenomenon, Cobey recommends funders and research agencies introduce policies that would audit where researchers are being published. Research institutions could also do more to educate researchers on how to select appropriate journals for publication and to encourage discourse on best publishing practices. “It’s something that’s not going to go away until we concertedly take action,” said Cobey.


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