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Mentors help authors say “no” to predatory journals

Senior researchers can be role models, sharing their wisdom and experience in navigating a changing publishing landscape

Dr. Dimiter Avtanski mentors his student Imane Essarhir in his lab at the Friedman Diabetes Institute in New York. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Dimiter Avtanski)
Dr. Dimiter Avtanski mentors his student Imane Essarhir in his lab at the Friedman Diabetes Institute in New York. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Dimiter Avtanski)

The proliferation of predatory journals has become increasingly problematic, prompting collaborations among scientific publishers, universities, government bodies and nonprofits to raise awareness about their threat to the integrity of science. However, senior researchers also have a role to play, working one-on-one with students, colleagues and collaborators to promote the value of publishing in reputable journals that provide rigorous processes and can enhance a career over the long term.

Dimiter Avtanski, PhD“I get about 20 emails every day from predatory journals and organizers of questionable conferences,” says Dr. Dimiter Avtanski, Director of  the Endocrine Research Laboratory at Friedman Diabetes Institute at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health. Dr. Avtanski, a member of Elsevier’s Advisory Board, says he can tell very quickly by looking at the website whether a journal or conference is legitimate and worth considering. Red flags include spelling and grammatical errors, hyperbolic claims and false impact factors.

But he is aware that less experienced researchers may not take this step. Propelled by the pressure to publish, he says, “some feel desperate. It’s a systemic problem. Without constantly publishing papers, staying in this field is impossible. Predatory journals take advantage of that.”

As a mentor, Dr. Avtanski considers his role “not only to teach and give scientific knowledge, but also to guide mentees through a successful career, including how to avoid dangers that could compromise their reputation – like publishing in a questionable journal.”

Mentors matter to scientific publishing

Scientific societies recognize the value of mentors. A recent article about a discussion on an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) open forum states: “Research faculty are the key to the future of science. They have the single most important influence on a trainee’s personal and professional development.”

Similarly, a recent World Association of Medical Editors policy statement on identifying predatory or pseudo-journals affirms: “Those mentoring junior researchers must recognize that predatory journals exist and help those they mentor identify high quality publication venues” as part of “addressing the scourge of predatory journals.”

Even seasoned academics may need some mentoring in this regard. In the face of “so many new journals popping up,” it’s not easy to immediately distinguish a reputable from a predatory journal, writes Dr. Sarah Eaton of the Weklund School of Education at the University of Calgary,  in her resource guide about predatory journals and questionable conferences.

She recalls a faculty member who reviewed a tenure application for a junior professor and was concerned that the professor might be publishing in predatory journals. Further investigation revealed that the cited journals were indeed legitimate and credible — but the reviewer was not familiar with them because they were not in his field of expertise.

Key mentoring messages

What should mentors be telling their mentees? Dr. Catriona Fennell, Director of Publishing Services at Elsevier, suggests the following:

1. What you publish matters. When someone is under pressure to publish, it’s easy to succumb to the lure of rapid publication. Mentors can provide perspective. Predatory journals not only lack prestige; they lack the ability to educate authors through rigorous peer review. There is no benefit to publishing if the work is flawed or poorly presented.

2. Where you publish matters. Publishing in credible journals is critical for career advancement. The idea of “aiming high,” then “aiming lower” after a rejection, can propel researchers to publish in predatory journals. As Eaton noted, mentors need to help junior colleagues understand that “rejection of a manuscript does not equate to a blow to their reputation, but publishing in a predatory journal might!”

3. Nurture, don’t tarnish, your scientific reputation. A researcher’s name and reputation are critical for credibility and career advancement. Mentors can help authors understand that publishing in a predatory journal can cause possible harm to the authors’ body of work and employability and may also result in monetary loss to both the author and the institution that funded the work (and possible harm to that institution’s reputation as well).

4. Collaborations are important. Collaboration is essential to the success of many research endeavors, particularly when funding is scarce. Collaborators can provide resources as well as new views and perceptions on a research project. Mentors can instill this message in their mentees by emphasizing that collaborations are likely to make it easier to publish in a reputable journal.

5. Think. Check. Submit. This website provides a simple checklist researchers can use to evaluate the credentials of a journal or publisher. It also encourages critical thinking — assessment of the facts unclouded by pressures and emotions. Mentors should encourage the use of this tool.

“If researchers are still in doubt about a journal, they can check with their institution’s librarian to see if the librarian has heard of the journal or its publisher or can investigate further,” Dr. Fennell advises.

The bottom line on mentoring

As the AAAS suggests in its “Top 10 Tips for Mentors,” it is critical that, in this role, you “live your professional standards (and) serve as a role model for high standards of professionalism.” This includes doing and encouraging the best possible research and publishing in reputable journals — setting a high bar for yourself and everyone you come in contact with in the scientific community.

Dr. Avtanski notes that while mentors have a responsibility to discuss predatory journal tactics with mentees, universities also need to play a larger role:

Big universities in particular have very well organized programs, often based in libraries, on topics such as how to write a grant and how to build a successful career. I’m not aware of similar courses on predatory journals. If they exist, they should be publicized, so that people can be alerted in advance about these journals, before they receive the first email that may take them down the wrong road to publication.

New white paper on mentoring

White paper: Mentoring helps authors say "no" to predatory journalsElsevier’s white paper “Mentoring Helps Authors Say “No” to Predatory Publishing” provides strategies and messages for mentors to convey the value of publishing in reputable journals. We invite you to download it for free.

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