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Not all that glitters is gold: How to avoid being scammed

16 April 2019

By Christopher Tancock

Not all that glitters is gold

Advice on how to avoid falling victim to “predatory” journals

It’s flattering to receive an invite to publish or speak at a conference, isn’t it? What a boost for the ego! I look back with pride at just some of the opportunities that have been offered to me recently: to speak at a chemistry education conference; a “personal invitation” to deliver a keynote (no less) at a forthcoming pharmaceutics event; to submit my work to a society journal – and, in doing so, be considered for its editorial board — and finally to have my work included as part of an open access book on academic performance. What a sought-after author and speaker I must be, right?

Alas the truth is somewhat different. My background is in linguistics, not pharmaceutics, chemistry or ophthalmology (to name but three fields to which I have been asked to add my “valuable insights”). My professional activity, furthermore, is almost exclusively in scholarly publishing, not research, so, frankly speaking — I am not your man! I imagine this scenario must seem very familiar to many readers, however. Writing as a former publisher, I recall many conversations with editors and board members who are bombarded daily by exhortations to publish or present their work. The reason for this: “predatory” publishers, their journals and conferences.

Here be dragons

Sometimes it is easy to identify a predatory approach — sometimes not. So-called predatory (or occasionally “illegitimate”) journals are a significant and growing thorn in the side of academic publishingopens in new tab/window. In short, these operations exist for one reason alone: to take your money. Predatory journals operate without the checks and balances employed by reputable journals, do not engage in serious peer review and are not interested in integrity, robustness or preservation. As they typically operate on an open access (OA) basis (where a fee is usually charged for publication), predatory journals sometimes bring decent OA journals into disrepute (though operating an OA model doesn't have to denote a lack of formal peer review, of course).

The potential of modern technology, the ease by which a website can be established and the ongoing and relentless pressure of the “publish or perish” culture means that the field is a fertile one for these kinds of operation. Simply speaking, there are now more journals than one can easily recognize so it is an increasingly difficult task to separate the good from the bad. Predatory journals often share similar (sometimes brazenly the same) names as existing, reputable journals and purport to operate with the assistance of key figures in the field – not that they necessarily know of their “involvement”. The dangled carrot of fast and “no-questions-asked-” publication proves an irresistible lure all too many — and this phenomenon is not helped of course by reward systems that too often celebrate quantity over quality.

Built in a decade, destroyed in a day

Falling prey to a scam can happen to anyone, of course. It used to be thought of as a problem which mostly affected authors in developing countries but recent analyses have shown that it can impact all geographiesopens in new tab/window and levels of experience.

No matter how simple, attractive and apparently worthwhile publishing in a predatory journal seems to be, ultimately it can only lead to a poor outcome for your career and for science in general. Despite any seeming short term gain, your peers will not judge you well for publishing with a predatory journal and adding to the tide of questionable research serves only to further erode public confidence in science. In short, predatory publishing shatters trust, tarnishes reputations and threatens careers. So how do you avoid it?

Look before you leap

The key thing to remember before making a decision about where to publish is to do your research. Even if this is a situation where you’re reeling from a(nother) rejection notice, don’t be tempted to take the easy way out and send your paper to a journal on the basis of fancy promises or fast turnaround. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! The choice of journal is just as important as your research itself, so give it your full attention. In particular:

  • Investigate the journal thoroughly. Check its website, the services which index it and read all the small print, especially the description of its peer review process. Consider, inter alia, whether/how your paper will be available in perpetuity which is a prerequisite for any journal seeking to be indexed in PubMed and other databases.

  • Examine the website with a critical eye: Are there spelling, grammatical or typographical errors? Does this feel like the output of a reputable operation?

  • Check the contact/location details for the publisher. Do they involve gmail/yahoo email addresses and/or PO boxes? These are points to note (and beware).

  • If you know/recognize a board member, drop them a line (make sure to use their "official" email address) and get their impressions of the title.

  • Use tools such as ThinkCheckSubmitopens in new tab/window to ensure you’re making a thorough assessment of the journal.

  • Don’t place too much faith in blacklists/whitelists – inclusion on the former doesn’t automatically denote guilt, nor does it imply absolute innocence on the latter. Better to trust your nose and the insights of your colleagues, librarian and supervisor.

  • Check with your mentor and get their advice about whether you should proceed.

  • If you have been rejected, don’t keep sliding lower down the ladder — maybe you need to have a more fundamental rethink about your situation. Though painful, it will be less so than making the wrong decision and having to live with this.

  • Teach others! If you’ve been stung, help others to avoid the fate by being open and honest about your experience.

Despite help from your supervisor/institution/mentor/society/etc., only you can decide where to publish — the responsibility is ultimately on you and you alone. If you don’t read, review or recommend the journal yourself, why are you trying to publish there? It’s all too easy to receive an offer and feel the pull of temptation but this is one situation where you really must be calm, considered and critical. You’re hunting lasting recognition and reward, not a “quick win” which will soon sour, so keep your wits about you and in doing so, you won’t fall prey yourself.

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