Let us prey – journals that aren’t all they claim to be

In 1980 when I published my first paper (Leather, 1980), the publishing world was very much simpler place than it is now.  Journals were largely owned by learned societies, and in many cases, published by them as well; in the case of my paper, The Netherlands Entomological Society.  More importantly for me and many other scientists, it mostly cost you nothing to publish your paper. There were NO page charges or associated publication costs in the UK and mainland Europe, unless you wanted a colour plate, in which case the charges were astronomical.  On the other side of the Atlantic it was different, US journals did want you pay, both to publish and to read.

Since my first paper appeared almost forty years ago, there have been huge changes in scientific publishing, the number of journals published by the Learned Societies has more than trebled and the number of non-society publish for profit commercial journals has expanded at an even greater rate. Since the early 1990s there has been a demand by authors, readers and research councils for Open Access (Laakso et al., 2009).  Whilst this may be seen to be good for science and those authors that can afford to pay to publish, it has also had a markedly negative effect, something that those early well-intentioned advocates of Open Access somewhat naively overlooked.  The direct result of the pay to publish, free to access movement, has been the rise of the predatory journal, or as Chen & Björk (2015) in a somewhat mealy-mouthed way put it, ‘open access journals with questionable marketing and peer review practices’, the numbers of which have, sadly, reached epic heights. How much of a problem however, are these predatory journals?

On average I receive two or three emails a week addressing me in very complimentary terms saying how honoured they (the Editors) would be to have my contribution in their journal.  These range from invitations from journals whose titles bear absolutely no

Rather unspecific as to what my expertise in the field of ophthalmology is or what publications they base their assessment on.

no resemblance to the fields I work in to journals that have titles that are a little more relevant.

I never knew that working on aphids and ladybirds qualified me as a mental health specialist 😊

At least the subject area and topic match but the overblown invitation is something of a giveaway.

 To me, invitations like this are immediately recognisable as scams.  To more junior/inexperienced scientists this is not always the case, especially when the invitation comes from a ‘journal’ as illustrated in my third example.  When asked by my PhD students as to whether the flattering invitation they have received is for real, I gently explain to them that no reputable journal acts in such a way and there are a number of tell-tale signs that they can use to sort the wheat from the chaff.

  • Receiving an invitation to publish in a journal. Most legitimate journals have enough submissions as it is, they don’t need to solicit any more.
  • Have you heard of the journal and is it relevant to your research?
  • Overblown and poor use of English in the invitation
  • A promise of an unrealistic turn-around time from submission to publication
  • What does the journal website look like, although that said, some predatory journals now have quite impressive web sites listing real academics as Editorial Board Members. I hasten to add that their names are being used unbeknownst to them.
  • If in doubt, check Beall’s List which is a really useful guide to the world of predatory publishng and inlcudes some surprising entries

What surprises me is that people do respond to these invitations.  But then there are people who believe that they have been selected to help invest millions on behalf of the widow of the former President of Fantasyland and either send their bank details to the financial representative of the widow or in some cases turn up at airports with a suitcase full of cash.  It turns out that there are two types of academic who publish in predatory journals, the young and the naïve, mainly from Africa and Asia or more cynical individuals who are banking on the naivety of the people assessing their publication list for promotion or tenure reasons, not realising that although the journals have an international address they are, in real terms, worthless publications (Xia et al., 2015).

Even worse in my opinion, are the book publishers such as Lambert Academic Publishing, who contact the authors of newly submitted PhDs and invite them to publish their thesis as a book. If they accept, what seems to them, the flattering opportunity and they have not already published their chapters as papers, they are no longer able to do so because of copyright law. A truly cruel thing to do to someone on the threshold of an academic career.

My advice to anyone new to publishing and who has the funds and desire to go for Open Access, is preferably to stick with society journals, so that you are helping foster your discipline. If, however, you want to divert funds from your subject area, use those journals that are published by the major publishing houses, which although in it primarily for the money, do at least adhere to proper and robust editorial and peer review standards.

Another burgeoning problem is that of fake conferences, where an academic receives an invitation to present a keynote or invited talk at a greatly reduced rate at an international conference. On closer inspection these turn out, despite the long list of international academics listed as part of the organising committee, to be yet another scam. I have been surprised to find myself listed as an organiser for a few of these.  I am not sure what you can do about these, as emailing the scammers has, in my experience, no effect.

if you discount the increasing number of spam invitations clogging up your email in-box, predatory journals are mainly a minor nuisance for us academics, the biggest problem being when you are doing a literature search and have to sift out the crap.  In the long-term, work published in the predatory journals will mostly go unrecognised and uncited by the relevant academic communities.  The problem arises when a non-expert member of the public or worse still, a journalist comes across what looks like a legitimate paper when searching the internet and takes what they read as gospel.  After all, it has been published in a journal, it must be right.   That is when the trouble starts and that is when it becomes a problem for us all ☹


Laakso, M., Welling, P., Bukvova, H., Nyman, L., Björk, B.C. & Hedlund, T. (2009) The development of open access journal publishing from 1993 to 2009. PLoS ONE 6(6): e20961. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0020961

Leather, S.R. (1980) Egg survival in the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padiEntomologia experimentals et applicata, 27, 96-97.

Shen, C.  & Björk, B.C. (2015) ‘Predatory’ open access: a longitudinal study of article volumes and market characteristics. BMC Medicine, 13:230 

Xia, J., Harmon, L., Connolly, G., Donnelly, R.M., Anderson, R. & Howard H. (2015) Who publishes in “predatory” journals? Journal of the Association of Information Science and Technology, 66, 1406-1417.



Filed under Bugbears, Science writing

3 responses to “Let us prey – journals that aren’t all they claim to be

  1. Excellent post, Simon. I love the journal cover you have at the beginning. Many of these journals have catch-all names that are pretty good signals that they are fake. They could just as well call themselves Journal of Whatever Interests You!


  2. Marlies

    Good grief, I didn’t know it has become this bad! Great article, Simon!

    Liked by 1 person

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