Sting Finds Predatory Journals Welcome Fake Editor to Board

Marcia Frellick

March 29, 2017

In a sting operation to test the vetting standards of legitimate journals vs suspected "predatory" journals, researchers concocted a cover letter with a picture of a made-up, unqualified scientist asking for an editorial position and sent it to 360 journals.

None of the 120 journals with the highest level of standards accepted the fictitious scientist, Anna O. Szust. However, 1 in 3 (n = 40) of the suspected predatory journals did.

Findings were published online March 22 in a Nature comment piece.

More than one journal offered the fictional applicant a cut of the profits, and one wrote, "It's our pleasure to add your name as our editor in chief for this journal with no responsibilities," note the authors, led by Piotr Sorokowski, PhD, head of the Institute of Psychology at the University of Wrocław in Poland.

The researchers define predatory journals as those that "exist primarily to extract fees from authors" and are not concerned with rigorous vetting or high standards for quality. The authors estimate there are at least 10,000 of these journals.

Responses Came Quickly

The fake applicant was woefully unqualified for the position. Her "work" was not listed in the Web of Science or Scopus databases, or any literary databases. (The authors note that even the fake applicant's name points to her lack of qualification: oszust is the Polish word for "a fraud.")

"Her CV listed no articles in academic journals or any experience as a reviewer, much less an editor. The books and chapters on her CV did not exist and could not be found through any search engine. Even the publishing houses were fake," the authors explained.

Still, some positive responses to the sham candidate came within hours. Four journals quickly named her editor in chief.

"Many revealed themselves to be even more mercenary than we had expected," the authors write.

Journals Selected From Well-Known Lists

The authors selected journals from 3 well-known directories and established 3 groups to whom they would mail the application: 120 from journals "with an official impact factor as indexed on Journal Citation Reports" (JCR), 120 from the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), and 120 from Beall's list, which the authors say are "potential, possible or probable predatory open-access publishers and journals, compiled by University of Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beall."

The authors explain, "To be indexed by either the JCR or the DOAJ, journals must meet certain standards of quality, including ethical publishing practices."

The investigators found a dramatic difference in the rate of positive responses between the three journal types, in terms of accepting the fake applicant or not.

Table. Rate of Positive Responses

Journal Group Accepted Rejected No Response
JCR 0% 40% 60%
DOAJ 7% 38% 55%
Beall's List 33% 13% 54%

The authors note that Beall took down the widely used blacklist in January 2017, after the study was completed, for unknown reasons.

There was some crossover on the lists, between JCR and DOAJ and between DOAJ and Beall's list journals, but not enough to affect the results, senior author Katarzyna Pisanski, PhD, told Medscape Medical News.

Dr Pisanski, from the school of psychology at the University of Sussex in Brighton, United Kingdom, and the Institute of Psychology at the University of Wrocław in Poland, said the surprise was not in the acceptance of the editor by the predatory journals: "Had our 'editor' been more persistent, that number would be double or triple," she speculated to Medscape Medical News.

The surprise was in the 8 DOAJ journals that accepted the editor. She said about those journals, "It's a community site.... There isn't really a governing body. I think it's a matter of there being a vast number of journals and not enough people and time."

According to supplementary material, more than 600 titles were pruned from the DOAJ in 2016.

However, Dr Pisanski emphasized that the main concern isn't with the DOAJ whitelist, but with the predatory journals "maliciously going after researchers," she said.

"Predatory publishing is becoming an organized industry," the authors write.

"[A]t the end of 2016, the number of predatory journals on Beall's list (about 10,000) approached the number indexed by the DOAJ and JCR. Most are hosted by publishers (including some industry giants)."

The authors said they did not name the journals that accepted the fake editor because many have names similar to legitimate journals, and also because the problem is more widespread than this sample.

So what can be done about the journals?

Fake Editor Still on Some Websites

The authors note that after they informed all the accepting journals of the study, the fake editor's name still appeared on some websites.

"Although journals that accepted our fraud were informed that Szust 'kindly withdraws her application', her name still appears on the editorial boards listed by at least 11 journals' websites," and she is listed as an editor by at least 1 journal to which the application was not even sent, the authors write.

The problem with regulation is there are legal loopholes that allow predatory journals to stay in business, Dr Pisanski said.

Also, drawing the line on what is predatory, and to what degree it is so, remains controversial, she notes.

Steven Joffe, MD, MPH, vice chair of medical ethics at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, told Medscape Medical News he gets several invitations a week from predatory journals to join their boards, and many more go to his spam folder.

"We are constantly being assaulted by this," he said.

He said this study and others that spread the word about predatory journals are important to widen awareness.

"I particularly worry about junior researchers outside of nations with highly developed academic science, where there may be less awareness of this as a scam," he said.

Beall's list was a huge help, he said, and if blacklists are not going to work, maybe whitelists can.

He and the authors say in addition to whitelists mentioned in the study, sources for researching reputable publications include PubMed, Scopus, and the Web of Science.

The Committee on Publishing Ethics, the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, and the World Association of Medical Editors can also help with assessing the quality of open-access publishers and journals, the authors write.

The authors and Dr Joffe have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Nature. 2017:543;481-483. Full text

For more news, join us on Facebook and Twitter


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.