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Will the Real “Predatory Journal” Please Stand Up?

Large publishers serve themselves by painting "predatory journals" with a broad brush

The scientific publishing industry has been on a hunt for what it calls “predatory journals.” They want to make sure that all scientific publications occur in “legitimate” and “reputable” journals. Additionally, they encourage scholars to avoid “predatory” journals which are there merely to enrich themselves by having you pay for access.

While I agree with these ideas in principle, I’ve noticed more and more that the way that these principles are applied has been, well, incredibly self-serving for the journals.

To begin with, let’s look at a commentary on predatory journals published in 2019 in the journal Nature:

Predatory journals are a global threat. They accept articles for publication — along with authors’ fees — without performing promised quality checks for issues such as plagiarism or ethical approval. Naive readers are not the only victims. Many researchers have been duped into submitting to predatory journals, in which their work can be overlooked. One study that focused on 46,000 researchers based in Italy found that about 5% of them published in such outlets. A separate analysis suggests predatory publishers collect millions of dollars in publication fees that are ultimately paid out by funders such as the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Agnes Grudniewicz et al., “Predatory journals: no definition, no defence” at Nature

Now, to begin with, I hardly see how a journal could be a “global threat.” Bad papers that should never have seen the light of day are published in “legitimate” journals every day, but they are generally considered an annoyance, not a “global threat.”

However, what I find interesting here is that the author uses a study that says that 5% of researchers publish in such outlets. Supposedly, the study looks at legitimate researchers. If the researchers themselves are legitimate, then, unless the author is impugning the work of those researchers, it seems like the authors themselves find the journal sufficiently scholarly to publish in. If the authors find them scholarly, why are other people complaining? What matters is the research.

The goal of journals is to (a) check the quality of research and (b) distribute the research in a way that other researchers can benefit from. There are indeed some outlets which skip quality checks and have a fake peer review process. Those should be noted so that these journals aren’t considered for tenure reviews or cited without double checking.

However, the complaint that these journals “collect millions of dollars in publication fees that are ultimately paid out by funders such as the US National Institutes of Health (NIH)” seems a bit over the top, considering that the complaint was made in the journal Nature, which charges authors over $11,000 per article to be published. This amount is paid by the same funding sources. By comparison, the International Journal of Biology, which is published by a publisher listed in Beall’s list of predatory publishers, charges $300 per article. So, of all the complaints that a journal like Nature might have about predatory journals, it seems that complaining about misuse of funds is significantly misdirected. Publishing in Nature seems to be the misuse of public funding. Note that Nature has abnormally high article processing charges, but is relevant because they are the ones publishing this commentary. Typical article processing charges, at least in biology, seems to be around $3,000 per article, which is still much more expensive than the “predatory” journals.

So what is the actual definition of a predatory journal?

In the commentary, the authors state the definition of a predatory journal as:

Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterized by false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial and publication practices, a lack of transparency, and/or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices.

Agnes Grudniewicz et al., “Predatory journals: no definition, no defence” at Nature

It’s always dangerous when people use the word “or” instead of “and,” especially when they include more innocuous things on their list. According to this definition, a new journal that advertises itself aggressively is counted as a “predatory journal,” no matter how high quality the review process is (remember, they used “or” in the definition).

This is incredibly self-serving. It means that the existing journals are non-predatory for the simple reason that they have been around long enough that they don’t need to advertise. It means that any upcoming competition (which would, by definition, need to advertise), can simply be labeled as “predatory” because they are aggressively advertising.

Let’s say you wanted to cut out the fat of academic publishing, so you decide to start a journal. You have some overhead, but you cover for that by charging $500 for articles (that’s 1/20 of the price Nature is charging). No one knows about you, so you do an online advertising campaign. You don’t have direct connections to enough people in the field, so your advertising is more indiscriminate than you want, but better to reach too many than too few, right? Well, by giving people the option of a low-cost publishing alternative and bothering to tell them about it, you now qualify as a “predatory” journal, and Nature will complain about you misappropriating government funds.

But which journal is really being predatory here? 

Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

Will the Real “Predatory Journal” Please Stand Up?