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A Guide to Avoiding Predatory Journals

Students and other academics not only conduct their own research, but they also rely on the research of other academics to understand their field of study and to expand knowledge on topics of interest. Academic journals are one the first places academics will look to read up on relevant research, see what has already been done, and see what still needs to be done. Sounds easy, right? While journals are an excellent source of information, you must be sure the journal you are using is a legitimate source.

Plenty of people are tricked by predatory journals, illegitimate sources of academic information. Despite their illegitimacy, academics will and do publish in these sources. Why would they do this? On one hand, academics may not realize the journal is predatory. On the other hand, academics may feel pressure to publish their work in journals because published work equates to reputation. The more work you have published in an academic journal, the better your reputation. These people may fall prey (see what we did there?) to predatory journals.

So, what exactly is a predatory journal, and how do you avoid them? We're so glad you asked! First, let's start by trying to define "predatory journal" to get a better understanding of what we are up against.

Predatory journal

It can be difficult to give a concrete definition to predatory journals because they can appear so real. What makes predatory journals so difficult to identify is their ability to quickly adapt to new policies that legitimate journals follow. With much of the information regarding publication and business policies online, illegitimate journals can be quick to catch on to changing policies and enact them, or pretend to enact them, in their own publications.

There are, however, characteristics predatory journals share, and these can be used to help create a working definition. According to Nature, predatory journals can be defined as journals that are motivated by financial self-interest rather than the spread of accurate research and that provide false claims about publication and editing practices. Their intent is to make money, not to spread scholarship.

These are a couple of the main characteristics of predatory journals, but let's explore more common characteristics so you can quickly identify if something about a journal seems fishy. After all, being able to quickly and efficiently identify a predatory journal will save you time and potentially even your hard work.

Common characteristics

Spam emails
Predatory journals will aggressively solicit through emails. Photo from ninefotostudio.

As we said, predatory journals can be hard to detect. For example, it can be hard to identify intent. You could be looking at a low-quality journal that does not have a lot of resources and funding, thus making it appear suspicious, or you could be looking at a predatory journal. Therefore, to minimize confusion, it is best to be knowledgeable about how to detect predatory journals over legitimate journals. Here is a list of common characteristics predatory journals may have:

  • Repeated solicitation: While some journals do solicit submissions, predatory journals will use aggressive soliciting through email. These emails will most likely appeal to you through the use of flattery, trying to persuade you to submit pieces to be published in the journal. Predatory journals will often reach out to underqualified people because they are vulnerable to these traps, but this is a sign of an illegitimate journal. If you are confused as to why you are receiving these emails, then you should be suspicious of their intent.
  • False/misleading information: These solicitation emails will contain false or misleading information including but not limited to false claims of indexing, the peer review process, the membership of associations, and relevant journal contacts. Contact information may be limited and false, if included at all. These emails may also include contradictory statements about their mission and publication processes.
  • False membership: The editorial board may include members with no contact information, as we have previously mentioned, or the members may have no real credentials. Sometimes the members do not even exist. People may also be listed as members yet have no knowledge of being listed. This makes the journals seem legit, but it is just another technique to trick authors into trusting them.
  • False promises: Along with false or misleading information about publication practices, predatory journals will make false, often enticing promises about the speed with which your work will be published. Fast publication may be appealing to academics because the quicker their work is published, the faster their reputation may soar. However, all of this will be for nothing if the journal is predatory. In reality, fast publication means the chances of a rigorous peer review are slim to none, meaning your work will not be properly edited, and you will receive limited to no feedback. This can lead to plagiarism and the spread of academic misinformation. Flawed research can then stunt the growth of science and further research within the discipline. Peer review can be a difficult marker to identify predatory journals because many legitimate journals are also not transparent about these practices, but it is always better to be safe than sorry in your research.
  • Lack of transparency: If a journal is making you a lot of promises about peer review and editing processes, it's important for you to have proof. Predatory journals will often not be transparent about any of their practices, leaving you with vague or zero information regarding how editorial practices are applied. There may be no journal contact information so you cannot ask questions. Predatory journals may also promise to publish your piece if you pay an Article Processing Charge (APC), yet authors may not know the cost of publishing until after they submit their article for acceptance, and they are often left in the dark about the acceptance process. It is also possible authors may lose their rights to their own work through publishing in predatory journals, guaranteeing they cannot publish in alternate, legitimate journals. This stunts progress and wastes time, effort, and resources.
  • Inconsistency: Predatory journals will be inconsistent with their publishing methods. Articles may go and up down in the journal randomly and without apparent reason. Predatory journals may also publish articles that do not fit within the discipline they are publishing under, so articles will look out of place. You will be left wondering why an article on cell structure is found alongside an article about tectonic plates.

We know this is quite a lot of information to throw at you, and knowing how to recognize the signs of a predatory journal is definitely important. What's more important, however, is learning how to put this information into practice. Now, let's go over some tips to identify and avoid predatory journals.

Tips to identify predatory journals

Using a red pen to edit a paper
Checking for spelling and grammatical errors is one of the quickest ways to detect a predatory journal. Photo from Andrey Popov.
  • Perform a spelling/grammar check: This probably wasn't the first thing on your mind, but this is probably the fastest and simplest method to scope out predatory journals. Most legitimate journals will not contain spelling/grammatical errors because those mistakes will be caught during the peer review process. As we have mentioned, predatory journals rarely live up to their promises of performing peer reviews, so their publications may be riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. You can use these clues to determine the motivation and intent because the journal. Would a legitimate journal so sloppy as to allow simple mistakes like these past the editing and review process? Definitely not.
  • Consider motivation and intent: Intent can be difficult to uncover because predatory journals are designed to convince you of their authenticity. They have grown and evolved to mimic the messages of real journals. If a journal is publishing articles that seek to share scientific and research findings to advance future research within the discipline, then the journal is most likely a credible source. It also helps if the journal is transparent about editing and peer review processes, but this is not always guaranteed, as predatory journals can lie about these kinds of things. As we have previously mentioned, predatory journals exist for financial self-interest, so they will be focused on publishing content rather than publishing quality content. If the journal is pushing for you to pay an APC for a quick publish, odds are they are just looking for your money, not your research.
  • Read those emails carefully: We talked about how predatory journals have some pretty aggressive solicitation techniques, particularly through the use of email. This is an opportunity early on in your interaction with journals to determine if they are predatory. Consider the following questions: Is there incorrect spelling/grammar? Are they trying to flatter you? Are they making impossible promises such as fast publishing, including peer review? Does the time of the sent email make sense with the time zone the publication claims to be part of? This is a detail you may not have considered, but it can reveal a predatory journal's lies. The faster you identify suspicious intent, the safer you will be from becoming prey.
  • Look at titles:This is another tip you may not have considered because it seems so minor. However, a title is very telling. Predatory journals will mimic titles from reputable sources, using similar language to trip up readers. Authors may associate the titles with legitimate journals and thus fall into the predatory journal trap. So, watch out for those titles. If you feel like you've seen a title like that before, your inkling might just save you from academic danger.
  • Check citation metrics: What are citation metrics? Citation metrics are calculations based on the number of times a work has been cited, alluding to its credibility and quality. Here are a couple citation metrics you should take a look at:
    • Journal Impact Factor: What is a Journal Impact Factor (IF)? A Journal Impact Factor is measured based on the number of times an article in a particular journal has been cited in a year. For reference, an IF of 3 or above is an indication of a good article and an IF of 10 or up is an indication of an excellent article. The higher the IF, the more important the journal is because it has a higher impact on the discipline, hence the word "impact" in IF. It is important to note that Impact Factors vary across disciplines, so you should do some research on your particular discipline before comparing journals and determining if a journal's IF seems reasonably good. The IF means little on its own since a predatory journal may list an IF without any proof to back up that number. Therefore, you should never rely on one metric to determine the credibility of a source. It is best to use this as a starting point and to explore additional citation metrics to determine if a journal is a legitimate source.
    • Eigenfactor: An Eigenfactor is the measure of how likely a journal is to be used, or the frequency with which researchers will use articles from that journal in their own research. If other academics are using articles from a particular journal with good frequency, then that journal is more likely to be a legitimate journal.
    • The SCImago Journal & Country Rank: This is more of a resource than an actual citation metric, but it is very useful in determining the legitimacy of a journal. This resource will help you identify the importance of journals with the most value. Weights are assigned to citations based on how important the journals are in which they are found. Therefore, citations in more reputable journals will be seen as more valuable. This will give you knowledge about journals, as it is extremely unlikely that a predatory journal will rank on this list.
  • Check if the journal is indexed: What does it mean for a journal to be indexed, and why is this something you should look out for? Essentially, indexation equates to the quality of the journal. Journals have to fit specific publishing criteria to be indexed, so this automatically eliminates some doubt regarding the legitimacy of the journal. Predatory journals can lie about where they are indexed or if they are indexed at all, but this is harder for them to prove because it is unlikely that they fit the criteria to be indexed. Indexed journals are considered high-quality and reliable sources, so more people are likely to use the material in their own research. Indexed journals also have a greater presence, so articles are more likely to be discovered if they are found in indexed journals.

If you follow these tips, you are much less likely to be fooled by a predatory journal.

Don't fall prey to predators

Academics devote endless amounts of time, energy, and effort into conducting and writing research. The editing and publishing process should be no different. You should never settle for a predatory journal that wants to take advantage of your hard work, leaving you confused and robbed of your resources.

Although you want your work to be published and appreciated, and you want to be seen as a credible source within your field, you should take no short cuts. We've defined predatory journals, listed common characteristics of the false publications, and provided guided tips to help you identify predatory journals. This may seem like a lot of knowledge to throw at you all at once, but take time to absorb it so your research and publication efforts will not be for nothing.

Header photo from Marcelo Cidrack.

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