Professor David Moher, Director of the Canadian Centre for Journalology, a centre that conducts research on publication practices, speaks about the, in his words, “perverse incentives in academia to publish”, and about the impact of less trustworthy sources of scientific information on policy.
How would you define a ‘predatory journal’?
David Moher: In 2019, over forty academics and publishers concerned about the threat of predatory publishing to scholarly integrity agreed on a definition of predatory journals.
“Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritise 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.”
Generally speaking, they are journals that don’t follow best practice. Sadly, this can also apply to the so-called ‘legitimate’ journals.
How big is the problem and what can be done about it?
David Moher: Although papers published in predatory journals represent a small percent of the total number that are published, the absolute number is quite large. Until we change some of the incentives in the research ecosystem, they will continue to be a nuisance. Most universities are interested in the quantity of papers their researchers produce rather than in quality. That obviously has to change if we want to reduce the influence of predatory journals on scholarly communication.
We shouldn’t forget that in many parts of the world people are doing PhDs by publication, so you have to have let’s say three papers published to get your degree. For people who are more fiscally constrained, they may want to get it over and done with quickly so may find predatory journals useful. We tend not to think about students, but they are a really important part of the story.
We have so much evidence that people get hired, promoted and tenured based on the number of papers published rather than on their impact, which could be measured in lots of different ways, such as the findings being included in a policy document, for example. It is within the universities power to change things, but whether they want to change is a different story.
We are also developing tools that can tell us something about journals’ peer review practice and openness, and not just predatory journals but all journals. My colleague Dr Kelly Coby is leading these efforts and has been asking patients, publishers and researchers what they would like to see in this tool. We hope to have a beta version available next year that will empower authors with information so they can make better, evidence-based decisions when choosing a journal to submit their paper to.
What is the impact of predatory publishing?
David Moher: It is quite clear that articles in predatory journals, including randomised trials, have been included in systematic reviews. This can end up affecting public health since clinical practice guidelines are based on systematic reviews. Reviewers of these papers should be taking a very close look to see if the papers included in the review are coming from predatory journals and if any have been retracted. I’d also like to see authors of these reviews being given additional guidelines on what papers should be included or which should be given more weight than others.
A colleague of mine, Dr Manoj Lalu, is currently looking at the penetration of articles in predatory journals into policy documents.
Journalists, and all readers really, should learn more about the problem. Our centre has produced a series of resources to help biomedical researchers follow best publication practices. Interestingly, funders do not have any calls for research on predatory journals. Most of our research into predatory journals is unfunded, which is problematic.
Do you envisage the problem getting better?
David Moher: Our research doesn’t indicate that things are about to change. Publishers of predatory journals are becoming very sophisticated in changing names of journals and operations. I hope that the digital tools we are developing will shine a very bright light into journal practices across the board, including predatory journals.
It is worth noting that publishing in predatory journals is not a just a problem in low- and middle-income countries. Our research examining almost 2000 articles in predatory journals showed that more than half of them were from high- and upper-middle-income countries. It is a global problem.
Are authors publishing in these journals deliberately?
David Moher: I think it’s fair to say that some people are very consciously doing this, and others are being scammed. We have seen both very inexperienced and very experienced people publishing in predatory journals.
When I give talks on this topic, I recommend carrying out a digital hygiene check on a regular basis. For example, google your own name and see if your name comes up in some journals as an editor. There was a case a few years ago when a journal claimed an eminent British scientist to be the editor, yet he had been dead for two years. There are bad actors in this game for sure.