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‘Predatory’ publications put pressure on the integrity of scientific literature

Over two million scientific papers are published every year worldwide. Faced with the pressure to ‘publish or perish’, researchers can be tempted by journals that charge low publication fees and publish articles of dubious quality. The scale of these ‘predatory publication practices’ and ‘predatory publication journals’ is global and can have far-reaching consequences, as such articles could make their way into clinical guidelines and influence policy decisions.

In 2019, to counter what has been termed ‘predatory’ publishing, over 40 academics and publishers from ten different countries reached a consensus definition: “Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritise self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterised 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, predatory journals are seen as those, which don’t follow best practice in terms of peer-review and checks for ethics approvals and plagiarism.

Research ecosystem

David Moher profileRegarding predatory journals, David Moher, Director of the Canadian Centre for Journalology – a centre on the science of publication practices, is aware of the threat and calls for change in the research ecosystem: “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”. – Read the complete interview with David Moher

His team’s goal is to help enhance the reporting quality of biomedical journals – one of the academic disciplines affected by predatory publishing practices, in order to improve the quality and usability of research findings. They are currently developing a tool that gathers information about journals’ peer-review practice and openness to help authors make better decisions about the journal they should submit their work to.

Untransparency

A big issue is how difficult it often is to judge how well an article has been peer reviewed; only a handful of journals make their peer-review process visible by publishing peer-review reports:

Ivan Oransky profileIvan Oransky, freelance writer, editor and cofounder of a blog that mainly reports on retractions of scientific papers called Retraction Watch: “Journals are ridiculously untransparent about their peer-review process (…) if enough journalists started asking to see the reviews of papers, particularly those of ones that end up being retracted or seriously questioned, we might start to see things change”. – Read the complete interview with Ivan Oransky

Consequently, Oransky thinks that the line between so called ‘predatory’ and ‘non-predatory’ or ‘legitimate’ journals is thin – journals that would be considered trustworthy actually have to withdraw hundreds of papers because they don’t stand up to scrutiny, he says. The data can for example be unreliable (either as a result of misconduct or honest error), redundant (i.e., previously published elsewhere in a citable format), plagiarised (text or figures) or the authors have reported unethical research or failed to disclose a major competing interest, which could influence the interpretation of the article.

“Even within a peer-reviewed journal, not everything is peer reviewed to the same extent”, warns Ivan Oransky.

The number of retracted papers has grown year on year, but so has the total number of published papers, so retractions remain relatively rare. According to Oransky, the bigger problem is the number of papers that should be retracted but are not. These can end up infiltrating scientific databases and can be included in systematic reviews, which in the case of biomedical research are used to develop recommendations in clinical practice guidelines, ultimately, affecting public health.

Increased awareness

Although the problem of predatory publishing shows no signs of abating, there is increased awareness. Platforms such as Retraction Watch and PubPeer allow people to openly discuss suspicious papers, and tools to spot predatory journals are becoming more advanced. “I hope that the digital tools we are developing will shine a very bright light into journal practices across the board, including predatory journals”, Moher says.

While some researchers may be driven to publish in predatory journals to pad their CV or gain a PhD by publication, some may not be aware that they are submitting their work to a journal with questionable editorial practices. As Moher explains, publishers of predatory journals are using increasingly sophisticated techniques to mislead people into believing that they are legitimate journals, from changing the names of journals to impersonating editorial boards and creating fictitious archives.

Moher calls for urgent investment into research that analyses why authors publish in these journals and the efficacy of different measures to stem the rise of substandard publications to prevent further erosion of the integrity of scientific scholarship.

Taking action

To prevent predatory publishing, all stakeholders (researchers, institutions, funders, regulators and public) need to understand how the system works and take action. According to Moher, relatively simple things such as giving the authors of systematic reviews additional guidelines on which papers should be included or asking reviewers of these papers to check whether the papers included are coming from predatory journals could help reduce the negative influence of predatory publishing on evidence-informed decision making.

Cross-border initiatives such as Think. Check. Submit. and the EU-funded INTEGRITY project also help researchers identify trusted journals and publishers.

According to the INTEGRITY experts you can distinguish three main give-aways:

  1. aggressive advertising tactics;
  2. the image of the magazine (a similar logo or lay-out as existing journals for example);
  3. how the article is being evaluated (hardly).

Similar to Dr Moher and his Journalology centre, they are developing teaching programmes and tools to help students recognise predatory publishing practices:

“Even though journal lists are useful tools, whether being a blacklist or a whitelist, these are not long-term solutions.[…] The only way to solve this problem is for all authors, publishers, and universities to work together to improve the transparency and integrity of science. Universities should educate researchers, especially juniors, about the existence of predatory journals, the dangers they pose, and ways to avoid them. Furthermore, more experienced colleagues could help younger ones evaluate the journal chosen for publication”, concludes the EU-funded INTEGRITY project.

Related content:
An expert’s opinion: Interview with David Moher on predatory journals
An expert’s opinion: Interview with Ivan Oransky on the perils of scientific publishing

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