Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Predatory journals: Not just a problem in developing world countries, says new Nature paper

with 26 comments

David Moher

“Common wisdom,” according to the authors of a new piece in Nature, “assumes that the hazard of predatory publishing is restricted mainly to the developing world.” But the authors of the new paper, led by David Moher of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, found that more than half — 57% — of the 2,000 articles published in journals they determined were predatory were from high-income countries. In fact, the U.S. was second only to India in number of articles published in such journals. We asked Moher, who founded Ottawa Hospital’s Centre for Journalology in 2015, a few questions about the new work.

Retraction Watch (RW): Your paper comes out on the heels of a Bloomberg story showing that Big Pharma researchers are also publishing in predatory journals. Does all of this suggest that our understanding of who publishes in predatory journals is incomplete, or even wrong?

David Moher (DM): I think this is likely the case. While we are now getting data and evidence to better understand some aspects of predatory journals there is much we still do not know. For example, there is almost no research that has interviewed a sample of predatory journal authors to ascertain their motivations for publishing in these journals. Funders really need to step up to the plate and provide funding to researchers to develop a broad range of investigations related to predatory journals. If we are to stop predatory journals we need evidence to guide us.

RW: You relied on Beall’s now-defunct list of predatory publishers and journals, which as you note was controversial. You also found that the “the title most favoured by US authors in our sample…does not have easily identifiable metrics that distinguish it from non-predatory journals.” How confident are you that the journals you looked at were predatory?

DM: It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between predatory journal and legitimate journals. We hope our 13 evidence-informed criteria will assist prospective authors differentiate predatory journals from legitimate ones. In our current study we are confident that the journals included in our sample are predatory. Only two of them were included in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ); very few mentioned adherence to reporting guidelines, etc. As such we believe the journals included in our sample were ‘truly’ predatory in nature.

RW: As you point out in the paper, prior studies have suggested authors using predatory journals come from low-income countries and may be taking advantage of low publishing fees. You write that “most authors hail from higher income countries.” Your study focused only on  the corresponding authors. Had the other studies focused on the corresponding author as you did, would their results likely have matched yours?  

DM: This is possible. One reason we focused on corresponding authors is that ultimately it is the corresponding author who is the guarantor of the research and the person submitting the manuscript to the journal. The corresponding author is often, although not always, the senior member of the research team submitting the manuscript to the journal. They hold some responsibility for vetting the journal for its appropriateness and authenticity.

RW: You found the reporting of research in the journals you looked at to be “atrocious.” What do you think was the most significant failing in these reports?

DM: The papers are missing several important best practice methods. For example, few of the included systematic reviews were registered even though the International prospective register of systematic reviews (PROSPERO) is such a registry and has more than 20,000 prospective reviews registered. As I mention below responding to another question, the randomized trials were missing key essential information about how they allocated participants to their treatment groups. Other examples included almost absent methods sections. In the vast majority of articles we felt there was insufficient information to replicate their methods. The quality of reporting of preclinical/animal studies is very low in legitimate journals and even worse in predatory journals. We had quite a few papers that were testing plant/natural remedies and stating that these have potential benefits.  The reports claim potential clinical relevance despite being methodologically poorly conducted. It is highly problematic to start suggesting clinical translation (animal and human) where patients may be exposed to these natural remedies with likely no benefit (but still potential harm).

RW: You looked at over 1900 “clinical or preclinical” research  studies, involving more than 2 million people and more than 8,000 animals. Do you have any indication that the research itself was poorly done – so to be harmful to the participants?  

DM: We do not have any direct evidence. For almost every reader the only information they have about a research study is reading a report of the completed study. We only examined the quality of reports of the included articles. It is possible that some of the articles were well conducted and badly reported or vice-versa. However, there are some tell-tale signs that some of the research (i.e., randomized trials) was poorly conducted. In some reports of the randomized trials the descriptions of the randomization process was incorrect. In those articles where informed consent would be an expectation less than half of them reported this information. Perhaps the research was not ethical and should not have been conducted, although we do not have definitive evidence about this.

RW: One of the suggestions you have for authors to avoid publishing in predatory journals, particularly now that Beall’s controversial list is no longer updated, is to check the Directory of Open Access Journals and Journal Citation Reports for the journal title. New legitimate journals might not yet show there, however, and thus prospective authors may refrain from submissions.  This, in turn, can prevent burgeoning journals from thriving.  Is there a danger that, in trying to eradicate predatory publishing, we may also inhibit the growth of new publishing ventures and systems? If so, how do we avoid that?

DM: There is always this possibility. Unfortunately there is a gap in the literature in terms of best practice and guidance about developing a new journal. That said, there are a few very simple actions new journal editors (particularly editors-in-chief) can do with negligible cost and high scientific integrity: they can ensure their website has a professional look and feel. We found numerous examples of shoddy spelling errors and grammatical mistakes; editors-in-chief can explicitly indicate they are not a predatory journal and their intent/action is to follow best practice guidance whenever available, such as guidance from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE); and editors can also indicate explicitly their intention (perhaps including the application) of applying to a legitimate journal directory, such as the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). These actions will likely reduce the risk of a new journal getting ensnared on a predatory journal list.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

September 6th, 2017 at 1:00 pm

Posted in united states

Comments
  • aceil September 6, 2017 at 1:38 pm

    I can point to unethical human subjects and animal research findings published in prestigious journals. Some of which were retracted and reported by Retracton watch. So, with the lack of an accurate reliable description of predatory journals, should it be recommended that clueless authors publish in journals by brand publishers and avoid new players?

    • ICC September 7, 2017 at 1:37 pm

      So, because you can point to a few (several?) unethical studies reported on retraction watch, this somehow meets the level of the statistical study this story reports on?

      • aceil September 7, 2017 at 6:03 pm

        No. I did not look at the “statistical level” of unethical human subjects and animal research published in legitimate journals vs. predatory journals, but neither did the authors?
        Good idea for a future controlled study though!

  • Leslie Nicoll September 6, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    My colleagues and I have recently published two studies on the problem of predatory journals in nursing:

    Oermann, M. H., Conklin, J. L., Nicoll, L. H., Chinn, P. L., Ashton, K. S., Edie, A. H., … Budinger, S. C. (2016). Study of Predatory Open Access Nursing Journals. Journal of Nursing Scholarship: An Official Publication of Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing / Sigma Theta Tau, 48(6), 624–632. https://doi.org/10.1111/jnu.12248

    Oermann, M. H., Nicoll, L. H., Chinn, P. L., Ashton, K. S., Conklin, J. L., Edie, A. H., … Williams, B. L. (2017). Quality of Articles Published in Predatory Nursing Journals. Nursing Outlook. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.outlook.2017.05.005

    The second article confirms the belief that many of these studies are “atrocious”–we didn’t use the same term but did find that 96.3% of the studies we reviewed were rated as average or poor. In the first study we did have a small survey of authors (and reviewers and editors) and found that they selected these journals for publication based on spam email, bad advice from colleagues, or the mistaken belief that these are high quality, well-read journals. Authors also reported that if they wished to stop publication of their paper, they couldn’t, essentially meaning that their articles were “held hostage.” Also, confirming the findings of Moher and colleagues, the majority of authors in our study were from India (n = 45; 47.4%) followed by the US (n = 29; 30.5%). This is a global problem, not just one facing developing countries.

    I completely agree with the recommendations in the “Stop the Rot” section of the Nature article. Predatory journals are a real problem and are eroding the integrity of the scientific literature. Those who claim that it is easy for authors to identify a predatory journal, or that predatory publishing is not a serious problem are just plain wrong.

    • Looking Closer September 6, 2017 at 6:09 pm

      “Predatory journals are a real problem and are eroding the integrity of the scientific literature.”

      Indeed, but so are the non-predatory journals publishing fraudulent science.

    • Andy Nobes September 7, 2017 at 9:42 am

      Thanks for pointing these out Leslie – interesting background. I was sceptical about the US authors thing, so it’s interesting to see this has been replicated.

  • Blal September 6, 2017 at 4:24 pm

    If a “scientist” publishes in a predatory journal through ignorance then that individual’s scientific training is flawed, substandard or both. For a halfway decent researcher it is not too hard to determine if a journal is predatory (or not) -when in doubt don’t consider such a journal. If a paper is published in a journal with the authors’ awareness that it is predatory then certainly that is to circumvent standard review process and with data that is below acceptable level for publication based on professional scientific norms. In either situation described above, the authors’ credibility is in question if published in a predatory journal.

    • FigureSleuth September 6, 2017 at 4:51 pm

      amen

    • David September 6, 2017 at 7:44 pm

      That is a strong claim. To some, perhaps the mere prospect that science they know to be solid (that indeed you personally might agree is solid, were you to encounter it) could be brought quickly to print in exchange for money with no undue obstacles, is a strong lure. The mainstream publication system does not only serve to keep *bad* science out of “respectable” journals. There is, too, *good* science that languishes unpublished for a variety of reasons.

      I do not mean to excuse abrogation of responsibility for scientific quality control in any journal (whether that journal is Nature or one thought of as ‘predatory’ according to the typical use of the term). I also do not mean to defend publication of low-quality science. However I think it is too much to cast blanket aspersions across many individuals for engaging with any journal, independently of the facts and reasoning underlying such engagement.

    • ICC September 7, 2017 at 1:30 pm

      Could not agree more.

      Likewise, what about the “scientists” that reply “yes” to every invitation to be the board of a fake/predatory journal. Then, these “scientists” list their “eminent” editorial posts on the biosketch for their funding proposals? I’d argue this should be treated as scientific misconduct but no one seems to care.

    • VT September 7, 2017 at 6:05 pm

      Well said, and I don’t believe academics who have published in predatory journals by mistake. Anyone with a PhD degree should have adequate research skill to evaluate fraudulent publishers. I do also believe endorsing publication in those “journals”/sitting on editorial board is equal to scientific misconduct.

  • Aceil Al-Khatib September 6, 2017 at 4:26 pm

    I, too have proposed measures that would provide protection to junior and/or unwary authors against predatory journals and publishers.
    Al-Khatib, A. (2016). Protecting authors from predatory journals and publishers. Publishing Research Quarterly, 32(4), 281-285. doi:10.1007/s12109-016-9474-3

  • Oracle September 6, 2017 at 9:58 pm

    The desire to publish by the ever increasing number of researchers is the main reason for the proliferation of “predatory journals”. We cannot simply dismiss all research published in these journals. Otherwise, we should be dismissive of all (not peer reviewed) preprint publications as well. The real problem in scientific publishing is not the existence of “predatory journals”, but the reproducibility and utility of published work, regardless of where they get published.

    • Looking Closer September 7, 2017 at 3:19 am

      ” Otherwise, we should be dismissive of all (not peer reviewed) preprint publications as well”

      One of the problems with peer review of course, as has been demonstrated in RW and pubpeer, is the peer reviews allow the publication of articles with science-fraud.

      It should also be noted many “peer reviews” are performed by PhD students/young post-docs as a favor to their supervisor or line manager and are, in fact, not reviewed by “peers” at all.

      • TL September 7, 2017 at 7:05 am

        Provide evidence that junior scientists provide less stringent peer reviews than senior PIs do.

        • Looking Closer September 7, 2017 at 7:24 am

          Are you saying 3-5 year junior researchers are peers for 20-40 year experienced PIs?

          • TL September 7, 2017 at 8:17 am

            No. But having done practical research 20 years ago does not necessarily enable one to accurately evaluate technical details of state-of-the-art research, either.

  • Jan Erik Frantsvåg September 7, 2017 at 3:36 am

    Some comments:
    A) A Norwegian (also used in other countries) white-list exists, with about 20,000 journals listed https://dbh.nsd.uib.no/publiseringskanaler/Forside.action?request_locale=en
    B) The article in Nature states that Journal of Surgery “does not have easily identifiable metrics that distinguish it from non-predatory journals”. Taking a look at their front page, http://www.avensonline.org/medical/journal-of-surgery/home-12/ I see the classic hallmarks of low-quality and predatory journals: A list of places they are indexed, that has no real value. They might be legitimate, but do not evaluate scholarly quality – and there is no listing in indexes that do, e.g. DOAJ.

  • Jan Erik Frantsvåg September 7, 2017 at 4:14 am

    Forgot: Reference to lesser known metrics isn’t a good sign either, bogus metrics (as were listed by Beall) a definitely bad sign. The journal states ” •MIAR Impact Factor 2016- ICDS: 0.5″ MIAR turns out to be legit, but the value is the log of the lifetime of the journal in this case. See http://miar.ub.edu/issn/2332-4139 and http://miar.ub.edu/about-icds

  • herr doktor bimler September 7, 2017 at 6:21 am

    “Avens Publishing” (some dude in Hyderabad) invites closer inquiry.
    http://flakyj.blogspot.co.nz/search/label/Avens

  • Klavs Hansen September 7, 2017 at 7:35 am

    One may fear that in fields in the neighborhood of the pharmaceutical industry, ignorance of journal standards may not always be the only factor in the decision to chose sub-standard journals. I hope not but can’t shake the suspicion.

  • Andy Nobes September 7, 2017 at 9:41 am

    “That said, there are a few very simple actions new journal editors (particularly editors-in-chief) can do with negligible cost and high scientific integrity: they can ensure their website has a professional look and feel. ”

    Not everybody has the skills and/or resources to make sure their website has a ‘professional look and feel’, particularly in low-resource environments. By definition this means spending money, or signing a contract with a big publishing house perhaps? Also, this has nothing to do with scientific integrity, or the authenticity of peer review.

  • Looking Closer September 7, 2017 at 9:53 am

    TL
    No. But having done practical research 20 years ago does not necessarily enable one to accurately evaluate technical details of state-of-the-art research, either.

    Nobody said they were doing practical research over 20 years ago. They are researchers today and continue to do so and are therefore ideally placed to peer review.

  • Mary Kuhner September 7, 2017 at 8:57 pm

    Not everybody has the skills and/or resources to make sure their website has a ‘professional look and feel’, particularly in low-resource environments. By definition this means spending money, or signing a contract with a big publishing house perhaps? Also, this has nothing to do with scientific integrity, or the authenticity of peer review.

    Probably if no one on your team speaks English fluently, you are not well positioned to publish an English-language journal. How are you going to copy-edit it? How sure are you that you are even understanding the articles and reviews? I personally would not publish in a journal whose web site was in broken English. I don’t care if the html is good or not–that is skew to the quality of a journal–but professional publishing, to me, requires professional grade language skills.

  • Yoram Gerchman September 17, 2017 at 3:25 am

    Got this funny email recently…

    “Dear Dr.Yoram Gerchman,
    Greetings!
    Journal of Marine Biology and Aquaculture (JMBA) are spammers who are sending this mail to you through wide-open system! solicits for manuscript submission to be considered for publication in our upcoming Issues.

    We at JMBA are useless spamming scumbags, are planning to release Vol. 3(1) with the high quality paper like two-ply toilet tissue quarterly. I request you to submit any of your recent, unpublished work of any kind like Research/ Review articles/ Mini Reviews/Short Communications, Case Reports etc, then send us the article processing fee – it’s all about the money, you see.”

    Beside removing a list of journals I didn’t a thing. All the ‘praises’ are in the original…

    Funny
    Yoram

    • Marco September 18, 2017 at 8:45 am

      Looks like the publisher has been hacked – I get some major warnings when trying to access ommegaonline. I guess that is to be expected when you spam. There may be someone with, uhm, certain expertise and enough time on his hand.

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