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Why fake journals exist: How to avoid them and uphold research integrity

Research integrity

Christine Lee
Christine Lee
Content Manager

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Why do fake journals exist?

The landscape of research has become more and more competitive over the years. According to UNESCO’s research, the number of scientific articles in the Web of Science grew by 23% between 2008 and 2014 while the 7.8 million recorded scientific researchers in 2013 is expected to increase significantly by 2030.

Despite the increase in research, prestigious publishing opportunities remain static. To top it off, these publishing opportunities have low acceptance rates in the 10-15% range, making them particularly daunting for emerging researchers. Yet in the face of this, researchers have to publish in order to ensure career progression and be viable for such opportunities like tenure or future funding at research institutions.

As a result, academic publishing is high stakes. Without the recognition of published work, academic researchers are considered unproductive and suffer consequences like decreased funding for future projects.

One pressure release valve for this scenario has been the advent of open access journals, which provides publishing platforms for researchers, particularly those who are emerging or those who want their research more accessible. Well-intentioned open access journals that engage in best practices have been a boon to the research community.

But the flipside is that the burgeoning field of open access journals has given rise to fake journals, also known as predatory, deceptive, fraudulent, clone, or pseudo-journals (Beall, Nature 2012). These journals are ones that do not engage in peer review and have minimal or little copy edits. In other words, they exist primarily to extract publication fees from authors.

What is the impact of fake journals on research integrity?

It’s a sad fact that predatory journals have taken advantage of the space created to provide more access points for researchers.

So what do predatory journals look like? Characteristics of predatory journals include:

  • The absence of peer review or falsely claiming to conduct peer review (Bohannon, Science, 2013);
  • Lack of, or very minimal, editorial processes;
  • Hiding information about article processing charges;
  • Misrepresentation of its editorial board (Sorowski, et al., Nature 2017).

The very characteristics of predatory journals have long lasting impacts on research integrity. The consequences of predatory journals are myriad and include the following:

  • Fake or absent peer review removes checkpoints for research validity. Because published research acts as evidence, articles that are published without control undermine the integrity of research;
  • Poor quality research findings can lead to unsafe practices, particularly in medicine (Taylor, 2021);
  • Since many databases do not index low-quality journals, research published in a predatory journal may not be seen and thus overlooked (Moher, et al., Nature 2017);
  • Predatory journals may take money but not publish the research article in question and thus “scam” the researcher (Elmore, et al., 2020).

Predatory journals are a shortcut solution that undermine the integrity of research. In sum, research states, “This rise of predatory journals threatens the quality of scholarship. Without a credible editorial board, flawed scientific papers become an increasing problem. These practices also threaten to give the open-access movement a bad name” (Sorowski, et al., Nature 2017).

Research has historically been collaborative–enacting the ideals of multiple authors, institutional support, and peer review to build a network of trust across institutions. (Hanson, Integrity Matters Podcast, 2022). When predatory journals take advantage of research competition and offer no external oversight or peer review, such predatory journals can skew the conversation with unverified information. As a result, this threatens the integrity of research itself.

How do you avoid predatory journals and uphold research integrity?

Thus, avoiding predatory journals is critical to upholding integrity within research. Screening journals to ensure research is treated with the appropriate respect and collaborative review contributes to long lasting dialogue around research content. And fosters stable academic careers.

How can researchers avoid predatory journals?

  • Confirm the periodical’s stated Journal Impact Factor and research the reputation and longevity of the journal by searching Journal Citation Reports (Gillis, 2017);
  • Verify that the journal is indexed. Refer to indexes like PubMedCentral or Web of Science (Clark, 2015);
  • Utilize checklists for submission, such as the one offered by the Think. Check. Submit. Initiative;
  • Consider reading articles in the journal before submitting and note grammatical and spelling errors in addition to whether or not the website looks professional and put together;
  • Advise trainees to avoid predatory journals and reference work only from recognized journals (Wallace, 2019);
  • And while admittedly controversial, engaging the “whisper network” of blacklists can help emerging researchers pinpoint illegitimate publications (Strinzel, et al., ASM, 2019).

The above actions can help researchers avoid predatory journals, and thus safeguard their work and careers. Avoiding predatory journals, too, helps quash their reach. When researchers avoid fake journals, they can:

  • Ensure high caliber information out of their institution;
  • Uphold research framework integrity;
  • Safeguard their institution’s reputation as a research center;
  • Build accurate research, since research builds on the shoulders of prior research.

The publishing landscape of research will continue to evolve as research itself expands. The contributions of researchers are essential to bettering our world; to that end, it’s necessary to be aware of fake journals and to take steps to avoid them.