The rise and rise of predatory journals

There has been a precipitous rise in predatory academic journals in recent years. Most researchers are probably familiar with the recruitment tactic from these scammers. If you haven’t noticed, check your spam folder. It will be littered with invitations to submit to journals tangentially related to your field.

You might even have an invitation to join an editorial board or two. These publications simply blast these invites to anyone who has published in a reputable journal or presented at a conference.

Predatory journals promise an easy outlet for those looking to publish. Young researchers and non-native speakers of English might be enticed by these opportunities to get an extra publication on their academic CV. However, these journals are just looking to fleece would-be authors by charging anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars to publish an article.

The peer review process is in name only and almost any submission can be published, as long as the fee is paid. The rise in these shoddy publications is rooted in the competitiveness of the global higher education sector and an over-reliance on indicators.

Global metrics arms race

As Philip Altbach and Hans de Wit have argued, the focus on research has affected higher education institutions across the world. Publication data has become sought after by those institutions that formerly did not have research missions. The root cause of this proliferation can be attributed to the rise of university rankings and other performance indicator-driven issues.

Institutions have been forced to capitulate, launching various schemes in order to stay competitive or else risk losing standing. Even if educators understand that these numbers do not accurately reflect institutional excellence, other stakeholders, such as students or even government policy-makers, rely on them for making key decisions.

The globalised environment has forced comparison and competition between universities around the world. How can a university administrator evaluate credentials and CVs from institutions from an unfamiliar country in a highly specific field?

During my own research on the impact of university rankings in China, an expert historian told me that there were only a few people in the entire world who were her peers because her research was so specific. How, then, could a university administrator properly assess her work? Higher education has relied on metrics to answer this question.

Young academics now must fill their CVs with journal publications to compete for jobs. Non-native English speakers must publish in English-language journals to be considered ‘international’. Even experienced researchers face these types of problems. While most scholars would rather publish in reputable and well-known journals, the competition is too steep and the editors for these publications are already swamped with quality submissions.

They have little time to work with inexperienced researchers or ESL (English as Second Language) writers. Instead, authors must look elsewhere to publish pieces and predatory journals have provided an outlet.

Despite the consequence of getting fleeced for publication fees, once paid, scholars at least have a publication to list on their CV. For bureaucratic purposes, all that matters is that their research has been published. Few people are going to check whether a piece has actually gone through the proper peer review channels.

While everyone might know the top journals in a field, there are many other fine, lesser-known publications doing good research across the world. Scam journals can hide within these margins.

It is difficult to determine if a journal is fake simply by skimming a list of publications, as their names are almost indistinguishable from reputable sources. Predatory journal titles often offer variations on popular publications, using common words like ‘international’, ‘educational’ and ‘research’ that mirror well-known peers.

Without understanding the context of a specific field, these publications sound legitimate. It would be difficult to detect these predatory journals by simply glancing at a CV, especially if they are sprinkled with better publications.

Likewise, predatory journals also paint legitimacy through the promise of abstracting and indexing. In recent years, universities have been clamouring for publications in indices like the Social Sciences Citation Index or Science Citation Index because they are included in various ranking metrics. The indices advertised by predatory journals are not exclusive and almost any publication can be listed.

Similarly, these publications promote their inclusion on Google Scholar as a type of quality index. However, Google has been criticised in the past for not vetting their database, which has included shady journals. Promises of indexing or inclusion in Google provide a mask of legitimacy and familiarity for these publications.

Gatekeeping in academic publishing

There has been an attempt to categorise and publicise these suspicious operations. Jeffrey Beall from the University of Colorado compiled a list of predatory journals and academic publishers, beginning in 2008. The task seemed simple: to keep track of scam journals and their publishers.

However, the management of the list proved to be complex and controversial and he stopped publishing it in early 2017 because of external pressure.

One issue was that a majority of the publications included in the list were based in emerging nations. There was criticism that Beall’s List unfairly included journals that were just getting started in parts of Africa or Asia that had been ignored by established journals, often based in the West.

By labelling these publications ‘predatory’, these non-Western outlets lost credibility before they had had a chance to thrive. Similar to Jenny J Lee and Alma Maldonado-Maldonado’s argument, it was argued that the Western elite were unjustly gatekeeping science and research and excluding other parts of the world.

The open source movement has proved another obstacle. There is a growing movement that believes academic publishing should move from behind ivory tower paywalls. Newly established journals have been formed with missions to democratise science and research.

However, without the funding or resources of the old guard, it is more difficult to uphold the same kind of quality control. Differing standards do not equate to being a scam or predatory publication, though, and the ‘predatory’ label has been criticised for stifling the open movement.

An increasingly competitive higher education sector combined with the opening up of academic research to new spaces have made it more difficult to identify shoddy journals. The lines have become blurred between legitimate and predatory, and scam operations can hide in a sea of other publications.

Decision-making through numbers has pressured academics to simply publish as much as possible, even if that means resorting to publications that are on the fringes of legitimacy. Unfortunately, these problems will only be exacerbated under the global metrics arms race.

Ryan Allen is an assistant professor at Donna Ford Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, United States. You can follow him on Twitter at @PoliticsAndEd.


Where there is unreasonable demand, there will be illegitimate supply, simple as that.

Eric Gilder on the University World News Facebook page