How journal hijackers derail academic careers with impunity
The automation of academic publishing through platforms such as Web of Science and Scopus has given scholars both easy access to hundreds of thousands of published papers as well as more journals to which they can submit their papers. But it also carries significant risk.
“As authors we get a lot of reach, but it definitely introduces vulnerabilities in the sense that some of these platforms are not well governed,” says Sune D Müller, professor of informatics at the University of Oslo in Norway and editor of the Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems (SJIS).
“Some of them are owned by tech companies that are not academics. Do they have the processes in place to actually do the proper quality assurance, to set up the guard rails that are needed?” Müller asks rhetorically after explaining how, last February, he found out that SJIS had been hijacked in what he believes to be the first hijacking of a journal affiliated with the Association for Information Systems (AIS).
In a recent article, “The ‘hijacking’ of the Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems: Implications for the information systems community” (IS Journal, Wiley, 2023), Müller and his co-author, University of Oslo professor of information systems Johan Ivar Sæbø, lay out several reasons for arguing that the pressure on researchers to publish, combined with the proliferation and development of AI technology, can contribute to journal hijacking becoming an even greater threat.
Such a threat applies not only to the information systems community, but also to science and academic integrity in general, they suggest.
“For example, it is now easier than ever to mass produce fake articles that can be organised as a credible catalogue of hijacked journals … However, fake articles undermine trust in academic publications. While they appear to be authored by respectable scholars,” they write, as is the case with a bogus article published under Sæbø’s name, “they are often assigned greater importance and credibility.”
The proliferation of fake articles and fake journals makes search engines like Google Scholar unreliable. These fakes also threaten to undermine hiring and promotion procedures because candidates may have their names attached to either non-existent articles or to ones they did not write.
Further, Müller and Sæbø note: “Fake articles may also have a negative impact on the responses returned by AI-powered chatbots, such as ChatGPT, and lead to even more instances of ‘hallucination’ [when a chatbot returns ‘nonsense’ in response to a properly phrased prompt].”
A Kafkaesque experience
In the first part of their article, Müller and Sæbø explain how they discovered that SJIS had been hijacked and describe the increasingly Kafkaesque experience Müller had trying to get platforms to de-list the fake website.
Müller learned of the hoax in early February 2023 via an email from a scholar. She was responding to an email from Müller saying a paper she had submitted had been rejected, which surprised her because she had already been informed that the paper had been accepted and because she had paid the US$250 ‘article publishing charge’.
However, SJIS does not charge for publishing and, as soon became apparent, the website that she had submitted the paper to and which instructed her to pay the publishing charge was a fake SJIS. Müller’s investigation of the fake website revealed it contained the entire SJIS archive.
The scholar provided Müller with a screenshot of the Scopus page with “the link to the fraudulent website”, which led him to contact Scopus’ customer support.
A support officer told him that the link would be removed sometime in May. Müller told Scopus that waiting for two months “would be tantamount to contributing to the continuation of the scam”.
On 24 April, Scopus removed the link to the fake journal – and the real SJIS. As of this writing, the link has not been restored, though Müller has been promised that it will be this month.
In an email to University World News, Müller writes: “It is very difficult for me as EiC [editor in chief] to understand [how] it takes them more than nine months to solve the problem. I complained to Scopus at the beginning of February.”
Neither Gmail, nor PayPal (through which the unsuspecting scholar paid the fake journal) responded to Müller’s complaints. Even with the help of the executive director of the AIS journals, Müller was unable to get Google and Bing to remove the fake journal from their searches. When Müller and Sæbø wrote their article, the bogus journal “appear[ed] as the fourth result on Bing and the third on Google when searching for SJIS”.
An appeal to Marcaria.com, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and an accredited domain registrar for fraudulent domains, brought a written response which, in part, says: “It is very important to keep in mind that we are the domain registrar, but we are not responsible for the content of the domain … we are not in a position … to suspend, delete or transfer a domain.”
At one point in late February or early March the fake journal’s website name was changed to the Journal of Information Systems and the content they had illegally was removed. Müller informed the legitimate Journal of Information Systems that they had been hijacked. Then, in mid-March, the bogus SJIS was backed up and included the latest articles published in the real SJIS.
Over the course of the next several months more examples of scholars being scammed surfaced.
Müller and Sæbø determined that authors, unsuspecting researchers and journals are all affected by journal hijacking. In addition to the out-of-pocket expenses incurred when a bogus journal demands money to publish their articles, scholars who are scammed suffer emotional distress and, perhaps more importantly, reputational and career losses.
In one case that Müller knows of, a female student who had been scammed was unable to advance to the next stage in her career because one of her articles that had been published in the fake SJIS could not then be published in the real journal.
“Another example of a career obstacle is the difficulty of having a PhD dissertation accepted if one or more of the articles [drawn from it while completing the degree] are published in hijacked journals,” Müller and Sæbø write. They tell the story of a PhD student at Naresuan University (Tha Pho, Thailand) who, in addition to losing the money she sent to the fraudulent journal, was unable to graduate on time.
According to Müller, this student has required psychological counselling and the experience has left her gun shy. She had originally wanted to be part of Müller’s and Sæbø’s paper. “But, at the very last minute she withdrew, I suspect on the advice of her PhD supervisor. I suppose she was afraid that it might reflect badly on her in the sense that she could be seen as having poor judgement,” Müller told University World News.
After a moment’s pause, he added: “My message is that we can all fall for this game if we actually believe we are communicating with a legitimate journal.”
As suggested by both the cases of the Thai student, and an Indian student who wrote to Müller recounting her experience with a hijacked journal, when Müller and Sæbø inspected the names on the articles published on fraudulent websites, many denote people from developing countries.
In the same way that other victims of the scams do, these students let their “guard down when communicating with what they believed to be a legitimate and trustworthy journal”, seemingly authorised by the fact that the “link to the fake journal’s website comes from a reputable bibliographic database such as Scopus”, they write.
The dangers of identity theft
When asked what the bogus journal did with his stolen identity, Sæbø told University World News: “The fake journal used my name, along with that of a colleague, as authors on a paper that has nothing to do with either our work, or the real journal’s field. There was an abstract, but we’ve not been able to see the full article, which I assume does not exist.
“The fake article was ‘published’ some years ago in the same issue where I and my colleague had a legitimate paper in the legitimate journal. Our guess is that they copied the archives of the journal and then made a lot of changes to titles and abstracts while reusing the authors’ names.”
In their article, Müller and Sæbø emphasise the danger that identity theft poses to, especially, younger scholars, who can be discredited by what appears under their hijacked name.
“Consider the case where such an article advances a controversial perspective on a sensitive topic related, for example, to race, gender, and religion,” they write.
Equally problematic is the case of the young scholar whose name was hijacked for an article in a field rather distant from his. This has left him concerned that others would conclude that his research lacks focus and quality.
Since a couple of hundred dollars bilked from an unsuspecting scholar doesn’t seem to justify going to all the trouble to create a believable fake journal, how do these academic fraudsters make money?
Putting on his informatics professor’s hat, Müller explains: “With today’s technology, it’s fairly easy to scale these operations upwards. You are right about US$200, US$300 or even US$400 for one publication. But if they’re in it for the money, and I suspect they are, you can scale upwards and so we’re talking about 1,000 publications and then we’re talking big money.
“If we look at one fraudulent website since the beginning of the year, they have now published well over 100 papers. I stopped counting at 100.”
For her part, Professor Anna Ablinka, a research fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin (Germany) and author of a number of papers on predatory journals and an upcoming one on hijacked journals, says that, as is the case with predatory journals, we don’t know who actually organises the cloned websites.
“I know of several networks originating in India, Pakistan and some ex-Soviet countries. They have different business models, but in any case, they charge for a paper before publication,” she said.
“But if you look at the papers published, you will see that they publish hundreds of papers within several months. It’s hard to get this kind of number of submissions. In this case, they have so high a number of submissions because they collaborate – and I have evidence of this – with brokerage companies and paper mills,” she added.
Ablinka has a screenshot from one hijacked journal offering immediate publication of papers and showing the price per paper: one costs €200 (US$216) and €50 each for 100 papers.
“This is how they work, how they increase submissions [that is, entice scholars to submit their papers], because they know that they won’t be working for a long period of time. After scholars learn about the problem [that is, that the journal is fraudulent], they stop sending submissions,” she said.
Lack of policing
Müller and Sæbø hold out little hope that law enforcement authorities will solve the journal hijacking problem. The world’s largest enforcement agency, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, they note, has an estimated enforcement rate of 0.3%.
In 2022, it received 800,944 complaints for US$10.3 billion in alleged losses. In Europe, despite a number of treaties on cybercrime, “differences among national legal frameworks present serious challenges to international criminal investigation and prosecution of cybercrime … The lack of a legal basis for enforcement actions makes it difficult to stop hijacked journals from operating”, they write.
What efforts there are, Müller and Sæbø liken to the child’s game ‘whack-a-mole’, meaning that if the authorities close down a hijacked journal on a server in country A, it reappears, perhaps with a slightly different name, on a server in country B.
In the absence of effective policing by platforms such as Scopus, domain registries, internet payment services and governments, Müller and Sæbø end their paper with a call for academics and academe writ large to arm themselves.
One defensive strategy is to raise awareness of hijacking and its costs, and for academics and other officials to check journals against the list of hijacked journals maintained by Retraction Watch. Additionally, they call for the AIS to distribute information on predatory publishing practices including journal hijacking and to repudiate any and all forms of predatory publishing practices.
Further, academics should consider auditing publications that claim to be peer-reviewed to ensure that they, in fact, are. Universities and their libraries should “pressure Scopus and other platforms and databases to ensure that the information they provide is valid and trustworthy”, they say.
Finally, these experts in computer systems argue it is possible to “reverse-hijack a website that illegitimately pretends to be the official online presence of a journal”.
Regarding this and the ethical issues that arise from such actions, Müller said: “The absence of effective internet governance mechanisms results in cybercriminals operating with impunity. Consequently, we, as a scientific community, are left to fend for ourselves in terms of predatory publishing practices, such as journal hijacking.
“Hence, it is time to discuss and consider the implementation of more assertive measures and aggressive strategies to address the issue and deter criminals from operating within the realm of scientific journals. These strategies may go beyond ethical hacking, to unveil and disrupt criminal enterprises, forcing us to re-examine ethical standards for acceptable academic conduct.”