Predators and Prey in Publishing

DEAR LABBY: I’m a mid-career faculty member in a biology department at a large public university. Our department has been fortunate to recruit some really promising new assistant professors within the last few years. I try to check in on the new cell biologists on a fairly regular basis, to see how things are going, usually over lunch off campus.

At a recent meeting, one of the more anxious recent hires told me about the pressure he feels to publish, especially as his last annual review suggested he needed to step things up. He told me he’d just had a paper published, although I could tell from his body language that he wasn’t very happy about the journal. I was surprised that I’d never heard of the journal since we work in fairly similar areas, and when I looked it up I was shocked by the kind of work they were publishing. I’ve read a few stories about so-called “predatory journals,” and I’m concerned that he seems to have fallen into this trap. What advice do you have to prevent this from happening to other colleagues?

—Alert Mentor

DEAR Alert: You’ve raised an important issue. Several factors have created opportunities for the predatory journals you describe. About 2.5 million English-language articles are published every year, and that number increases by 3%–7% every year. Over 96% of journals in science and technology are now online. In addition, many new journals use the open access model, in which content is freely available and the costs of publication are supported in other ways, including the payment of a publication fee by the authors.

Open access publication has many benefits, but like most good things, it attracts bad actors who have found ways to profit from this new model. By one estimate there are about 8,000 predatory journals that publish more than 400,000 articles every year!1 These journals do not have any semblance of peer review, they sometimes list impressive but completely fake editorial boards, and they accept essentially everything sent to them, even submissions that fail to meet even minimal scientific standards.

It’s easy to understand why scientific publishing has attracted bad actors ready to exploit scientists. Whereas the cost to set up one of these “journals” is minimal—all you need is a website and an email account—there is plenty of money to be made from authors’ fees. There’s no need to bother with expensive peer review. Publishing real science in these venues is, simply put, a waste. Labby fears that your colleague is likely to find that funding agencies and tenure committees don’t place any value on this publication and that he’s lost the ability to include the data in a publication in a respectable journal. 

So how can scientists guard against the predators? Labby’s first rule of thumb is to send papers only to journals that Labby reads and finds to be reliable sources of good science (naturally, at this point, Labby’s list includes quite a few online open access journals). Are people you know and respect on the editorial board of journals you are considering? If the journal is new to you, reach out to the editorial board member and ask about it. Is the journal indexed in Medline? If it is, that’s a good indication that it’s a bona fide publication. If it isn’t, it may be a good new journal that just hasn’t published long enough to be eligible for listing, but you’ll probably want to do some more checking. A good resource is the Directory of Open Access Journals, which uses “Principles of Transparency in Scientific Publication” to review open access journals and lists those that adhere to these principles on its website. 

Finally, Labby commends you for going out of your way to help mentor your junior colleagues and hopes they will follow your example. 


1Cenyu Shen C, Björk B-C (2015). ‘Predatory’ open access: a longitudinal study of article volumes and market characteristics. BMC Medicine 13, 230.

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