N

ot long ago, Marilyn Oermann, a professor of nursing at Duke University, got an alarming email from a colleague.

The researcher in question had submitted an article to a scientific journal. Within 48 hours, she’d received a PDF of the proofs of her manuscript. No probing questions from the editor. No peer review. Just the paper, laid out and ready for publication — along with a bill for a few hundred bucks.

“She knew right away that that was a predatory journal,” said Oermann, who has done research on these kinds of shoddy publishing operations. “I told her to email saying she wasn’t going to pay the amount, and that she wanted to withdraw the article.”

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The colleague sent the message. But the journal’s response was damning: If the researcher wanted to stop the presses, she’d have to pay up.

This kind of “predatory” publishing has generally been considered a trap for scholars in the developing world — so much so that in one famous counter-trap, a science reporter “created hundreds of very similar but fake papers from fake African scientists” to test how well journals vetted submissions. But it turns out predatory publishers aren’t just tricking researchers in Lagos and Hyderabad; they’re also ensnaring scientists at Harvard and the Mayo Clinic.

In fact, a new analysis of 1,907 articles published in potentially predatory journals finds that 15 percent of them came from the United States. The only country with a greater number of submissions was India. And while almost three-quarters of the papers failed to report any funding sources at all, of those that did, the most common was the National Institutes of Health.

“If they publish in a predatory journal, it’s not going to be disseminated or used. It’s wasteful,” said Kelly Cobey, a researcher at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, and one of 32 authors of the paper, which was published Wednesday in Nature.

The trouble is that it isn’t always easy to tell which journals are “predatory.”

The term was first coined by Jeffrey Beall, a research librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver. “It started when I was on tenure track in the last decade, and I started to receive these spam emails,” he told STAT. “They were for journals I’d never heard of before.”

When he started to look into where they were coming from, he found that they were scams masquerading as open-access journals. With legitimate open-access journals, researchers pay a fee to cover the costs of publishing so that readers everywhere are able to peruse the article for free.

But just as the Venus fly trap uses a food-like smell to lure insects, so predatory journals uses the trappings of open access to get money from unsuspecting or desperate researchers without providing services in return. Their names mimic those of widely accepted scientific publications. Sometimes the only difference is an ampersand instead of an “and,” or a single “s” added on to a word. Most of them claim to provide good editing and do serious peer review. But experts say that simply isn’t true.

That creates the potential for two contradictory problems: On the one hand, serious research could go unread and uncited, because these journals don’t submit their contents to the indexes used by academic libraries. On the other, bad research makes its way onto sites like Google Scholar, and might be used by other unsuspecting scientists.

So Beall began to curate a blog of journals and publishers that seemed predatory. Even though he took it down earlier this year, citing pressure from his university, its pages remain archived in the fossil layer of the internet — and that’s what the team from the Ottawa Hospital used as a jumping-off point for their study.

Scientists ensnared

Researchers began with 3,702 articles from some 92 potentially predatory publishers, winnowing that down to the 1,907 papers that were either systematic reviews or primary biomedical studies, rather than comments or opinion pieces.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that a relatively small number of those papers fully reported methods used, clinical trial registration numbers, or approvals from ethics committees. The authors recognize that these are widespread issues in more mainstream journals as well — but when they compared their numbers to previous studies of well-respected publishers, those failures were much more common among the journals on Beall’s list.

(Beall’s list is a controversial document — as Cobey points out, “curated by just himself, a single individual, and his criteria … weren’t necessarily completely transparent.” But it remains the most authoritative listing of these publishers that scientists generally have.)

It might be shocking that vaunted American institutions were represented in this dubious sample. But their numbers were relatively small. Of the 1,907 papers examined, nine came from Harvard, while 11 came from the University of Texas across its many campuses, and eight came from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

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The next question was why: Were researchers tricked, or did they submit to these journals as a form of CV-padding? The team emailed authors and universities to try to figure out. Some universities in Egypt, Nigeria, and India responded to say that this was a problem they were trying to address. But many institutions and authors seemed unaware of the risks posed by these shady operations. Of the 18 researchers who responded, three asked for educational materials about predatory journals. Seven reported that they had been guided to submit to these journals — a sign that there is still a worldwide lack of education about this issue.

That’s a problem that other scientists have noticed, too, and would like to see fixed. “It’s something that you encounter after you’ve published your first article: You start to receive unsolicited requests for manuscripts,” said Jimmy Gonzalez, a clinical assistant professor at Western New England University.

“We wouldn’t want what we’re doing to damage public trust in science,” Cobey said. “But the way we see it is, we are trying uphold standards.”

Turns out that’s needed both in the developing world, but also in the highest reaches of America’s ivory tower.

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