When Is a “Journal” Not Really a Journal?

Have you heard about “predatory” journals, also known as fake journals, sham journals, scam journals, and pseudo-journals? Are you wondering what their tactics are and how to avoid them? Read on!*

Think Check Submit logoWhat are they? Fake journals are shady for-profit publishing operations that solicit manuscripts for inclusion in journal-like objects. I use the term “journal-like” because they misrepresent their review process, fraudulently claiming to employ peer review. Because of this deceit, they cannot be considered real academic journals, despite the fact that they consist of real (albeit non-refereed) articles.

Why do they exist? Fake journals exist for the sole purpose of profit, not the dissemination of high-quality research findings and furtherance of knowledge. They typically generate profits by charging author-side fees (often called article processing charges, or APCs) that far exceed the cost of running their low-quality, deceitful operations.

An author-side fee is not itself a red flag. Many reputable open access journals use APCs to cover costs, especially in fields where research is often funded by grants. Many subscription-based journals also charge fees, sometimes per page or illustration. However, fake journals are primarily fee-collecting operations that disseminate articles only to maintain their publisher-like appearance.

Low-quality publishing is not new. There have long been opportunistic publishers (e.g., vanity presses and sellers of public domain content) and deceptive publishing practices (e.g., advertisements formatted to look like articles). Quality concerns are not unique to open access journals; there are many mediocre subscription-based journals as well. Further, even respected journals sometimes accept deeply problematic submissions, some of which need to be retracted.

Not all low-quality publishers are ill-intentioned. Some intend to deceive visitors and defraud authors. Others are honest but amateurish, either unaware of best practices or unable to adhere to them.

To protect yourself, inform yourself. Research and evaluate any unfamiliar journal you’re thinking about submitting to. Evaluate the quality of the articles it has published. Investigate its editors’ affiliations, peer review process, copyright policy, and fees. Transparency is paramount: be suspicious of any publication that is not transparent and honest on these matters.

Beware of email solicitations! Fake publishers are famous for spamming academics with poorly written enticements to submit manuscripts. These messages often include flattery and claims of familiarity with the recipient’s work. Also, they often include promises about super-fast peer review. Recently, some fake publishers have started to send faux “reminder” emails, hoping to fool recipients into thinking they have some kind of existing relationship with the publisher. Reputable publishers do not spam researchers with pseudo-personal emails. In general, they broadly disseminate calls for papers instead. (Some journals invite specific people, usually established researchers, to submit articles, but these invitations are very different in content and tone from mass solicitations. If you’re ever not sure if an invitation should be trusted, spend some time researching the journal!)

Unsure how to evaluate a journal? There are many journal characteristics you could consider, but the website Think. Check. Submit. walks you through some of the most important and determinative questions to ask yourself when investigating a journal.

What about conference organizers and book publishers? 

  • Think Check Attend logoThere are also scam conference organizers that employ many of the same tactics as scam journals. The website Think. Check. Attend. can help you determine if a given conference is a good venue for you and your career.
  • There may also be scam book publishers lurking in your inbox, especially if you recently completed your master’s or doctoral degree. Be suspicious of offers from book publishers you haven’t heard of — in particular, beware of offers to publish your thesis or dissertation as-is, without an extensive review and revision process. Reputable publishers do not publish unrevised theses and dissertations, and publishing with a book mill will damage your chances of later publishing with a reputable press. (Learn about one notorious pseudo-publisher, Lambert Academic Publishing, in this article from Slate.)

Need some good news? The good news is that while your spam filter may never catch all solicitations from scam publishers, you have everything you need in order to avoid falling into their traps: awareness of the issue, robust critical thinking skills, and librarians ready and able to help you evaluate any publishers you’re unsure about!

* This blog post is excerpted/adapted from: Berger, Monica, and Jill Cirasella. “Beyond Beall’s List: Better Understanding Predatory Publishers.” College & Research Libraries News 76.3 (2015): 132-135. https://academicworks.cuny.edu/gc_pubs/70/

About the Author

Jill Cirasella is the Associate Librarian for Public Services and Scholarly Communication at the Graduate Center, CUNY.