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Understanding Predatory Publishers

This guide introduces the concept of predatory publishing and provides advice on how to identify a potential predatory publisher.

Types of Predators

Predatory publishers are distinguished by intentional acts that are meant to deceive or harm. They should not to be confused with legitimate publishers who offer honest services. The 'types' presented on this page are not exclusionary: it's possible for more than one to apply to a predatory operation.

Impostor/Hijacker

decorative Poses as a well-established journal or as a publication associated with a well-known brand or society.

WarningIdentifying characteristic: Intentionally misleading branding. These journals often tack on an extra word to an existing journal name such as "Advances", "Review" or " Reports" or create websites that appear to be affiliated with another publication.

Phisher

decorativeLures you in with promises then charges large fees after your paper has been accepted. Persistent phishers may demand payment even though no paperwork has been signed and no promises made.

WarningIdentifying characteristic: Publication fees are not clearly stated or easy to find; may aggressively recruit through emails and mailing lists.  

Papermill

decorativeMass production of shoddy work made to order, often through machine-learning or plagiarism. Unlike the other types of predators, papermills are meant to deceive readers and editors, not authors.

WarningIdentifying characteristic: Authorship is purchased. The authors may have little or no actual experience related to the subject being published; article text may be full of "tortured phrases" common in machine-learning written texts or appropriated from someone else's work..   

Trojan Horse

decorativeHas a legitimate and impressive looking website but upon closer inspection nothing is what it seems. The journals are empty shells or worse, populated by stolen, plagiarized, or gibberish articles

WarningIdentifying characteristic: Hard to identify. Publication history, frequency, and article quality should be examined.

Unicorn

decorativeToo good to be true! Unicorns claim to offer services -- fast peer review, indexing in databases, impact factors, etc. -- but don't deliver.

WarningIdentifying characteristic: Similar to the phisher but intentionally misleading about their services, not prices.

Identifying a Predator

As of 2022-11-09 "Warning signs" that reinforce global and academic inequities have been removed from this guide. You can read more about why this was done on the Resources, Disclaimers, Etc. page.

Warning Signs: Editors and Editorial/Review Boards

  • The publisher is listed as an editor across all its journals.
  • There is no editorial or review board or the review board is too small (varies). 
  • Editor and board member affiliation, qualifications, and or specialization is not disclosed.
  • Board members are fake or are listed without permission.

Warning Signs: Business Practices

  • Publication fees are not clearly stated or easy to locate. 
  • Websites are inadequately secured.
  • Has no plan to ensure content will remain available if the journal or publisher cease operation (i.e., no preservation plan).
  • Only publishes locked PDF files (this makes it difficult to analyze papers for plagiarism).
  • Does not provide adequate contact information.
  • Charges an open access publishing fee while also requiring transfer of copyright.¹ 
  • Solicits submissions through deceptive ('spam') marketing emails. 
  • The publisher does not have membership in publishing organizations, such as OASPA, ICMJE, or COPE, which have established ethical publishing guidelines and expectations.² 
¹ This one is a bit obtuse. One of the goals of open access is to reduce copyright and licensing restrictions to make scholarship easier to access and reuse - for authors and readers. By retaining copyright, authors are able to decide for themselves when and how their work can be re-issued or republished.
² Membership fees to OASPA start at $300/year which is fairly affordable. However, even this cost may not be affordable for the rare open access journal that does not charge publication fees and has no other sources of revenue. 

Warning Signs: Ethics and Integrity

  • Lacks adequate policies to prevent and address misconduct such as authorship disputes, conflicts of interest, copyright infringement, plagiarism, image manipulation, etc.
  • Journal names and/or branding is intentionally misleading.
    • Journal title and/or branding should not imply association with unrelated organizations, publishers, or journals.  
    • If a journal uses the name of a country or geographic region in its title then it should match the journal's scope and/or and physical location (e.g. Brazilian journals should be based in Brazil and/or focused on research done in, or about, Brazil).
  • Makes false claims about journal indexing or prestige indicators (e.g. indexing, impact measures, etc.).

Acknowledgements

The list of "warning signs" on this page was assembled by the author from multiple sources and her personal experience working with authors and open access licenses over the past nine years. Teixeira de Silva et al. (2022) was especially helpful in identifying problematic criteria often found on 'white' and 'black' lists.

About this guide

This guide is just that, a guide. Ultimately it is up to each author to make the final decision on where to publish and to decide what they expect from their publisher.


Megan N. O'Donnell authored this guide. It was originally written in 2016 and last updated on 2022-11-09. The graphic icons used on this guide are from icons8 which has kindly released their 100 px icons free of charge.

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Megan O'Donnell
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