Straight Talk: Predatory Publishers

By Steven E. Nissen, MD

If you are an academic author, you probably receive many email invitations from a series of "open-access" journals prompting you to submit journal articles for publication. They may even offer to add you to the journal's editorial board. Many invite submission to journals completely outside your field of interest. I have been routinely solicited to submit articles on forestry, nanotechnology, and animal husbandry. In a new twist, academicians are also now receiving invitations to speak at conferences sponsored by open-access publishers, often with lofty sounding conference names. As many physicians have found out the hard way, these invitations have a dark and perverse purpose, but first I'd like to review the positive aspects of open-access publishing.

During the last 2 decades, the movement toward "open-access" journals has enjoyed tremendous success, now comprising as many as 20% of the scholarly manuscripts published each year. Simply defined, open-access publishing consists of journals that post manuscripts on the Internet with unrestricted access to content by anyone interested in reading the article. Many of these journals do not accept advertising and support the cost of publication through modest user fees paid by authors if their manuscript is accepted. Some open-access journals receive support from institutional subscribers or foundations, while others accept some advertising. A number of open-access publishers have enjoyed outstanding success, including the Public Library of Science (PLoS) journals, which are highly respected.

The rationale for open access is based on the principle that scientific advancements belong in the public domain, particularly when so much research is publically funded through the National Institute of Health (NIH) or other government agencies. Logically, if the public pays for this research through taxes, everyone should have access to the findings.

It can also be argued that science progresses more rapidly when there is free exchange of ideas among all members of the scientific community, not merely those who chose to subscribe to a specific journal. Researchers also benefit because their scientific work is made available to the entire community within their field of interest. Congress joined this movement through legislation that now mandates open access to journal articles for NIH-funded studies.

However, like any good idea, there are always unscrupulous individuals who stand ready to capitalize on the concept for nefarious purposes. That's happening now through the proliferation of open-access journals widely described as "predatory" because they lure unsuspecting authors into submitting journal articles, which are barely reviewed and rapidly accepted for publication. After acceptance, the author gets a big surprise: an invoice for payment typically amounting to several thousands of dollars.1 This problem has accelerated in recent years to the point where nearly every scientific author is bombarded by spam email invites from these predators. The journals often have lofty and seemingly impressive titles, sometimes designed to mimic the title of an actual scholarly journal, such as The Open Atherosclerosis and Thrombosis Journal published by a notorious predatory publisher Bentham Sciences Group based in the United Arab Emirates.

In 2009, New Scientist magazine reported on a hoax designed to test the legitimacy of the Bentham journals.2 Phillip Davis, a graduate student at Cornell University, used a computer program designed to generate nonsensical science papers.3 The manuscript, titled "Deconstructing Access Points," was complete gibberish. As reported by New Scientist, it contained the following sentences:

    In this section, we discuss existing research into red-black trees, vacuum tubes, and courseware [10]. On a similar note, recent work by Takahashi suggests a methodology for providing robust modalities, but does not offer an implementation [9].

This manuscript was accepted by the Open Information Sciences Journal of Bentham and the author subsequently received a bill for payment to a post office box in the United Arab Emirates. In submitting the article Dr. Davis and colleagues listed their affiliation as the Center for Research in Applied Phrenology (CRAP).

As funny as this incident seems, we must take the problem of predatory publishers seriously. The existence of such journals undermines the legitimacy of scholarly scientific activity and corrupts the intent of the peer-review process. What enables predatory publishers is the vanity of scientific authors and scientists' desire for promotion. In a "publish or perish" environment, the lure of fattening curriculum vitae with publications in these fake journals can be seductive. Adding a few "pay-to-play" journal articles can make a marginal CV look more impressive to a tenure and promotions committee; unless, of course, the committee members are savvy enough to thoroughly assess the credibility of the journal. Since many promotion committee members come from a different field, they can be fooled by the impressive sounding names of these predatory journals.

What can thoughtful physicians do to protect themselves from these predators? Librarian Jeffrey Beall, a hero in the effort to expose predatory publishers, posts an updated list of these publishers and their hundreds of journals, which is frequently updated.4 Some estimates suggest that there are 4,000 predatory journals. Before you respond to an invitation to write for a journal, lecture at a conference, or serve on an editorial board, cross-check it with this list. Don't try to get off the spam list of predators, these publishers routinely ignore unsubscribe requests and simply intensify their emails onslaught once they know that you are receiving them.


1. Kolata G. "Scientific Articles Accepted (Personal Checks, Too)." The New York Times. 2013 April 8.
2. Aldhous P. "CRAP Paper Accepted by Journal." New Scientist.
3. SCIGen – An Automatic CS Paper Generator.
4. Beall J. "Beall's List of Predatory Publishers 2013."

Steven E. Nissen, MD, is Chair of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic and co-author of Heart411: The Only Guide to Heart Health You'll Ever Need.

Keywords: Phrenology, Public Sector, Access to Information, Committee Membership, Publishing, Universities, Government Agencies, Research

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