Beware of predatory publishers bearing gifts

BY HANNELORE VANHAVERBEKE. Predatory journals will publish any scientific article, as long as you are willing to pay a large fee for it. But how can you tell the difference between an ethical journal and a predatory one?

Written by Hannelore Vanhaverbeke. An archaeologist by training, Hannelore joined the Research Coordination Office in 2011 where she heads the Data Managament en Analysis Unit. She drafts policy advice on and provides support in research assessments, scholarly communication (Open Access, Research Data Management) and open science

Hannelore Vanhaverbeke

Those amongst us who were not debilitated by the excessive heat last summer and had the stamina to follow the news, have probably seen the articles dealing with predatory journals (‘rooftijdschriften’) in e.g. De Morgen or De Standaard.

Predatory journals predate on researchers looking for a channel to publish their research findings. Although these kinds of journals have always existed, the advent and promotion (obligation) of Open Access publishing has proven to be a fertile breeding ground. To understand the parasitic relation between both, predatory publishers and Open Access, a crash course in Open Access publishing is warranted.

In the traditional, non-Open Access, publishing model the reader (‘the consumer of content’) pays for access by buying a book, paying for a journal subscription or adding an online article to a shopping cart, thus providing publishers with the financial means to support (and expand) their business. It is obvious that the more financial means you have, the more (access to) scientific publications you can acquire. This is the so-called subscription-based model.

Open Access aims for the removal of barriers of access to publications. Everyone, regardless of background, location or financial means, should be able to access research results. In fact, Open Access not only wants to ensure access, it also implies that you can reuse and remix the content of publications, subject to proper attribution of authorship. This is not only a matter of fairness. Open Access has clear economic benefits and can lead to increased visibility of research(ers).

For this Open Access model to become reality, publishers need to transform their traditional business model. The income generated from selling content to readers must be replaced by an alternative stream of revenue. In comes the APCs and BPCs. Article Processing Charges (APCs), or Book Processing Charges (BPC) are the fees the authors pay to the publishers to make the article or the book accessible online immediately upon publication. In Open Access publishing, the readers do not pay to read content, the authors pay an APC/BPC for this content to be freely available to readers.

The expectation voiced in the 2015 Max Planck White Paper was that publishers would see the rationale behind Open Access and ‘transition’ to full Open Access, replacing the subscription-based model by the APC/BPC-model since, as the authors of the paper calculated, the transition could be done without extra costs – in other words, the transition to Open Access is a zero sum game to traditional publishers. Extra investments required to support Open Access, such as the set-up of an Open Access platform, are balanced by decreased or even obsolete costs specific to traditional publishing, such as the cost of printing. Theoretically, publishers will not incur more costs by switching to Open Access

However, as a famous Belgian writer wrote, “between dreams and deeds you’ll find laws and practical objections”.

The crux of the matter is thus: There is money to be made in publishing. A lot of money. Commercial publishers are companies. Their drive is not a zero sum game, but an increase in returns. The large variation in APCs, ranging from a ‘mere’ € 200 to well over € 6000 for the publication of one article, clearly shows that more is included than the costs for the digital platform, or the editing and dissemination of the article. Some publishers explicitly state what the APCs are used for – in some cases the income thus generated supports a waiver program for financially less well-endowed authors. In most cases, however, no explanation for the steep APCs is offered, although there seems to be a correlation between the APC and the journal’s impact factor. In the worst cases, authors are requested to pay an APC while the journal still receives its (additional) income from selling subscriptions, e.g. to research libraries. This is the hybrid Open Access model.

One step lower down the ladder of ethical publishing are the predatory publishers. They benefit from the fact that Open Access is mandated by many funders combined with the fact that rejection rates with some journals are high. Predatory publishers will accept any contribution as long as you are willing to pay the APC. They are extremely resourceful in attracting contributions. Their most common strategy is to contact researchers with an offer to publish your research that sounds too good to be true. The thing is, often the offer is too good to be true indeed.

But how do you know when you need to be cautious?

Go through the next questions (based on & adapted from Think. Check. Submit) when you are being contacted by a publisher. The more often you answer ‘no’ to a question, the louder the alarm bells should be ringing.

  • did you contact the publisher?
  • did you/your senior colleagues hear about this journal, publisher or media coverage?
  • did you/your senior colleagues publish in this journal, with this publisher or on this media platform?
  • do you/your senior colleagues know any of the editorial board members?
    is the publisher/service provider clearly mentioned with a contact address/email/phone number?
  • is peer review guaranteed and in what way?
  • are you provided with metrics that actually support the claim of better visibility/more impact (number of downloads, shares, citations, etc.)?
  • are these metrics ‘real’? Often reference is made to an impact factor of some kind, which is in most cases not the well-known impact factor provided in the Journal Citation Reports
  • for journals: is the journal listed on a ‘white list’ – rather than using a black list (as for example the now defunct Beall’s list)

When the bell sounds 5 times, seriously consider refusing the offer. Let this not be the bell that tolls for you.

Think. Check. Submit. from Think. Check. Submit. on Vimeo.

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(Cartoon: © KU Leuven – Joris Snaet)