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Prey tell, what makes a publisher predatory?

My first experience with a predatory publisher happened long before I became a scientist. I was in high school, and one Sunday, the entire back page of my local newspaper’s comic section had been replaced by a gigantic advertisement for a children’s poetry contest. Initially annoyed that the ad had displaced a whole page of comics—then even more annoyed that it had spared Marmaduke—I nonetheless submitted a handful of poems to the contest.

A few weeks later, an envelope arrived in the mail. I had won! And one of my poems (hmm, they didn’t specify which) had not only been accepted, it had been named an “Editor’s Pick”! In fact, I could receive my very own handsomely bound copy of their anthology to commemorate this prestigious honor … if I mailed them a check or money order for $44.95.

Aw, come on.

I may have been 17, but I wasn’t stupid—at least not when it came to people trying to sell me things. After all, I had been raised on infomercials. For those of you too young to have experienced infomercials, they were basically half-hour advertisements disguised as talk shows, often hosted by a man named Mike Levey in a colorful sweater. Yes, kids, pre-streaming Netflix, pre-YouTube, we often watched lengthy demonstrations of gimmicky products like the Juice Tiger or the Topsy Tail simply because nothing else was on.

Thanks to a childhood of but-wait-there’s-more, I had become aware that everyone, everywhere wanted to sell me something, and resisting their efforts would be an uphill but necessary battle. The poetry anthology, though, was new. It couldn’t rotisserie a chicken or cut hair with a vacuum. It was my own work sold back to me, along with the flattery that I had, via creative genius, qualified for the enviable opportunity to be their customer. I warily added the occurrence to my growing list of potential swindles—worse than the Home Shopping Network, which at least offered actual products, but a notch better than Columbia House’s eight CDs for a penny introductory offer that disguised its subscription trap.

This is why, when I started to encounter predatory publishers as a scientist—you know, the emails that greet you with much warmth and little grammar, inviting you to submit your work to their esteemed family of publications—I smelled the scam a mile away. Really, you consider me “a leader in my field”? And the publication of my research is “a matter of some urgency”? Clearly you don’t know me or my research.

Predatory publishers seemed more ludicrous, however, than treacherous. Sure, some scientists probably fall for the scams, but I assumed most roll their eyes, delete the emails, and waste very little mental energy on them. So when I recently asked on social media whether any scientists had stories to share about their own forays into the world of bogus journals, the responses surprised me.

As soon as respondents started naming-and-shaming publishers, others jumped in to defend them, insisting that while some journals engage in unethical practice, this one is legitimate; it’s just underresourced. Sure, the email solicitation and review process may raise red flags, but only to half-mast. It turns out “predatory” can be a spectrum, and one person’s “predatory” is another person’s “hey, they’re trying.”

I hadn’t foreseen this angle—the idea that calling out predatory journals is important to protect scientists from scams, but that calling a low-impact journal predatory is an unwarranted insult. In fact, it could even be seen as a form of elitism, saying that you would never publish in that rinky-dink little rag, so it must be disreputable.

The experience also reminded me that many early-career researchers don’t really know much about how publishing works. Sure, they know that publishing research articles is important, and they may have even coauthored a few—but a lot of us are never really taught the details of publishers’ business models and how journals review manuscripts. So in case you’re new to publishing your research, and you want to know not only whether a journal is predatory, but how predatory, here are some factors to consider.

In an ideal world, rigorous peer review protects us from disseminating substandard work. Predatory journals, however, are known for their shoddy peer review, which I picture as a single disinterested cartoon figure shrugging their shoulders and saying “meh,” then dropping the manuscript on a tall stack in a tray marked “Accept Without Edits.”

Peer review is important, and a perfunctory or nonexistent review undermines the point of publishing. Then again, if you’ve ever had a paper rejected, you probably found yourself wishing that the peer review was a little more perfunctory or a little less existent. Overly pedantic peer review can block good research from publication. So while a rubber-stamp review can be a sign of a predatory publisher, it could also potentially mean—unlikely, I know—that your science is sound and your paper is well-written and worthy of being published as-is.

The financial aspect of publishing also has more gray area than you might expect. If a predatory publisher’s business model is to take authors’ money in exchange for publishing their work, you might think that any journal asking its authors for money is a bad, bad journal. But take a look at the economics of most scientific journals. Many legitimate publishers charge authors page fees, color figure fees, and open access fees. Whether these fees make sense is a whole separate topic, but their mere existence means that defining a journal as predatory can’t be as simple as, “They accepted my work, then sent me a bill.”

But even along this spectrum of predation, some behaviors are clearly problematic. If a journal lists its editorial board or reviewers and it turns out those people don’t even know they’ve been listed, that’s a problem. Or when a journal misleads you about its impact factor, or publishes the papers of duped academics alongside nonsense, or forms codependent relationships with scientists who only publish there to inflate their CVs and citation counts—these behaviors can’t be waved away as well-intentioned failings of a genuine yet impoverished publication.

Luckily, you don’t always have to fully investigate each journal that solicits your work. Various lists of predatory publishers and journals are out there for you to reference. The lists don’t always agree with each other, but they’re close.

So next time a random email offers you the great honor of publishing in their amazing journal, resist the flattery and do a little research on behalf of your research. Make sure you know a bit about the journals you’re hoping to list on your CV for the rest of your career.

And avoid any place that publishes pointless trash. I’m looking at you, Marmaduke.

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