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The precarious prevalence of predatory journals

  • Cartoon : Manisha Mallick
    Cartoon : Manisha Mallick

Earlier this month, we erred. Among the 1000+ articles published on Research Matters, it was the first for us. An alert reader expressed displeasure on Twitter with a hashtag #fakescience on one of our stories. Alarmed, we investigated to note that the story was based on a research paper published in a journal listed as ‘predatory’, and with that, found a lot more about the prevalence of ‘predatory’ journals that hound the world of science. Needless to say, we took down the said story with a note, apologised to our readers, and notified the concerned researchers and the institution in this regard.

While one can brush it off as an “oversight” or a “mistake”, we do not want to. We instead want to talk about the mistake. Not because it is glorious, but because we, or for that matter, none, should ever repeat this; for the benefit of science, and for the good of all. With this, we want to have a dialogue with our fellow science communicators, academicians, researchers and general readers on the predatory nature of journals that is indeed a threat. And, we also want to present some learnings we have had from this episode.

Typically, we apply some filters while screening for published research that we would like to write about – these include works published in high-impact journals or something that is socially relevant. We also trust that faculty from some our leading institutions are publishing in ‘good’ journals. Yet, in this case, we slipped, calling for refining the process and adding an extra layer of filter to screen for ‘predatory’ journals.

What are predatory journals?

Aswathi Pacha has an article in The Hindu on ‘What is a predatory journal?’ One of the characteristics of a predatory journal is that they may not have a sound ‘peer-review’ system, and worse, may not have an editorial board altogether! Even if they indicate an editorial board, it may not be real -- the names on the editorial board would be listed without the said academicians’ consent! Obviously, the quality of such journals and the research published in them will be questionable. And to make things worse, the journal publisher would ask for a ‘fee’ to publish any research, citing that they are ‘open access’.

So, are all ‘open access’ journals questionable? Not all, indeed! There are instances where some of the best research are published in open access journals -- free for all to read and access. But, it is here that some due diligence by the concerned researcher can come a long way. His or her discretion on where to publish among the millions of journals available, is worth asking. Some well-known publishers like Elsevier, Springer, Taylor and Francis, Pion, etc. are of repute and are respected across. There are also academies or societies who publish journals, like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Indian Academy of Science, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Royal Society, etc. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list! Further, it would be good to check if the journal is indexed in the either of the leading citation index service – Web of Science (now by Clarivate Analytics) or Scopus (by Elsevier).

Peer-review -- The hallmark of quality

A critical component of the peer-review system is to ensure that a scientific or research output that is being communicated (or submitted for publication) follows the rigour established by the scientific enterprise and that it is bringing out some new dimension to the body of knowledge not known earlier. And hence, the quality of editorial board and that of the reviewers chosen by the board attempts to ensure that the research published are of certain ‘quality’. The top journals seem to be holding the bar high, and that often results in higher impact factor for the journal too.

An ideal approach to decide where to publish would be in those journals where some of the established names are already publishing. Typically, in such journals, the peer review system would help improve the quality of research, and thus benefit all. But, that may not guarantee a publication immediately. However, for some researchers who are in the ‘race’ for having publications, either mandated by the administration or because of peer-pressure, the need to ‘publish’ supersedes the ‘quality’ of the journal chosen. This urge provides a niche, and it is here that numerous predatory journals have emerged – with no peer review, offer of open access and a fee for publication.

Now, without the expected checks and balances, any research published in a ‘predatory’ journal, no matter how good it is, will affect science. While rising suspicion on the research on its own, it can also pave way for mediocre or even fake / fabricated research being published. The emergence of fabricated research can derail science, and can hurt the research fraternity at large. Peer-reviews, as a matter of fact, are established to tackle this, and takes the stage established and practiced by some of the leading journals.

The academia's battle against predatory journals

In India, the University Grants Commission is a statutory body under the Ministry of Human Resources Development, who is in charge of regulating universities. It stipulates the criteria for recruitment of faculty and their promotions in universities. In all these, number of publications has become a central criterion that can make or break someone’s research career. This metric,  has led numerous researchers attempting to publish and often fall prey to ‘predatory’ journals. While the intended guideline of ‘publish or perish’ may be meaningful, it has led to undesirable and unintended consequences.  

In response to the concerns raised by leading academicians, letters by researchers and by the popular media, the UGC has now come up with an “Approved List of Journals” citing a certain criteria and methodology followed while listing the journals. R. Prasad of The Hindu has been vocal and vehemently tracking this for a while. He notes that despite the above criteria and methodology, there are 111 predatory journals listed in UGC list.

An unsuspecting researcher can also fall prey to a predatory journal as well. In any case, it is crucial that researchers take precautions on the choice of journal. Apart from the ‘approved’ list that is now questionable, it is best to check if the journal is listed as a questionable or predatory by either one of the following lists:

  1. The most popular one has been Beall’s list. The current one is here: https://beallslist.weebly.com/ after Beall had to take his list down following an unpleasant development (of harassment and threats).
  2. The Knowledge Resource Division of CSIR-SERC has also maintained a list here: http://krd.serc.res.in/predatory-publishers-and-journals/
  3.  An independent and anonymous group’s website here: https://predatoryjournals.com/journals/

Ultimately, for science / research to prosper, it is crucial that some of the norms and rigour established over a century are followed, and ensure that this is not diluted. Publishing in a predatory journal may not be beneficial either for science, or the society. As Dr. Mukund Thattai from NCBS puts it, don’t let a flawed experiment kill a good idea.  However, the prevalence of such journals should also not dissuade a researcher from publishing their research in the first place. For us, who are trying to communicate science, the above lists now operate as another layer of filter to ensure that we are not writing about questionable research.