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What do we mean by the term 'predatory publisher'?

So-called predatory publishers are a growing phenomenon in the world of academic publishing. There is no one standard definition of what constitutes a predatory publisher but generally they are those publishers who charge a fee for the publication of material without providing the publication services an author would expect such as peer review and editing. Missing out on these important steps can undermine the final product and perpetuates bad research in general and exploits the Open Access publishing model.

Predatory publishers typically contact potential authors directly via email to offer their services and encourage publication with many starting to branch out into offering academic conferences. To the researcher eager to make an impact with their work these can seem like very tempting offers but they often come with little academic reward.

Are they really a problem?

It depends on the motivations for publishing. Traditionally these include enhancing the reputation and visibility of the author and securing recognition for the work that has been done. Predatory publishers rarely enhance reputations and in extreme cases may result in lasting damage. Even if the individual research is sound there is little to be gained by having it sit alongside research that is substandard or even wrong. Publishing with these publishers often entails signing away copyright which means that authors lose the right to publish elsewhere.

However, there is an argument that these publishing models fulfil a genuine need as different reward systems leading to different behaviours.

Checklist of things to watch out for

For those concerned about the issue of predatory publishing there are number of factors that can be used to assess an individual publisher. Please note: none of these factors should be taken in isolation but used alongside good judgement.

  • Association membership – if a journal claims to be supporting Open Access then check if it is a member of either the Open Access Scholarly Publishers’ Association (OASPA) or the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). It’s also worth checking if they belong to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) which maintains a code of conduct for publishers.
  • Transparency – a good publisher will be open about their practices with contact information and a mission statement easily found on their website. Check the sending address of any emails carefully and look for spelling or grammatical mistakes but be aware of cultural differences that may explain overly formal language. Exercise caution if the publisher appears to focus on a huge range of topics as this may indicate a for-profit rather than for-research approach
  • Indexing – appearing in typical indexes and databases for their associated discipline is a good sign for a publisher. However remember that there may be perfectly valid reasons why a particular journal is not indexed such as being very niche or new. Authors could also try searching for other titles from the same publisher to overcome this problem.
  • Quality of previous publications – assessing previous output from the publisher in question may give an idea of the academic quality of the publication. Check for basic mistakes in spelling or grammar in the work which may indicate a lack of peer review.
  • Fees – any author fees should be clearly explained prior to publication and be easily accessible to potential authors. Be wary of any ‘hidden’ fees which are raised during the publication process.
  • Copyright – if the publisher claims to operate under an Open Access model then check whether a Creative Commons of other type of open licence is being applied. The publisher should also be upfront about the rights the author will retain after publication. It is the author’s responsibility to check that these don’t conflict with any funder mandates.
  • Peer review - the process of the individual journal should be clearly highlighted and guidelines for both authors and reviewers should be easily accessible. Beware of the promise of fast peer review periods as this may indicate a less than through process.
  • Editorial board – members should be listed, along with a named Editor in Chief. Authors should consider if the names mentioned are recognised experts in the field the publisher is covering. It may also be worth checking the web presence of some members to see if their membership is mentioned elsewhere.
  • Website quality – check if the website looks professional but be aware of cultural differences. What may look sophisticated to someone from a large UK university may be out of reach of a smaller publisher in another country.

Above all - trust your judgement!

If something doesn’t feel right with the publisher then further investigation is needed. Think of the publishing process as you would online shopping and exercise similar levels of caution – if an online store looks unreliable you are less likely to give them your credit card details until you have investigated further.

Further help and resources

The following websites will help to make you to make an informed decision on where to publish:

Think, Check, Submit

Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)

Open Access Scholarly Publishers’ Association (OASPA)

Webinar

As part of Open Access week the OSC gave a webinar on How to Spot a Predatory Publisher. The recording can be accessed here.