Tips for Recognizing Predatory Publishers

Christina T. Loguidice is the editorial director of Annals of Long-Term Care and Clinical Geriatrics. She is also a medical and technical writer and a published author. 

You may have received emails in the past inviting you to submit an article to a particular journal or other entity for publication, but these days there is definitely a need for caution before proceeding. Although solicitation emails are often legitimate, as both subscriber-based and controlled-circulation (ie, supported by advertising) journals solicit articles for a variety of reasons, there has been an increase in a whole new breed of publisher: one that follows the dubious practice of soliciting articles and then charging unsuspecting authors hefty publication fees, often in the thousands of dollars, which were not previously disclosed. In addition, these articles often aren’t peer-reviewed, receive little editing, and, subsequently, flood the scholarly (and public) space with questionable literature.  

Now, charging authors to publish their works can fall under the completely legitimate publishing model of open access, which seeks to fuel scientific progress by making information readily available to everyone, not just subscribers or another select audience. This model arose as the Internet gained prominence and technology evolved to the point that it became possible to easily disseminate information. Of course, maintaining such platforms and preparing articles for publication takes time and money, necessitating the need for fees. The most reliable source of funding is from authors, and there are many open-access journals that are produced by reputable organizations that appear to put those fees to good use. Two that come to mind include the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and Hindawi, and Medline indexes some of their publications, so you’d hope that they’ve been properly scrutinized.

So, how do you discern the difference between a legitimate publisher and an operation that’s just out to make a quick buck? Here are a few things to consider:

(1) Legitimate open-access publishers are transparent about their fees, listing them directly on their Websites. But if you don’t see fees listed, don’t automatically assume that you’re dealing with a predatory publisher. Many controlled-circulation journals, like Clinical Geriatrics, also make articles readily available for everyone to access, but they don’t charge any publication processing fees.

(2) Assess any solicitation letters that you receive. Do they smack of spam? Do they appear to be auto-generated? Are they littered with poor English? All of these are red flags. Legitimate solicitation letters tend to be more personal. For example, they may note the reason that the article is being solicited, indicating something like “I saw your presentation at ABC meeting and I thought it might be a good topic for us to cover in XYZ journal” or “Dr. Smith, our editor-in-chief, wanted me to reach out to you to write an article on XYZ.” Generally, if a name is dropped in an email, it should be one you know or are at least familiar with, and there should be quite a bit of other detail as well, such as a link to author guidelines and a potential goal submission date. This often isn’t something you’ll find in solicitation emails from predatory publishers, as they’re not necessarily hungry to publish your work but are simply seeking to reel in as many targets as possible.

 (3) Don’t assume that a publication is legitimate just because it sounds that way. Some predatory publishers produce publications that sound very official, using terms like the “American Journal of…” or “International Publication for…” in the publication title. Some have even been so bold as to use modified titles of legitimate publications, such as by adding or removing hyphens or changing an “of” to “for.” So be sure to Google any publication’s title exactly as it appears in the solicitation letter—hyphens, prepositions, and all. 

(4) Look for contact information for the publication’s editor and send an email when in doubt. If you can’t readily find this information, that’s certainly a red flag. If you do find this information, ask the following: (1) Are authors charged any fees to have their articles reviewed, edited, or published; (2) Is the publication peer-reviewed, and, if so, what’s this process like; (3) Are articles edited; and (4) Are authors given the opportunity to review and approve the article prior to publication. This is all important stuff to know no matter who you submit to.

(5) See if you can find where the publishing company is based. If it is based in a newly industrialized country like India or Kazakhstan, for example, there may be more cause for concern than if it is based in a developed country like the United States or Canada.

(6) Finally, when in doubt, or even as your first step, consult this list of potentially questionable publishers compiled by Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at Auraria Library, University of Colorado Denver. But keep in mind that this list doesn’t necessarily indicate that a publishing entity is predatory. Some of Beall’s criteria for making the determination have been called into question, such as publishing houses using gmail or yahoo email addresses rather than corporate ones or relying solely on publication fees to sustain their business. Interestingly, a company based in India that made Beall’s list recently threatened him with a $1 billion defamation lawsuit. You can read more about it at Ars Technica. It’ll be interesting what shakes out with that.

Anyway it’s truly up to you to do your own investigative work before submitting to a publishing company that you’re not familiar with. Fortunately, in today’s world, a little exploring on the Web is generally all it takes.