In my occupation, tenure and promotion are big deals. University professors who want to get tenure or be promoted are usually expected not only to conduct research, but also to publish that research in academic journals. And in the last decade or so, the traditional model of academic journal publishing has been disrupted by the emergence of online-only journals and by open access journals.
This disruption has resulted in some good changes. It has led to alternatives to the process of anonymous peer review of journal submissions – a process which is supposed to be objective, but often isn’t. It can shorten the often lengthy time between the submission of a manuscript and the publication of the finished article. And it has also provided wider access to information that might formerly have been subscription-only or password-protected.
But the disruption has also led to the rise of so-called “predatory journals”. These are primarily online journals which have little or no academic legitimacy. They exist solely to make money for their owners, and they make that money by charging excessive “article processing fees”. Unfortunately, these journals prey on vulnerable researchers. That includes researchers who are desperate for publications to put on their resumes; researchers who are not confident in their writing ability; and researchers who can’t identify journals where a publication will hurt, not help, their careers. (Jeffrey Beall, who blogs about predatory journals, has an excellent list of criteria that he uses to define a predatory journal; you can find the list here.)
Predatory journals regularly send out spam emails soliciting manuscripts. I receive at least three of these emails every week. Other than being annoyed by the spam, I had never really thought too much about how these journals work. But at the end of last year, two astounding stories made the rounds. One was about a predatory journal accepting a manuscript that consisted of nothing but the words “Get me off your f***ing mailing list”. The other was about a predatory journal accepting a manuscript of computer-generated nonsense that was allegedly co-authored by two characters from The Simpsons.
These stories blew me away. How could this happen? Wouldn’t disrespectable journals at least try to appear legitimate by rejecting blatantly fake papers? How could even a disrespectable journal miss such obvious signs of fakery? So I decided to conduct an experiment of my own.
The outcome: Two journals accepted a manuscript for publication that was not only nonsense, but also plagiarized nonsense.
Here’s how it happened.
The stories about the “mailing list” paper and the “Simpsons” paper were reported in a large number of scientific, academic, and mainstream media publications. It seemed reasonable to expect that journal publishers, even predatory ones, would have seen or heard about these stories – including the scorn that was heaped upon the journals that accepted the papers – and so would be extra cautious about suspicious papers. The full texts of both papers were easily available online, so it also seemed reasonable to expect that these specific papers would be identified if they were submitted to any journals.
I downloaded the PDFs of the “Get me off your f***ing mailing list” paper and the “Simpsons” paper, and changed the names of the authors and their institutional affiliation. I used an online random name generator to create two names, and drew on one of my favourite movies for the name of a university. I didn’t change anything else in the papers, making the papers both nonsense *and* completely plagiarized. And I set up a Gmail account, using the first author’s name, to correspond with the publishers. Professors Clark Sarrka and Archembald Schuyler of the School of Hermeneutics at Faber College were in business.
Then I collected the 15 emails from predatory journals that I received in the month of December 2014. From these, I chose the three publishers that sent more than one spammy email. These were SJP International Publication, Science Publishing Group or SciencePG (it seems to have more than one name), and the International Journal of Education and Social Science. Both the “mailing list” paper and the “Simpsons” paper – with the original contents unchanged but with the addition of the new authors’ names and affiliation – were sent to all three journals on January 9, 2015.
This publisher claims to publish 16 different journals. Both manuscripts were submitted to the journal that seemed to be the most unlikely publication outlet: Science Journal of Physics. On January 11, an email stated that both papers were being reviewed. But another email arrived on January 11:
Below is the Publication Charges of your manuscript. The Fee Charged for Publication covers the huge overhead cost in Electronic Publishing, Web Hosting and Archiving, Workers Salaries, Internet Subscription and Electricity Bills etc.
PUBLICATION FEE DETAILS (BASIC FEE)
*MANUSCRIPT TITLE: Fuzzy: Homogeneous Configurations
*DESCRIPTION: Publication Fee in Science Journal of Physics
*FEE CHARGED: $500.00 USD
DO YOU ACCEPT TO PAY THE FEE CHARGED FOR THE PUBLICATION OF YOUR MANUSCRIPT?
Kindly send a confirmation message to us that you ACCEPT to pay the fee charged for the publication of your manuscript.
— NB: The fee incurred for the publication of your manuscript will be covered by your personal funds, grant funds, institution, or agency.
So in other words, this journal was charging $500 US to cover ”huge overhead cost” before even pretending to review or accept the manuscript. Follow-up emails arrived on January 14, 16, 19 and 23. No reviews or decision on the paper have been sent. There was no further correspondence about the “mailing list” paper. (Here is a link to all the correspondence from this publisher.)
Science Publishing Group/SciencePG
The manuscripts were submitted to the International Journal of Astrophysics and Space Science, which seemed to be the most unsuitable journal among the huge number of journals this publisher claims to produce. On January 11, the publisher sent two emails acknowledging the receipt of both papers. The emails stated that the manuscript would be typeset and then sent to reviewers – legitimate journals don’t typeset a manuscript until after it has been accepted for publication – with review results in “15 days”. This is a ludicrously short time for a manuscript review.
The reviews for the “Simpsons” paper arrived on January 21. This nonsensical and plagiarized paper was accepted for publication, with only recommendations for stylistic changes – even though one reviewer astutely observed, “This manuscript is not in the scope of this journal” and “The manuscript is not connected with the research work in the field of Astrophysics and Space Science. This manuscript deals with some aspects of Computer Science (Internet and Domain etc.).” The other reviewer recommended publication and observed that the summary of the paper was “well supported by the content” – a somewhat accurate statement, given that the summary and the content of the paper were both computer-generated nonsense.
The reviews were accompanied by a typeset version of the manuscript. An “Article Processing Charge” was mentioned, but no specific amount was given. Two follow-up messages arrived on January 22, along with another on January 24. The full text of the publisher’s emails is available here. There was no further correspondence about the “mailing list” paper.
International Journal of Education and Social Science
The spam email from this journal was different from the others, because it gave the full name of a specific individual as “editor-in-chief”. I contacted this individual by email and was informed that they have never been associated with the journal. Because of this, I have removed this individual’s name from the publisher’s emails about the submission.
On January 13, the journal emailed its acknowledgement of the receipt of the “Simpsons” paper, and promised review and decision within seven days – another ludicrously short time frame. The letter of acceptance and the reviews arrived on January 16. Both reviewers recommended publication with no modification. The “usual publication fee” was stated as $160 US, and the payment of the fee was to be sent to an individual who had not previously been named in any of the emails.
On January 18, two identical emails arrived, both signed “Editor” (with no name attached) and giving additional instructions for transmitting the fee payment. An email on January 24 stated that the “editorial board is very close to the final selection of papers” for the next issue, and asked for a decision on the publication of the paper. Although the last email gave the publication date for the next issue as January 31, the issue has already been posted online. There was no further correspondence regarding the “mailing list” paper.
On January 24, an email was sent to all three publishers notifying them that the papers were being withdrawn.
What I Learned from This Experiment
This experiment was really eye-opening for me, and not in a good way.
The only positive result from this process was that all three publishers ignored the “mailing list” paper. I don’t know if this was because of the profanity in the title and throughout the text, or whether the paper was recognized because of the publicity it’s received. But the “Simpsons” paper was accepted twice, despite being completely plagiarized and being nonsense – and despite being authored by two non-existent professors from a well-known fictional university. That’s a sad commentary on how unethical and exploitative predatory journals can be.
There are 13 articles in the issue of IJESS that would have included the plagiarized “Simpsons” paper. If the author of each article paid the $160 US “publication fee”, the journal publishers made just over $2,000 US on that issue. And it looks like they didn’t do much for that “publication fee” other than add a header to each manuscript file and post the files online. It’s easy to see how operating one of these journals might be very attractive financially for the journal’s owner– but a researcher could seriously damage their career and reputation by publishing their work in any journal with such questionable quality standards.
After this experience, I can only urge researchers to be very careful when choosing where to publish their work. The old adage of “if it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t” is very relevant in this situation. Google the name of the journal to see if there are online criticisms of the journal’s business practices. Look at how the journal communicates; legitimate and respectable journals don’t use Gmail or Hotmail email addresses. Look at the websites of the well-known journals in your field, and look at the information those websites usually contain; if a journal’s website doesn’t have that same type of information (e.g. the names of the editor and the members of the editorial board), be careful. Find out if the well-known journals in your field charge a fee for manuscript review or preparation; this is the norm in some academic disciplines, but if it isn’t common in yours, be very wary of journals that charge a fee for publication. Researchers being cautious about where they publish their work, and refusing to submit manuscripts to questionable publishers, is the only way to put predatory journals out of business.