Watch Out for Junk Scientific Journals
by John Swartzberg, M.D.,
April 04, 2018

The world of science has its own problem with a kind of “fake news”: In recent years, clinicians and researchers have been overwhelmed by a flood of fraudulent and shadowy journals filled mostly with shoddy studies and articles. Much has been written about these so-called predatory journals, primarily to warn academics who may be tempted to submit papers to them. But such journals are also a concern for all readers of science and medical news, including the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter and, because they threaten to undermine the credibility of all scientific publishing.

It’s hard to know for sure, but by some estimates there are more than 8,000 predatory journals now, about as many as there are legitimate journals. When my colleagues and I review scientific research on the topics we cover, we increasingly come across studies from such untrustworthy journals.

Unlike reputable journals, which are typically supported by paid subscriptions and generally appear in print as well as online, these “journals” are “open-access,” meaning that anyone can read them for free. They appear only online and make their money by charging authors to have their articles published (some reputable journals do this as well). Their websites mimic those of traditional journals.

The open-access model began more than a decade ago with the good intention of allowing more research to get published and be accessible for free worldwide. It started with the Public Library of Science’s open-access journal, PLOS ONE, which is peer-reviewed and well-respectedand has by now published more than 200,000 articles. The fact is, most academics need to publish scholarly research to get jobs, tenure, and promotions—“publish or perish” is unfortunately all too true. And there simply are not enough top-drawer journals like Nature, Science, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the New England Journal of Medicine or reliable specialty journals to publish all their papers.

Predatory journals vs. legitimate open-access journals
What separates predatory journals from legitimate open-access journals like PLOS ONE is their lack of scientific standards. Often based in India, Pakistan, or Nigeria, they aggressively solicit articles from authors, charging them hundreds to thousands of dollars to publish an article. Most of the journals will publish almost anything — in fact, some investigators have reported that even when they submitted semi-gibberish, it was accepted. Many claim to be “peer-reviewed” but clearly are not, or at least are not reviewed in any meaningful way. So not surprisingly, their papers are more likely to be sloppy or flawed than those in truly peer-reviewed journals.

Making things especially murky, predatory journals usually have names that are virtually indistinguishable from those of real journals. And to add seeming credibility to the journals and help pad academic résumés, they often sponsor fake scientific meetings for the presentation of questionable research and offer positions on editorial boards that require no work.

We will continue to weed out the junk from the real science and will not cite research from predatory journals. Of course, reputable journals also publish some poorly done studies that are disproven by subsequent research or occasionally even retracted, but by and large the peer-review process does work. Still, we carefully evaluate research from big-name journals as well.

How, you may wonder, can you tell if a journal is questionable? It isn’t easy. One place to start is this list of “potential, possible, or probable” predatory scholarly journals by Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado in Denver who has been tracking the problem for years: Beall's List of Predatory Journals and Publishers. Since there are so many predatory journals and the roster keeps growing, he also has a list of publishers to be wary of. We appreciate his efforts.