Saturday, June 23, 2018

Predatory Journals and Conferences Preying on a New Researcher

I had an interesting interaction from two parts of my life recently. One part emanated from my work as an informatics and information retrieval researcher, with interests that include the potential for the Internet to increasingly facilitate "open science," in which the methods, results, data, and generated knowledge are all more widely transparent and disseminated. An important part of open science is open-access publishing, an approach to publishing that changes its model to one where the research pays (usually through the grants that support their work) for the cost of publishing, and the resulting paper is made freely available on the Internet.

Unfortunately, there is a down side to open-access publishing, which is the proliferation of so-called predatory journals and conferences. These publications and events typically claim to be prestigious and offer peer review, but in reality they exist mainly to make money by trading on researchers’ need to publish and present their work [1, 2]. In reality, these venues have little if any peer review, as exemplified by cases of scientists submitting obviously bogus research that nonetheless is accepted for publication [3]. One Web site maintains a list of such journals. Another covers the topic exhaustively in the context of scientific fraud and misconduct.

This does not mean that all open-access journals have poor peer review (case in point are the Public Library of Science - PLoS and Biomedical Central - BMC journals). Nor does it mean that plenty of poor science does not make it through peer review in journals from traditional publishers. However, there is probably additional vigilance required when it comes to open-access journals. One cut point for journals I advise for students and others in biomedical sciences whom I mentor is it being included in the MEDLINE database, which has a threshold of peer review and other attributes that journals must reach to be listed (PLoS and BMC journals are in MEDLINE).

The part of my life that this story interacted with is the early research career of my daughter, an MD/MPH student at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), who recently had her first journal paper publication, on the heels of a number of poster abstract presentations [4]. Yes, I am a proud father!

But no sooner than her journal paper had been accepted and the ahead-of-print version posted, she started receiving the kinds of emails most of us in research receive on a daily basis, inviting submissions to predatory journals and presentations to similar conferences. She was excited to be invited to an international conference; I had to disappoint her to note the nature of such conferences (and that she would need to pay her way).

This episode shone a new light for me on the daily stream of nuisance emails from predatory journals and conferences that I receive. (One characteristic of these emails that helps me identify them as predatory is that they do not offer, as required under the US CAN-SPAM Act, an option to unsubscribe.) It annoys me that young researchers get exposed to this sort of thing at a more impressionable stage of their careers.

On a related note, now that she is published, my daughter’s next milestone will be to get her first citation, which will of course give her an h-index of 1. I had a tongue-in-cheek discussion with some of my geeky research colleagues as to if I cited her paper, whether it would be a form of scientific nepotism (a teachable moment about the h-index and citations!). However, I am certain she will receive many more legitimate citations as her career develops, so I will let her career grow without any intervention on my part, other than being a supportive parent.


1. Moher, D and Moher, E (2016). Stop predatory publishers now: act collaboratively. Annals of Internal Medicine. 164: 616-617.
2. Beall, J (2018). Predatory journals exploit structural weaknesses in scholarly publishing. 4Open. 1.
3. McCool, JH (2017). Opinion: Why I Published in a Predatory Journal. The Scientist.
4. Hersh, AR, Muñoz, LF, et al. (2018). Video compared to conversational contraceptive counseling during labor and maternity hospitalization in Colombia: a randomized trial. Contraception. Epub ahead of print.

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