If it looks like an academic journal, reads like an academic journal, and claims to be an academic journal, you might be forgiven for thinking that it most probably was filled with quality information carefully researched and published only after rigorous scrutiny by other experts in the field. Peer-reviewed journals do meet these criteria and are, for most subjects, the journals you should be citing. Enter predatory journals: designed to mimic peer-reviewed academic journals, these journals flatter naive academics and offer to provide a fast track to publication, often for a minimal ‘open access’ publication fee.
Luring in unwary researchers as a venus fly-trap attracts insects it will feast upon, these journals accept absolutely anything, including articles that are dangerously misleading, cite literature that does not exist, and claim things like Covid-19 first spread to humans through the consumption of Pokémon (strange, perhaps cute, animé Japanimation creations that gained a cult television following and feature in numerous games but that definitely never existed to be eaten anywhere in the real world). This particular article was submitted by an academic to prove that a particular journal was predatory in nature. You can read their story here.
Sidebar: open access publishing
Open access publishing itself is a perfectly respectable publishing model, where instead of paying to access articles after they have been published, authors pay up-front once their articles are accepted for publication to be made freely available in perpetuity for free to anyone who wants to read them. If an open-access journal is rigorously peer-reviewed, this is all to the good because it allows important research to reach poorer countries and shares knowledge more equitably than traditional publishing models.
The problem with predatory journals
The problem with predatory journals is that they simply publish anything that looks like a properly formatted article, regardless of whether the academic literature it cites to back up its arguments actually exists or whether it is making ridiculous claims. Publishing in a predatory journal means that your rigorous piece of research might end up next to articles making such farcically spurious claims as AIDS being the result of taking medications used to treat HIV infection or that COVID-19 was a man-made pathogen, treatable with “provincial herbs”. Such articles have quite properly been described as no more rigorously reviewed than blog posts (Shelomi, 2020).
The problems really start in less developed countries, where at least some researchers are unable to tell the difference between a predatory journal and a reputable, peer-reviewed open-access journal, and in some cases do not even understand the need to read literature before citing it. This means that fallacious articles in areas such as medicine can start widespread and dangerous beliefs that cost lives, particularly where the particular flavour of disinformation feeds into existing cultural prejudices and folk beliefs.
Avoiding predatory journals
By now, you are probably eyeing your latest assignment worriedly and wondering if you might have accidentally cited inauspicious articles from predatory journals. If you have used library eresources to find the journals and articles you have used, you will be fine. Predatory journals don’t get included in the resources we recommend. If you have found an article somewhere else and are concerned that it might not be all it pretends to be, chat to a librarian online and we will advise you.
If you are a researcher trying to choose where to submit your latest research article, the challenge is slightly greater. Anything that looks suspiciously amateurish, treats you with a little too much gratitude for considering submitting your manuscript or flaunts its Index Copernicus ranking – a journal ranking system criticised for uncritically including predatory journals (Brezgov, 2019) – but not on Beall’s List are all warning signs. You can check that the journal you are considering submitting to is included on Beall’s List of potentially predatory journals and contact the library Research Outputs Team, who will be happy to advise you on where you might aim to publish with impunity. Here is a link to their web page specifically addressing the problem of predatory publishers.
Brezgov, S. (2019, June 5). Index Copernicus has no value. https://scholarlyoa.com/index-copernicus-has-no-value/
Shelomi, M. (2020, November 1). Opinion: Using Pokémon to detect scientific misinformation. https://www.the-scientist.com/critic-at-large/opinion-using-pokmon-to-detect-scientific-misinformation-68098