While carrying out research for your latest assignment you decide to check out one of those online journals your tutor keeps suggesting as a source. Everything looks good; the author has used complex scientific language and the journal itself has an official sounding title. There’s just one problem: this allegedly well-respected publication claims that HIV/AIDS does not exist.
You’ve just opened up a predatory journal. Don’t kick yourself – it’s easy to do, and you’ve probably done it before. They look and read like their legitimate counterparts, and in most cases it’s impossible to tell the two apart.
Predatory journals are named for their least sinister characteristic. These publications charge exorbitant submission fees, preying on the competitive nature of academia and the importance many institutions place on being published in order to make an easy buck. Unfortunately, the problems with predatory journals run deeper than just ripping off up-and-coming academics.
The peer review process in these publications is often inadequate or non-existent, meaning they’re open to anybody willing to pay that upfront fee. One journal accepted a paper that read “Get me off your fucking mailing list”. The reviewer comment was “quality of manuscript is good.”
This means that people who espouse uninformed scientific theories like HIV/AIDS denialism are able to get those views published with relative ease. Even worse is that people, convinced by the façade a predatory journal puts up, might start to believe what’s behind it.
That’s fine when a kook is talking about chemtrails and the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, but it’s downright dangerous when somebody is downplaying the existence of a virus that destroys real human lives. I like to think that I wouldn’t believe everything I read in a scientific journal, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t trust them above other sources. The claim that HIV/AIDS does not exist appeared in a journal from China-based Scientific Research Publishing, which publishes several dozen other journals.
Luckily, recognizing predatory journals is easy. If you plan on submitting work to a journal, check the fine print to make sure that it doesn’t charge a submission fee – most journals just charge for publication – and that it won’t try to retain copyright over your work. Otherwise, the fundamental rules for spotting bullshit on the internet apply: if the journal does not have a professional-looking website or has repeated basic errors (like consistently mixing up the name of a disease with the name of its bacterium) then it’s probably not worth your time. Likewise, if the content doesn’t really match the title or the editorial board is small to non-existent, then you’re probably dealing with a predatory journal.
Until recently, one academic was keeping a comprehensive list of these publications – but that effort was also beset by controversy. See, the qualities that make a predatory journal predatory are not necessarily obvious.
Before it was taken down, one of the criteria for determining a journal as predatory on Jeffrey Beall’s list of “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers” was “The publishers officers use email addresses that end in gmail.com, yahoo.com, some other free email supplier.” But as one critic pointed out, many university faculties in the third world use free email suppliers because of their lack of tech support. An investigation of Beall’s list also found that there was no specific reason for many publications to be on it; as in, there was nothing discernibly predatory about them. Beall has himself been accused of lacking objectivity on the issue, and seems unable to differentiate between criticisms of his list and criticisms of him.
Predatory journals are dangerous, but we should all be aware of what a predatory journal actually is. That doesn’t mean you have to start giving HIV/AIDS deniers the time of day, but it’s important to be aware that the term “predatory journal” can be used much the same way Donald Trump calls CNN “fake news” – it can’t just be something you disagree with. There are criteria it has to fit.
Keep your eyes peeled.