Guide to spotting predatory, hijacking, and mega-predatory magazines

In 2008, a librarian at the University of Colorado in Denver (USA), Jeffrey Beall, christened an emerging phenomenon “predatory magazines.” These fraudulent publications, the antithesis of scientific quality, have multiplied in recent years as a negative consequence of digitization and, more specifically, of open access models in which the authors of the articles bear the editing costs. This system is known as the “golden road”, not only for the journals that impose this practice, but also for some of the authors.

The main flaw of predatory journals is that they barely perform review processes on the manuscripts they receive, which speeds up the process. Euphemistically, they themselves boast of their speed in the post. Of course, they accept most of the documents they receive to achieve their main objective: to charge the authors.

The authors have to show satisfaction and, therefore, they do not suffer rejections or modifications (in fact, improvements) of the originals. These must obtain results in a short term to satisfy the demands of the academic authorities. For example, to obtain accreditations, six-year terms or justify the financing of projects.

The result is that the works published by these journals lack the validation of the scientific community and their results are unreliable. In areas such as biomedicine they can even have fatal repercussions.

These magazines are difficult to detect with the naked eye because they use the camouflage strategy. They have titles very similar to those of the reference journals and all present a large team of scientists, although their contribution is decorative or they even ignore that they are part of such committees.

Likewise, they are advertised as being indexed in a large number of scientific databases, although most of them are false or they are databases that do not carry out selective processes. Evaluation products have even been created for predatory magazines where, of course, they all get excellent marks. We are simply facing a fraud.

In 2013, John Bohannon carried out a significant experiment: he sent a false article (loaded with common places, with false bibliography and an absurd topic) to dozens of open access journals in which the authors must bear the editing costs from the article. The article was accepted by a large majority of these journals with little review.

This validated the suspicions of those who thought that these reviews were not rigorous with their evaluation processes. This experiment prompted the International Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), which had many of these fraudulent journals indexed, to redefine its inclusion policies. Thousands of them were expelled.

How to detect fraudulent magazines?

The practical problem is presented to researchers who want to publish the results of their work and send their originals to one of these journals, which is like throwing them into a bottomless pit. How to avoid being a sucker?

The data that lead to suspect that a magazine is fraudulent are the following:

  1. His youth. They have emerged with the lower costs of 100% digital magazines, so they do not have the decades or even centuries of history of others such as The Lancet or Nature.

  2. Their titles are usually generic. They are an imitation of the most prestigious magazines in the area.

  3. In many cases they are published in countries on the scientific periphery, such as Egypt and Nigeria.

  4. They make up for their shortcomings, such as the indexing of databases or the lack of impact indicators, by calculating their own indicators.

  5. They have an aggressive policy to target the unsuspecting investigator (ideal client) through personalized mailing.

The main aspect that should alert the author is for the journal to contact him, ensure suspiciously fast publication times and charge its authors for publishing: the greater the number of works, the higher the income.

This does not mean that all journals that charge authors with publishing costs are fraudulent. There are some, like Plos One, which have recognized very rigorous validation processes, but are a very small minority. More than 17,000 predatory magazines are known to exist and have become an epidemic.

A new trend: kidnapping magazines

A very aggressive form of predatory magazines are “hijacking magazines.” They pose as established journals, create their own websites and contact authors, request manuscripts and money. If the clueless author realizes in the middle of the process that he is being scammed and decides to stop the publication process, he usually receives threats of denunciation.

A recent real example: the hijacking magazine asked an author for almost $ 8,000 for not publishing his work (when the author realized the scam and wanted to remove it from the evaluation process). It threatened international lawsuits in case of failure to pay.

The reality is that first-generation predatory journals, those that were not in scientific products, hardly had and do have an impact on the state of science. At best they put the authors and their institutions to shame and lead to an economic loss of funds.

The second generation: fraud within indexing

Thirteen years after the appearance of the phenomenon, fraud has followed more sophisticated paths. There are predatory journals indexed in scientific databases such as Web of Science or Scopus. The danger is that this causes them to begin to be used in many countries, such as Spain, to assess the academic careers of researchers.

Predatory magazines have evolved. They have become sophisticated, in part thanks to the profits made. They have gone from posting a few jobs to thousands. Have become mega-journals, that is to say, in “mega-predators”.

Another sophisticated approach is for publishing companies themselves to promote journals that they put in the hands of honored and prestigious academics. They manage to put them in value, get their indexation and, then, their ordeal begins. They are beginning to be required to increase numbers and articles at such a rate that the selection processes cannot be carried out rigorously. If there is resistance, it usually ends in dismissal or resignation of the members of the editorial team. But, by then, the ship is already launched with all the quality standards in place.

Normally these mega-predators are specialized in a specific field, but they also publish on any subject and with quick and superficial review processes. Their prices multiply when entering the reference databases and rise as the position of the journals in the rankings, in an unscientific logic. Their attraction strategy remains the classic one of first-generation predators: inviting authors to publish articles.

Sophistication has incorporated a new modality: it is played with vanity and any author (with prestige and without prestige) is offered the direction of monographic issues. It is these leaders who perform the task of marketing more tedious: that of looking for authors who bite to pay to publish some contributions to which, from the beginning, enough security about their publication is offered (before writing them). The magazine’s makeshift publishers of monographs, volunteer commercials receive the benefits of free article publication or, at least, deep discounts. In addition, these publishers also whitewash their names by obtaining agreements with universities for which these centers obtain economic discounts and publishers see their business supported. The investigator stops being suspicious when he sees that his own university has an agreement with suspicious publishers.

Why publishing in a predatory magazine is a bad idea

The researcher must act very cautiously when choosing a journal, publishing in a fraudulent journal is a discredit that shows that:

  • The researcher does not know the area where he moves.

  • The effort does not go with him, as he opts for a fast track to get the publication.

  • It is a bad manager of public funds, since the cost of items is usually paid with money assigned to projects. In other words, you are embezzling that could be prosecuted.

  • In some cases, the researcher who sends his manuscripts is not properly a scammer, but an accomplice in the scam. Those scammed are the evaluation agencies, the institutions that bear the publication costs and the colleagues who, by avoiding these practices, compete in selective processes against these artificially and fraudulently bloated resumes.


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