If your email inbox is like mine, you’ve seen more than a few invitations like the one above. There are thousands of “journals” offering to publish pretty much anything, without peer review or with only the pretence of it. They tend not to bother with such things as copy-editing or secured long-term web hosting either – and why should they? They’re not in business to help drive scientific progress; they’re in business strictly to collect authors’ money (normally in the form of article processing charges, but notice the slick little grift in the teaser email illustrated above).
Journals like this get labelled “predatory”, but I don’t think that’s the right label. A predator exploits its prey. The “predatory journal” label suggests that the journal is exploiting the authors who pay fees. This is often cast as a matter of deception: authors submit to a predatory journal thinking it’s actually reputable. Maybe this was the case when such journals first cropped up, but it’s hard to imagine many scholars being duped today.* Data on this would be fascinating (if hard to come by), but I would speculate that the vast majority of authors publishing in so-called “predatory” journals haven’t been duped, and they aren’t prey. Instead, they’re simply taking advantage of a service: one that provides a nominally published article (it exists on the web, with nice fonts and all that, at least for a little while, and the authors or others can in principle cite it) at low cost and with relatively little bother with inconvenient things like peer review or the need for revisions. There’s no predation here – simply a decision by authors to accept a low-quality product. So: these aren’t “predatory journals”. What they are is “fake journals”.
The label “fake journal” is useful, I think, because it removes the insinuation of exploitation from the journal, and opens it up more broadly. If publication in fake journals is a problem (and it is!), it isn’t a problem of evil publishers duping scholars out of their money. Instead, it’s a problem of incentives. We complain bitterly about peer review being horrible and slow, and fetishize rapid publication that’s incompatible with careful review at a real journal. Worse, we count publications. We do this ourselves (I know, we all say we don’t, but we most assuredly do); but it’s also baked into all kinds of administrative processes like grant adjudication, hiring, tenure, and promotion. In some countries, promotion and pay raises are even tied directly and explicitly to targets expressed as numbers of journal publications. After all, it’s easy to count publication; it’s much harder to assess their individual contributions to science.
Given the existence of (unfortunately) poorly structured incentives, a scholar publishing in a fake journal isn’t the unwitting fish dying in the jaws of the bear. They’re simply deciding on an exchange of value, in which a small payment secures the appearance of a published paper. This exchange of value exploits the easily gameable incentives the scholar faces, which don’t capture the cost to science (among the costs, that nominally published paper won’t have had the benefit of improvement via peer review, although that may not matter much because it isn’t very likely to be read or cited anyway – and for that matter, without professional, long-term web hosting it’s not even likely to exist in a decade or so). We can, and should, decry this practice of publishing in fake journals. We can, and should, decry the existence of fake journals. But pretending it’s the fault of publishers for “preying” on us isn’t going to get us there.
© Stephen Heard December 14, 2021
Images: And actual invitation from a “predatory” journal (perhaps you got it too); and an actual predator © Natalia Kollegova via pixabay.com CC0.
*^There’s a frequent claim that scholars from the Global South are especially likely to publish in “predatory” journals because they can be tricked. This seems deeply racist to me. It presumes such scholars are less intellectually sophisticated than scholars in the Global North. I hope we can all agree this is offensive.