Those journals may be “fake”, but I don’t think they’re “predatory”

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 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.


8 thoughts on “Those journals may be “fake”, but I don’t think they’re “predatory”

  1. Falko Buschke

    Hi Stephen, you make a good point about fake journals, but I wonder if your reports of the death of predatory journals are greatly exaggerated (to paraphrase Mark Twain). Predatory journals are alive and well, they’re just a bit more subtle now.

    I reckon that truly predatory journals are now being produced by mainstream publishers. Unsuspecting authors are submitting their work to the journals under the false belief that they are legitimate journals based on their impact factors, listing on citation databases, and relationship with mainstream publishers. But all other indications suggest that these journals are rent-seekers only intent on collecting page-fees from authors.

    This post about MDPI journals makes the point very well, I feel:

    A few weeks ago you posted about Publons, and the comments section covered some reviewers who are supposedly reviewing more than a paper a week at some journals. One has to doubt the thoroughness of their peer-review and the quality of their editorial standards. I must point out that these aren’t obviously fake journals, but rather journals with >5 impact factors being published by Elsevier and Springer Nature.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Good point about “real” journals that may be fake. There have been some quite disturbing cases lately of reviewing rings and neoptism at journals published by the Big 5, to be sure. I’m not sure MDPI journals are fooling anyone, though…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lauri Laanisto (@LauriLaanisto)

        I was just in a university´s ethics committe meeting last week, where a professor under trial gave a long tirade about how he is a world-famous top scientist because he has edited couple of those MDPI special issues. And he sincerely seemed to believe that…


  2. Chris Mebane

    Predators, mimics, symbionts, yes, the term predatory journals is misleading, but I think fake journals are just a subset of of the taxonomy of questionable journals. The milquetoast “questionable journal” probably fits the most. I like “vanity journals” as it pairs with self-published books. Whatever the tag, the problem is hardly going away. Sure, their are some true fakes and even stolen journals, but to me a more insidious problem is the mainstreaming of some aggressive players. First thanks to Falko Buschke for the excellent link on MDPI. Where does one draw the line between the really bad players and aggressive, successful publishers with questionable practices, such as MDPI and the Frontiers. And how different really, are players like MDPI and Frontiers from the behaviors of some of the long time players?
    Frontiers caught my eye years ago with near mimics of established titles. For instance, Wiley Blackwell publishes the highly regarded journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment on behalf of the Ecological Society of America. According to Clarivate Analytics’ Journal Citation Report, as of 2015 the journal had a 5-year journal impact factor of 10.0, ranking in the 97th percentile of environmental science journals. In about 2013, the similarly titled open access journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution appeared.  As of May 2017 [when I was poking around] the latter journal was not indexed in the Journal Citation Report. Nevertheless, on the journal’s masthead next to the title was the statement “Frontiers reaches 6.4 on Journal Impact Factors.” Further searching showed that that reference to a Journal Impact Factor score of 6.4 was truthful but misleading when placed on the masthead of Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution; it was actually for the journal Frontiers in Immunology
    So what to do? Publish and review with the Good Guys, which I consider to be society run journals and a handful of well behaving others.


    1. smvamosi

      I came across this post because I’m doing a bit of sleuthing re: Frontiers journals.

      Readers might be curious to know that Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution has had an IF since 2018. At the time of writing, the latest IF (4.496) reported by JCR is from 2021. On the journal’s web site, they report 4.493. Whatever you recall happening almost six years ago would appear to be no longer the case.



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