Centre for Journalology

A non-technical summary of predatory journals and the impact they could have on the patient community

This section may be useful to the public, patients, and to journalists trying to better understand predatory journals.

What is a predatory journal?

When a researcher finishes a study, they aim to publish their research findings in an academic journal. There are many legitimate academic journals, but some journals are not legitimate. These ‘fake journals’ are called predatory journals. Predatory journals don’t operate according to best practices for publishing. They may not provide peer review (in which other experts in the field review the work before publication) or may provide inadequate peer review. They also may not be indexed or archived (stored in databases) to ensure their content is accessible and preserved, and they may publish ethically questionable work. This means that the expected ‘checks’ that legitimate journals do may not be present at predatory journals.

Some predatory journals ‘stand alone’, meaning the journal is published independently by itself. Other predatory journals are produced by a publisher – in this case predatory publishers may own and publish articles from multiple independent predatory journals.

Why do predatory journals exist?

Predatory journals (and publishers) often take advantage of the open access publishing model. Specifically, ‘gold’ open access is a publishing model where researchers typically pay money so that their article is freely available to access. An alternative to the open access model of publishing is ‘subscription-based’ publishing. In the subscription-based model researchers do not pay to publish their work, but anyone wishing to read the work must pay to access it either through paying an article fee or via a journal subscription.

Open access helps foster equity and ensures that anyone searching for health research is able to access articles. Read more about how access to an open access research article changed the course of an Ottawa-based patient’s life. Open access publishing benefits everyone. There is a cultural shift away from the ‘subscription-based’ model towards openness because many have recognized its importance. Furthermore, a lot of research is funded by tax dollars. In the subscription-based model the public pays to fund research via their taxes, but then would be required to pay again to access results of the research. Open access eliminates this double charge.

Predatory journals often claim to be high-quality open access journals. However, in many instances, they are simply interested in taking the fee from authors whose papers they accept. They are in the business of making money at the expense of scholarship – they are often willing to accept almost anything to make a profit from the article fee common to open access publishing.

Several ‘sting studies’ have been undertaken to highlight problems in operations at predatory journals. One of the most famous sting operations with regards to exposing predatory journals is a paper that was submitted with the title “Get me off Your F****** Mailing List” which just repeated this phrase for 10 pages. The paper was submitted to the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology, which accepted it and then demanded USD 150 to publish it. You see the original paper here.

Another sting paper entitled “What’s the deal with birds” was submitted to the Scientific Journal of Research and Reviews on March 25, 2020 and was accepted on April 1, 2020. This paper opens up by stating “Birds are very strange. Some people are like ‘whoa they’re flying around and stuff, what’s the deal with that?’ This sentiment is shared by people across socioeconomic backgrounds. Figuring out what the deal is with birds is of the utmost scientific importance”. View the full paper here. These sting studies illustrate that some predatory journals will accept anything if it means they will make money.

Why do researchers publish in predatory journals?​

Learn more about how predatory journals impact research

In the world of academic research, there is a pressure to “publish or perish”. This means that researchers and clinicians are under pressure to publish their research quickly in order to advance their careers and to get funds for future research. In many research institutions, the more academic publications a researcher has, the greater the chance they will be hired or secure tenure (i.e. a permanent position at a University or academic institution) or receive grant funding.

Researchers can become ‘prey’ to predatory journals. This means that they may inadvertently submit their work to a predatory journal thinking it is a legitimate, open access journal. The reasons for this are complex. One factor is that the pressure to publish may lead researchers to rush. Another is that researchers are typically not formally trained in how to navigate the academic publishing landscape. 

Furthermore, many predatory journals have been known to directly solicit submissions from researchers using flattering e-mails. In these cases, researchers may perceive these invites to submit their paper as an opportunity. A recent review paper examined literature on the motivations of authors who publish in questionable journals. It was concluded that there is a mixture of authors who are unaware of the nature of the journal they submit to and some who are unethical and do so knowingly.

In some instances, researchers may knowingly submit to predatory journals to get an easy publication to add to their resume, which is unethical. There are several examples of researchers looking to pad their C.V. through predatory publishing. Below you can read about studies that explore this topic.


How do predatory journals impact patients and the public?

More and more patients are using the internet to access health information. Predatory journal articles can be found using a simple Google search. This means that patients might unintentionally read work that looks like it was published in a proper peer reviewed journal, but in reality it could be from a predatory journal and the usual quality checks weren’t done.

It is getting more difficult to find good health information. Many academic journals are not easy for patients to access as they are behind a paywall. The fact that predatory journals are typically freely available may mean they are more likely to end up in the hands of patients and the public.

There is also an abundance of misinformation and fake news which makes it difficult to access and determine what information we can trust. This problem also extends to how we access health information and manage our health.

The negative impact of predatory journals was experienced by one of our project team members. In the spring of 2015, his mother-in-law was dying of breast cancer. Traditional treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery were attempted but were unsuccessful. Completely devastated she turned to alternative therapy as a possible treatment. After seeing an alternative medicine practitioner, she presented a paper to her son-in-law about the effectiveness of vitamin infusion therapy. This therapy offered a dangerous feeling of hope to this woman. After reading the paper, her son-in-law quickly noticed the paper’s low-quality writing and the weak science behind it. The paper had come from a predatory journal and could not be trusted. Read More.

How do predatory journals impact journalism?​

Journalism involves seeking out and gathering information for the purpose of sharing it with others. Some journalists specialize in researching health information for the purpose of sharing it with the public. Without the right knowledge and training, journalists can also fall prey to predatory journals by referencing or reporting on work in these outlets. This has the potential to unknowingly spread misinformation or low-quality information to the public.

Predatory Journals in the News

We searched GoogleNews on November 16, 2020 using the term ‘predatory journal’ to create a database where you can find articles about this topic in the media. We will update it regularly.