When a Journal Is a Scam
How Some Publications Prey on Scholarship as Public Good
I receive a certain kind of email mostly in the wee hours of the morning. Often, when I open my inbox, the first few are invitations from journals focusing on everything from computational science to atmospheric pressure. (I’m not an expert in either of those fields.) Sometimes I get requests from within my discipline—history—though in this shadowy academic marketplace my field is called humanities and social sciences; I suppose we are interdisciplinary enough.
By now, reader, you’ve probably realized that what I am describing is not unique but something most of us get on a regular basis: invitations to write, review, and serve on the editorial boards of a range of journals whose names we have never heard before but that nonetheless promise to review our article within the miraculous time frame of three to four days and to publish within two to four weeks.
To explore the extent of the issue, the AHA conducted a survey of members about experiences with journals, solicitation of articles, and other related issues. Over 80 percent of respondents had received unsolicited invitations from journals to submit articles, with almost 20 percent receiving emails of this kind more than once a week. In most cases, these appeals don’t come from reputable journals; they fall into a category now commonly known as “predatory.” Regular solicitations of this kind have emerged as a reality of the modern academic marketplace.
The University of Colorado Denver librarian Jeffrey Beall coined the term “predatory journal” in 2010 to identify journals with low or no standards, published as mere profit-making ventures. While there is no hard-and-fast consensus about what makes a journal or publisher predatory, scholarly communication experts generally agree that journals with a business model that requires authors to pay to publish, that provide little or no peer review or editing, and that put out a low-quality final product fit into this category. They are often characterized by dishonest publishing practices, including phantom editorial boards or even fake names. They often prey on graduate students and junior scholars who, hungry for a publication and tempted by the promise of a speedy turnaround, might be unaware that such practices exist. The victim’s scholarship—which could help them get jobs, contribute to knowledge, and engage wider publics—is lost. Ultimately, these journals steal scholarly work and charge us hefty fees for doing so.
Predatory journals are often characterized by dishonest publishing practices, including phantom editorial boards or even fake names.
In the sciences, this problem has grown large enough that it has come to the attention of funding bodies. To protect the integrity of the medical and scientific studies it funds, the National Institutes of Health recently issued a warning against publishing scientific research results in disreputable journals. While many predatory journals are transparently fake, some have a veneer of legitimacy, effectively compounding the deception. A 2015 study in the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology found that predatory journals “published articles by inexperienced authors.” Some respondents to the AHA survey also believe that early career scholars are more vulnerable than established professors to this unscrupulous world of publishing. While only a handful indicated that they followed up on a solicitation from such a journal, a higher percentage had served on committees that reviewed CVs listing articles in predatory journals. Since such publications almost never confer an advantage in job applications or count toward tenure or promotion, combating this problem is a concern for all scholars. Yet more than three-quarters of respondents reported never receiving mentorship or advice on evaluating the reputation of a journal. At a time when many are actively working to ensure that humanistic knowledge is relevant and valued by the wider society, ensuring that everyone in our discipline knows how to avoid such traps is more vital than ever.
As teachers, advisers, mentors, and scholars, we should be helping to combat the widening net of predatory journals by providing guidance to our colleagues and students. Until early 2017, Beall maintained a public list of over 1,000 journals that he identified as predatory (now archived here). He also provided useful criteria for categorizing journals as predatory and help in figuring out whether a journal was credible. While Beall’s list was a helpful tool, scholars need to make judgments, appraise the value of publishing in a given venue, and take advice from experts and colleagues instead of merely consulting a list. University libraries often have scholarly communication experts who know how to assess a journal’s reputation and can offer advice when a judgment is necessary. Libraries also maintain websites with information on predatory publishers and publications. The “Think.Check.Submit” campaign, run by a consortium of publishers and scholarly communication organizations, encourages scholars and researchers to ask a series of questions when considering publishing an article.
But the matter may be more complex than simply making every AHA member and historian better informed about the parallel world of predatory publishing. To understand and effectively combat exploitative publishers, we need to examine the existing conditions of our profession that create the space for these journals to proliferate. This requires taking a step back to ask how historians disseminate their work to specialist and nonspecialist audiences and where these journals try to intervene to make their profit.
Publishing in peer-reviewed venues remains vital to building scholarly reputations and advancing careers in our discipline. While universities and academic institutions are increasingly recognizing the importance of engaging a broader readership in nontraditional publishing formats, the gold standard for jobs, grants, promotion, and tenure continues to be measured through peer-reviewed journals and books. The pressure to get them out, and quickly, is only increasing. We operate in a quantifiable and measurable world, and numbers sometimes speak too much and too loudly, especially when it comes to jobs, tenure, and departmental accreditation.
For early career scholars, the pressure to publish is particularly acute. Guidance from advisers and mentors is vital.
For early career scholars this pressure is particularly acute and can sometimes lead to unwise decisions. Guidance from advisers and mentors is vital to ensuring that scholarly effort is not wasted. In a personal communication, historian of economics Mary Morgan (London School of Economics) said she advises her students to aim to publish an article or two in thematic journals before their first book. This puts an early career scholar in conversation with academics beyond their regional expertise. So, for instance, a Latin Americanist working on the intersection of economic and environmental history might aim to publish in an economic history journal and an environmental history journal that are widely read. This not only helps young scholars establish themselves in a wider network of interlocutors, it also facilitates an opening up of the dissertation’s narrow focus to cast a wider canvas.
Historian Jeremy Adelman (Princeton Univ.) advises his graduate students to publish one article in the final stages of their writing. He reasons that the sooner we are introduced to peer review of our scholarship, the stronger our projects become. Mentors and graduate advisers who always offer critical and helpful feedback for the project are also people who have seen the project take shape for five to six years. “A fresh pair of eyes on a piece or argument before defense always makes for a strong dissertation and therefore a better book,” observes Adelman.
Apart from warning our students and colleagues about predatory journals, there is a larger question we as a profession need to answer. How do we create conditions where we can prioritize the twin imperatives behind publishing our work: to be heard and to listen? These things take time. It takes time to write out early ideas, have them read by a fresh pair of eyes, be exposed to new literature, rethink the argument, and then revise and rewrite. In an ideal world, each article would be an invitation to a dialogue about a question and ultimately an attempt to create a public good. And yet, all of this must happen within a very truncated time frame given the “publish or perish” atmosphere. How do we as a profession acknowledge the realities of this mandate, while still guaranteeing the quality of peer-reviewed scholarship?
As graduate students, contingent faculty, junior faculty, and even beyond on the promotion ladder, we are rightfully worried about the academic job market and the number of publications that will make our CVs stand out. Too often we forget that there are other reasons to get our work published: to create a public good or to engage in conversations with scholars working in similar themes in different areas and to learn from those conversations. As a dear friend in India wished me as I was coming to graduate school in the United States: “I wish you friends, cohorts, and interlocutors who will bring your early arguments to a crisis, so that you have a strong project.” I have cherished that wish ever since.
Debjani Bhattacharyya teaches history at Drexel University and is a councilor in the AHA’s Professional Division. She is also the author of Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta: The Making of Calcutta (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2018).
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