How to identify a predatory journal

A colleague recently asked me how to know if a journal he’d been asked to review for was predatory, and I didn’t have a great answer. I suggested that the fact that they were asking him to review was probably a good sign, since the worst of the predatory journals don’t bother with that formality. Some do, though, so that’s no guarantee. I wish I’d had a better answer.

The fact is, it’s not always easy to distinguish legitimate journals from predatory ones. A step in the right direction, though, is defining what we mean by a predatory journal. A recent article in Nature has tried to do that:

Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterized by false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial and publication practices, a lack of transparency, and/or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices. (Grudniewicz et al. 2019)

I think this is a good start, and the authors go into more detail on each point. Let’s take it in parts.

Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship…

A necessary but not sufficient criterion (as the “and” suggests it was intended). Lots of legitimate journals, including Science and Nature, have been accused of putting profit before science.

and are characterized by false or misleading information…

This for sure. Sufficient but not necessary. If you can confirm that a journal is lying about its practices, who is on its editorial board, where it is indexed, etc., it doesn’t even matter if they meet any of the other criteria. You want nothing to do with them.

deviation from best editorial and publication practices…

As with prioritizing self-interest, some legitimate journals have been accused of deviating from best practices. The authors expand on this point to include “not having a retraction policy, requesting a transfer of copyright when publishing an open-access article and not specifying a Creative Commons licence in an open-access journal.” I would add not actually performing peer review, as I don’t believe the worst pay-to-play journals employ peer review at all.

a lack of transparency…

Again, a bad sign but also something that legitimate journals have been accused of (I have accused some myself). As the authors acknowledge, “transparency in operational procedures…is presently somewhat aspirational in academic publishing.”

and/or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices.

Yes. Holy crap yes. This is why my spam folder is constantly full of invitations from journals in fields I have never studied. The authors expand:

Although legitimate journals might solicit submissions, predatory journals often use aggressive solicitation such as repeated e-mails. These might be excessively flattering in tone, or might mention researchers’ past publications while noting that related submissions are urgently needed for a forthcoming issue. A clear warning sign is that the invitee’s expertise is outside the journal’s scope.

Exactly right. Real journals don’t blow smoke up your ass, and they don’t invite you to publish about materials science because you had a paper in The American Naturalist.

For me at least, that’s the first filter. If the invitation is from a journal outside my field, I know I can safely ignore it.

Invitation to review

My expertise in the field? I don’t think I’ve ever even read a patent. And it’s been a solid decade since I was at the University of Arizona.

Those are the easy ones, and I promise it will weed out 95% or more of spam invitations. Those at the opposite end of the spectrum are easy, too. Is it from a journal you’ve read and, if you’re not just starting out, cited? Then you’re probably fine. Did the invitation come from an editor whose papers you’ve read and/or cited? Then you’re probably fine. The trickier cases are in-between: journals in your field but that you don’t recognize. In those cases, a bit of digging is required.

Grudniewicz and colleagues do address this. It can be tricky to distinguish new and/or low-impact but legitimate journals from predatory ones. For a new journal, I would probably go as far as Google Scholar stalking one or two members of the editorial board and emailing them. If the journal is publishing complete garbage, obviously don’t publish there.

Some of Grudniewicz et al.’s criteria seem aimed at policy makers and would be difficult for an individual researcher to evaluate, for example, deviating from best editorial practices and placing profit before scholarship. Aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation is easy to spot in most cases, but even a blind squirrel finds the occasional nut (by which I mean that some indiscriminate invitations will hit researchers in the right field just by chance). The bottom line is that there is no magic bullet that is going to consistently and effortlessly distinguish predatory journals from legitimate ones, especially legitimate journals that are new or low-impact. But there are red flags you can watch out for, and when you see them, you need to dig deeper.

If anyone has tips I didn’t cover, please share them in the comments.


Stable links:

Grudniewicz, A., D. Moher, K. D. Cobey, G. L. Bryson, S. Cukier, K. Allen, C. Ardern, L. Balcom, T. Barros, M. Berger, J. B. Ciro, L. Cugusi, M. R. Donaldson, M. Egger, I. D. Graham, M. Hodgkinson, K. M. Khan, M. Mabizela, A. Manca, K. Milzow, J. Mouton, M. Muchenje, T. Olijhoek, A. Ommaya, B. Patwardhan, D. Poff, L. Proulx, M. Rodger, A. Severin, M. Strinzel, M. Sylos-Labini, R. Tamblyn, M. van Niekerk, J. M. Wicherts, and M. M. Lalu. 2019. Predatory journals: no definition, no defence. Nature 576:210–212. doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03759-y


  1. jrkrideau says

    Discovering that you are on the board and did not know it? Alternatively, noticing some of the editorial board has been deceased for some time?

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