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Just how important is the problem of predatory publishing?

From the LSE Impact Blog

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The phenomenon of predatory publishing is well known following the work of Jeffrey Beall and others in highlighting and popularising the issue. In a new book titled The Predator Effect, Simon Linacre draws on his experience in tackling deceptive publishing practices, and urges the scholarly communications industry to focus, less on predatory publishing as a theoretical issue and more on the real world negative impacts that can be caused by predatory journals. Article shared from the LSE Impact Blog.

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What’s in a name? When I decided to write a book about predatory journals in early 2021, almost the first choice I made was to call it ‘The Predator Effect’. After working in academic publishing for the best part of 20 years and aware of the predatory publishing phenomenon for most of that time, I knew the problem had been mired in hair-splitting definitions and arguments around subjective criteria. It was time to understand the real impact of predatory publishing practices.

But first, the definition of what predatory publishing actually means has to be tackled. This is where some of the controversy around predatory publishing had arisen in the past, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, when Jeffrey Beall coined the phrase in 2010, he didn’t really define them as such, merely highlighted the scam of journals asking authors to pay an article processing charge (APC) for sub-standard publishing. He used the term ‘potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers’ on his now-defunct website that contained ‘Beall’s List’, but this circular description isn’t really helpful either.

A more successful attempt to define predatory practices was made in 2019 by Grudniewicz et al as:

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.

This definition led Prof Björn Brembs to the conclusion that the world’s largest publisher Elsevier could also be defined as a predatory publisher.

The problem that predatory journals present has been similarly dismissed in the past, on the grounds that some studies on predatory publishing have been flawed, there are bigger fish to fry in academic publishing practices, and that education of authors would provide an answer. And yet the problem persists with well over 16,000 journals now listed on Cabells’ Predatory Reports database, and education still has some way to go with the recent study from India that showed 41% of academic authors surveyed were not aware of predatory journals.

Defining or measuring the problem is inherently difficult given the shady nature of predatory publishing practices, and this has led others to conclude that it is better to understand the spectrum of activities encompassed by predatory publishing, rather than get hung up on definitions. There is some sense in this, and indeed part of the scope of my book is to contextualise where the phenomenon came from and the variety of ways it has manifested itself. But the academic community and other stakeholders in scholarly communications will need more clarity to successfully avoid both publishing and reading predatory journal content.

One stakeholder that evidently did think predatory journals are a major problem is the Federal Trade Commission in the US which found in 2019 that publisher OMICS International was guilty of defrauding authors paying to publish articles in hundreds of its journals, issuing a fine of just over $50m. The fact that this represents a small percentage of all the APCs that have been paid over the years by authors to predatory publishers – in return for a pdf on a website that hardly anyone will find and even fewer will read or cite – this in itself suggest that the impact of predatory journals has at least seen millions of dollars of funders’, universities’ and authors’ money be wasted.

The problem has also led to the skewing of academic behaviour, especially where predatory journals have found their way into official lists of journals where authors are encouraged to publish. Add to this the personal problems encountered by authors unwittingly sucked into the traps laid by predatory publishers – which now extend to books, conferences and virtual events – then it’s undeniable the impact of predatory behaviour has an impact on academia and the dissemination of knowledge.

However, perhaps the real ‘predator effect’ is the risk society at large is exposed to where journals purporting to be scholarly and peer reviewed instead present articles that have not been validated and contain disinformation or ‘junk science’. In a yet-to-be-published study conducted on a tranche of predatory journals that had published articles relating to COVID-19, it was found that:

  • Most articles reported preventive methods to control COVID infection, models to predict infection spread or drugs and vaccines to prevent the spread of the virus or treatments for COVID-19
  • Studies reporting the successful use of Hydroxychloroquine, Chloroquine, Ivermectin and treatments such as convalescent plasma therapy – or other complementary medicinal therapies with no clinical trials and small sample sizes – were also found
  • Within a short timeframe 85% of predatory articles we investigated received at least a single citation, which is much higher than previous studies have shown.

Similar issues have been highlighted where experimentation on people and animals has been published without any of the usual integrity checks reported. It is in this area where the impact of predatory publishing is perhaps clearest, with articles published in predatory journals also pushing conspiracy theory claims such as 5G masts causing people to catch COVID -19. These can be read, reported on and amplified by the media, significantly contributing to the ‘infodemic’ of recent times. As such, while the problem of predatory publishing can often seem remote or difficult to quantify, the effect of predatory practices can be very real indeed.


Simon Linacre is Head of Content, Brand & Press at Digital Science. He previously worked at Cabells as Marketing Director and for 15 years at Emerald Publishing, where he led its management journals program. He has been published on the topics of bibliometrics, publication ethics and research impact. Simon is a Committee on Publication Ethics Trustee, an Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers tutor, and holds masters degrees in philosophy and international business.

If you enjoyed this blog, take a look at our other content on publishing.

Conflict of Interest Statement: I worked for Cabells as Marketing Director from Aug 2018-Jul 2022. This blog originally appeared on LSE Impact Blog:

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the NIHR, Dementia Researcher or the LSE Impact Blog. Shared under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)

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