What is predatory or unethical publishing?
Predatory or unethical publishing is typically defined as publishers or journals who have employed deceptive or questionable processes to profit from publishing scholarly works. Some of these practices include:
- journal names or website designs that can be confused with established journals
- misleading claims for peer review, indexing, impact factors, or editorial board members
- author fees for editorial and publishing services, such as peer review, without such services being provided
- lack of transparency about policies, location, and staff
- mass e-mails soliciting submission to the journal or invitations to serve on editorial boards
Defining or identifying unethical journals or publishers has involved controversy and complex issues.
- The term predatory has been seen as pejorative by some; other terms used that you may see coupled with publishers and/or journals include:
- Defining which journals are predatory has been a controversial undertaking as well, sometimes involving litigation
- Strategies for identifying unethical publishers have involved blacklists, whitelists, open access publisher association guidelines for inclusion in the association, and evaluation strategies and checklists
- The increasing sophistication of deceptive publishers and the techniques they use means that identifying these publishers cannot be accomplished in one quick, simple step the way you can identify peer-reviewed journals, for example.
- The issues of predatory publishing are complex and touch on many issues of modern scholarly publishing:
- the rising cost of subscription journals
- the proliferation of published works
- the open access movement
- the need for academics to publish to obtain/maintain tenure, and ethical research and publishing
For more information about the issues, please see A quick overview of deceptive publishing issues section.
The old adage, "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is" can be helpful to keep in mind when evaluating journals.
The following are by no means a complete list of all criteria to consider, but are common red flags. For information about more thorough evaluation criteria, please see the Resources for researchers section.
- unsolicited emails from publishers asking you to submit to their journal, or serve as reviewer/editor
- Reputable journals may have backlists, and typically have enough submissions; they do not need to go out looking for content.
- very quick peer review process (We review your submission in a week!) and/or publication process
- Publication processes take time, even for an online open access journal. Promises of very quick turnaround can indicate a lack of any type of content review.
- journal websites that contain ads, misspellings, and other less than professional content
- Most reputable journals, even new open access ones, will take the time to develop a professional looking website.
- lack of transparency as far as submission policies, information about author fees, information about how their peer review process works, copyright information, retraction policies, archived content information, contact information or physical location information missing
- This type of information should be available for reputable journals, typically on the website or by contacting the publisher.
- lack of content especially when the publication dates for the journal available are older, with no new content to be found, or there are significant gaps in publication dates with no explanation
- A new journal may not have much content available yet, so you would need to carefully look at publication dates to see what lack of content may indicate.
- lack of indexing information
- Reputable journals will be indexed in important journal databases in a discipline. Claims of indexing on a journal website do not mean the journal is actually indexed. Check Ulrich's Periodicals Directory to see if the journal is indexed. See the Journal Indexes page for more information about indexing.
- publication fees that don't reflect services
- Publication fees may be charged by reputable open access publishers; make sure that you are getting services such as peer review, for your fee.
Resources for researchers
The following resources include links to information on evaluation criteria, best practices and membership lists for open access publishers, the archived Beall's list, and a database of retracted articles.
Think, Check, Submit offers a checklist for assessing journals or publishers. While the Principles of transparency and best practice in scholarly publishing were developed for publishers to determine membership criteria, the Principles of Transparency are a nice list of criteria to consider when evaluating journals.
These resources offer information on publication ethics and best practices for publishers; the information can be useful in understanding current open access publishing practices. Where open access publishers offer easily accessible member lists, these links have been provided.
An anonymous source has posted an archived copy of Beall's original list of predatory journals to make it accessible online after Beall took it down. The information is not being regularly updated.
Retraction Watch offers a fascinating look at the publication process and research ethics through a blog and database tracking articles that have been retracted from scholarly journals for a variety of issues.
A quick overview of deceptive publishing issues and approaches
Beall's list (blacklists)
Librarian Jeffrey Beall coined the term predatory publishing to refer to publishers who use deceptive practices to profit from author publication fees, without offering traditional editorial and publishing services associated with reputable open access and subscription journal publishers. Beall formerly made a list of publishers he deemed predatory available on his blog, but pulled the list down in early 2017 after threatened lawsuits from publishers and a research misconduct case based on his list.
A source identified only as a postdoctoral researcher at a European university has revived Beall's list of predatory journals in an online, archived version. This source has stated that those involved with the project probably don't have time to maintain the list. As things change with publishers over time, the archived list will become outdated if not maintained.
An alternative approach to developing blacklists of unethical publishers has been to try to develop lists of publishers that meet criteria for transparency in their business and peer review processes. Cabells Scholarly Analytics publishes a list of these types of journals, but access to Cabells is subscription only and can be quite expensive. Cabells also developed its own blacklist of publishers after Beall pulled his list, and offers access to this list through subscription.
Another version of a whitelist is to look at open access publisher associations' lists. Publisher associations have criteria for membership. Looking at a list of publishers/journals who are members of a reputable publisher association shows which publishers/journals have met the criteria. For open access publisher associations, the criteria are also available online and can be helpful in choosing a quality publisher or journal.
Journal list issues
Issues with both the whitelist and blacklist approach is that maintaining either type of list is time consuming, difficult to keep current, involves some level of subjectivity in journal inclusion, and, particularly in the case of blacklists, may involve litigation threats. Additionally, the terms blacklist and whitelist are problematic, and help perpetuate the use of racist language.
Some have advocated more of a due diligence approach, where authors assess journal or publisher credentials before submitting research for publication. In this approach, authors do not depend on an external list that may or may not be current or accurate, but instead evaluate journals based on a variety of criteria. This approach is more individualized, as a researcher/author may have some criteria that are more important to them than others, and can tailor an assessment to these criteria.
Issues with an evaluation approach is that responsibility is put on authors. Publishing issues and evaluation criteria may not be something a researcher understands, and may take time to master. This approach is not necessarily easy, can take some amount of time, and may require some training or education on the issues of predatory publishing and how to evaluate.