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    Swimming with sharks

    Despite countless spoof papers, sting operations and professors turning into detectives for the sake of their research funding (and their inbox), predatory publishers are still going strong. How are they evolving? What fuels demand for their ’services’?

    When Perry Hobson was spammed by a predatory publisher asking to buy the Journal of Vacation Marketing, which he edits, he could have just deleted the emails. Instead, he got creative.

    After tracking down the address of the publisher, Professor Hobson, Director of the Academy of Tourism at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, did his own research. He discovered the company had been registered, de-registered and then re-registered with an almost identical name, and uncovered the name of the director, who turned out to be a launderette owner. With the address, he used Google Street View to identify the property.

    The next time they sent him an offer, he replied: ‘Please let the director of your company know I’m fed up with this. And also let them know I don’t like the crazy paving that they’ve put down outside.’ “I never heard from them again, funnily enough,” he tells QS Insights Magazine.

    Publishing a paper or editing a journal, as in Professor Hobson’s case, can throw out a scent that attracts predatory publishers. Academics’ contact details, included on their papers, are sometimes used to invite them to publish in journals that have little to do with their field but offer an attractive discount on an exorbitant publication fee. They may have someone beg them to contribute a paper to a special issue of a journal to help add legitimacy. Others still could receive an invitation a conference, one of many held in a swanky hotel.

    For years, academics and journalists have been pranking predatory journals with spoof papers to expose them as frauds. Some spoofs are quite entertaining, such as one that blamed Pokemon consumption for COVID-19 outbreaks. Others have taken the route of compiling lists of what they deem to be predatory actors.

    Despite these efforts, the publish-or-perish culture of higher education, sophisticated and evolving techniques, a lack of training for early career researchers, and confusing regulation differences across regions, have created fertile ground for predatory journals to scam academics and for pseudoscience to find a platform.

    Growth and evolution of predators

    Journal metrics company Cabells International created Predatory Reports to track predatory and deceptive journals. In its history, the list has uncovered a booming business for predatory publishers and conference organisers. “The numbers of predatory journals grow exponentially each year,” says Lacey Earle, Cabells’ Chief Executive. “When Cabells launched Predatory Reports in 2017, the database covered 4,000 journals after two years of development.

    “As of the beginning of 2023, there are almost 17,000 journals.”

    While the increase in Cabells’ list is the outcome of identifying journals that were previously not detected, another cause is the evolving practices within the predatory publishing industry to generate an air of legitimacy. Hijacking reputable journals by copying their website, for example, is becoming commonplace.

    The consequence of these tactics is considerable. A survey of 1,859 academics conducted by InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) in 2022, found 14 percent of respondents had used either a predatory journal or a conference. A further 10 percent couldn’t confidently say they hadn’t. Of those that admitted to having used predatory outlets, 84 percent indicated they didn’t know they were predatory at the time.

    IAP’s survey also found no correlation between academic stage and engagement with predatory outlets, but did find that researchers in low and middle-income countries were more likely to report they had used a predatory outlet, or not know if they had.

    One researcher, who wished to remain anonymous, tells QS Insights Magazine that colleagues in Western Europe don’t want to talk about predatory journals anymore. Still, outlets have many homes, including high and middle-income countries, and papers come from researchers worldwide.

    For example, an analysis conducted by the Guardian and published in 2018 found that over 5,000 scientists in British universities had published in predatory outlets. A separate study found the same in Germany. Research conducted in Italy by Manuel Bagues, Mauro Sylos-Labini and Natalia Zinovyeva also found that out of a sample of 46,000 researchers seeking promotion in Italian academia, five percent had published in predatory journals.

    Reputation damage

    Predatory journals can create a variety of victims. While the IAP report found many stumble into a deceptive journal or conference accidentally, new tactics can see an academic promote a predatory journal without any active participation. Dr Susan Hegeman, Professor of English at the University of Florida (UF), was shocked to discover she was supposedly the editor of a predatory journal.

    “I received an email from a stranger, another academic… who was quite irate,” she tells QS Insights Magazine. “They alleged… that it was inappropriate for me to formally sponsor this clearly dodgy operation. And of course, I hadn’t formally sponsored anything and I was not an editor.”

    Dr Hegeman’s credentials were copied from the web and used without her knowledge. It was only after the journal started using UF credentials on their website that the university sent a cease-and-desist letter and the matter was resolved. Dr Hegeman even received an email from the journal editor saying they were sorry to see her go.

    But, she says, the experience left her feeling uncomfortable. She was embarrassed to be associated with the journal, but while waiting for the university to take formal legal action, Dr Hegeman decided to talk about her experience on her blog.

    “I think public shaming worked in my case,” she says. “And I hope other people consider that as an informal way of policing these kinds of marginal operations.”

    While Dr Hegeman’s problem was resolved relatively quickly, other victims of identity fraud are not as fortunate.

    Professor James McCrostie, a professor at Daito Bunka University in Japan, observes that once an academic is in that world, it’s difficult to get out. “A former colleague once unknowingly presented at a predatory conference and then had his name attached as an organizer for all subsequent conferences by the company,” he says. “It wasn’t until after I published a newspaper article about the company that his name was removed.”

    Beyond engaging in identity theft, predatory journals prey on academics that need to publish, especially those who are inexperienced. After Dr Hegeman published her blog, she was contacted by other academics who were curious about the journal, had questions on how to choose the right publication for their research, or were worried about younger academics being misdirected to inappropriate publications.

    At the University of Limerick in Ireland, Professor of International Higher Education and Vice-President Global and Community Relations, Nigel Healey, echoes Dr Hegeman’s experience. “I was at Fiji National University for four years and it was a real problem,” he says. “We had staff desperate to publish their work and many of them resorted to [predatory journals] through ignorance… They even tried to get the publication fees back from the university, because they genuinely didn’t realise.”

    Dr Hegeman says her experience left reputational damage, and the risks for all researchers is having their names tainted by association, or missing out on career opportunities if hiring committees find out. Another is seeing their research disappear because the journal is not listed on an official index. For some, the experience may even be scarier, such as being asked for exorbitant sums of money after publication under the threat of legal action.

    It’s a situation that isn’t easily addressed. While inexperienced researchers may be more at risk, anyone can get duped by predatory publishers and conference organisers, but victims of scams are usually too ashamed to speak up.

    Professor Hobson has spoken about predatory journals at academic events for some time. Once, when he asked a packed room whether anyone had ever been scammed, no one raised their hand. “But during the coffee break, people then came up to me…what they didn’t want to do was to tell everybody that they’d fallen for it.”

    This article was abridged from QS Insights issue 02. Read the full edition.