How to Keep Your Research Out of Fake Journals and Scam Conferences

March 23, 2017

By Erin Zimmerman, Ph.D.

“Scientific literacy must include the ability to recognize publishing fraud.” – Jeffrey Beall, Nature (2012) 489(7415):179

By the time you reach the point in your career when you're deciding which journals your work gets submitted to, you've probably at least heard the risks associated with predatory publishers. But as the scams get ever more convincing, it's important to fully educate yourself. Predatory publishers present themselves as legitimate journals, claiming to provide peer review and editorial services. In truth, they will publish nearly anything that is sent to them (and paid for) with little to no quality control, as evidenced by the numerous examples of deliberately false papers submittedand successfully publishedby journalists and academics hoping to prove a point. This lack of quality control allows poorly conducted and outright false research to be published, sometimes leading to greater consequences down the road as these papers are cited or used as the basis for further studies. Another cause for concern is that honest researchers are sometimes duped into believing the journals are legitimate and may end up publishing good work in them. Because these scam journals aren't indexed in database services such as PubMed or held in library collections, valuable research, often publicly funded, is essentially lost. Even in cases where authors realize their mistake and attempt to withdraw the research, the journal will usually refuse, preventing its submission elsewhere.

In recent years, these shady organizations have branched out into scam conferences as well. Academics needing to add lines to their CVs in the form of conference presentations are seduced by invitations to prestigious-sounding meetings. The organizers guarantee the researcher's talk will be accepted, often in the form of a five minute mini-presentation, allowing the organizers to accept registration fees from a greater number of attendees. These mini-presentations are not vetted for the value or relevance of their content and may have little to do with the stated topic of the conference. Those who attend hoping to connect with big names in their field and communicate their findings to their peers will be disappointed. These conferences exist only to make money for their organizers and provide padding for attendees' CVs.

Another problematic activity of predatory publishers is the assembly of false editorial boards that create an illusion of legitimacy. People with good reputations in fields related to those of scam journals are contacted and asked to act as editors for the journal. Believing this to be a real opportunity to contribute to the publication of good science, they will accept and have their name placed on the masthead. Or, in some cases, they are not consulted at all and are named as editors without their knowledge. Either way, when the researchers discover that the journal is a scam and try to have their names removed, they are met with silence. This situation can be reputation damaging and hard to get out of.

In the early days of predatory publishing, scam journals were relatively easy to identify by their general unprofessional look, plentiful grammatical and spelling errors, and obvious sub-par content. Increasingly, however, fake journals are difficult to pick out. They have polished-looking websites designed to mimic that of a legitimate journal with a similar name, use logos from related professional societies to appear trustworthy by association, and will use the titles of other journals with only the word order changed, as in the case of the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology and its now defunct knock-off, Clinical Epidemiology Journal. So how is a scholar to know if a journal of interest is a safe place to submit?

Since its inception in 2012, the most well-known resource for finding out if a given journal was a scam was Beall's List run by Jeffrey Beall, a librarian and associate professor at the University of Colorado, who coined the term "predatory publisher". Though controversial in his strong stance against author-pays open access publishing, Beall has been tireless in his efforts to root out bad actors in the publishing realm and increase awareness of publishing scams. This past January, Beall's entire website, Scholarly Open Access, including the list of scam journals was taken down without any explanation. Speculation on why this occurred has been plentiful, but no one really knows, and Beall himself isn't speaking on the matter. Critics of Beall's list have pointed out the lack of transparency and accountability inherent in a blacklist maintained by a single person, preferring instead to look to whitelists, which list journals that have been rigorously evaluated and found to adhere to a high standard of peer review and publishing practices. In either case, it's important to realize that curated lists and their curators are fallible, and the presence or absence of a given journal is not the final word.

Would-be authors should take the time to do a thorough evaluation of any unfamiliar journal they're considering a submission to. Consider the following:

  1. Does the journal appear in the archived version of Beall's list? While this now-static list will become more out-of-date over time as new predatory publications crop up, it is still one of the best summaries we currently have of individually checked potential predatory publications.

  2. Is the journal indexed on databases such as PubMed or Web of Science? This is a good sign that a journal is trustworthy. It is worth noting that it does take up to three years for new journals to be indexed in many of these databases. If you are interested in submitting to a new journal and wondering about their plans for indexing, contact the editorial office to find out when they will be indexed and determine their process for indexing. You can also check if any of their other journals are widely indexed as an indicator.

  3. In the case of open access journals, is the journal listed on the Directory of Open Access Journals? This is a list of reputable open access publications that have met specific criteria.

  4. Has the publisher sent you an email, often poorly written and designed, soliciting your submission to a journal or conference unrelated or only distantly related to your field of study? Scam publishers send out huge volumes of poorly targeted emails to academics advertising their conferences and calls for papers.

  5. Is the journal asking for a submission fee? Legitimate open access journals do charge a publication fee to cover costs, but this fee is paid after acceptance not on submission. Predatory journals may also be vague about the cost of publishing or make the information difficult to find. All fees should be clear and visible on the journal website.

  6. Don't think that a journal title beginning with “Canadian Journal of” makes it a safe bet. Predatory publishers have been buying previously independent and legitimate Canadian journals and taking advantage of their trustworthy appearance. Your best bet is to find out who the publisher is and ask your colleagues if they have worked with them before. If you are still unsure, contact the publisher directly for more information. Their contact information should be prominently displayed on their website, along with key members of their staff.

  7. Check out the publisher’s website. Does it:
    • seem to have a large number of journals all starting up at the same time with few to no issues out?
    • publish journals with titles that indicate an excessively broad mandate (e.g., The International Journal of Business, Humanities and Technology)?
    • lack consistency when it comes to the formatting of author names or titles? Are there a suspicious number of spelling and/or grammatical errors?
    • seem to have a mismatch between countries indicated in journal titles (e.g., “American Journal of”) and where those journals are actually based? Does the journal title indicate it is international, but is the editorial board located in only one country?
    • promise a suspiciously short turnaround time for papers submitted to its journals? Peer review in a reputable journal typically takes months. Publishers promising a much shorter time (e.g., <1 month) from submission to final publication should be viewed with suspicion.
While no single one of these indicators is an iron-clad guarantee that a journal is or isn't legitimate, they can help you start to look for certain red flags while forming your opinion. If you’d like to do some further reading, here are some resources worth checking out:
  • Think Check Submit offers a framework in which to consider whether you’re submitting your research to a reputable journal and gives a checklist to run potential journals through. 

  • If you’d like to dig a little deeper into a suspect journal, here is a list of criteria by which journals were evaluated for inclusion on Beall's list

  • BMC Medicine published this study in 2015 looking at the characteristics, locations, and growth rates of predatory publishers identified in Beall's list.

  • A recent article in Nautilus did a comprehensive roundup of the types of fraud happening in scientific research from scam conferences to “citation stuffing” rings.

  • For a librarian’s perspective on predatory publishing, see our post by Melissa Cheung. 
Have you run into publishing or conference scams in your field? Have you ever engaged with them? Comment, or let us know on Twitter or Facebook.

    Erin Zimmerman (@DoctorZedd) is a plant biologist turned science writer and illustrator. She holds a B.Sc. in plant biology and physics from the University of Guelph, and an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in fungal genetics and molecular systematics, respectively, from the Université de Montréal. She blogs about evolution at Questionable Evolution. Find more of her writing at her website.

Filed Under: Scholarly Publishing Erin Zimmerman

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Thank you for your invaluable article about predatory journals and conferences. It is an interesting and helpful note.

I have also conducted some research on how to distinguish this predatory journals, conferences, and publisher and have published three papers in this field. You may find my papers in the following links:

I hope my papers can be helpful for those who have little experince in this field.


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