Last Wednesday De Volkskrant published an article on a study on so-called ‘predatory journals’ carried out by an international consortium. Predatory journals are journals that pretend to be scholarly publications but do not have a proper peer review procedure in place and generally publish everything they are offered, upon payment of a fee.

Until recently, the American librarian Jeffrey Beall of Colorado University at Denver maintained Beall’s List of Predatory Publishers, which was universally regarded the main blacklist of predatory journals. Among many other publishers, Beall’s list includes major publishers such as OMICS and Scientific ResearchEM discovered that these two publishers published a total of 39 articles authored by EUR-affiliated academics. Seventeen of the authors in question were affiliated with the Erasmus MC, seven with the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, and six with the Erasmus School of Economics.

'This can’t be right'

The name that features most prominently on this list is Meine Pieter van Dijk, an Emeritus Professor at ISS. So far, he has written some three hundred articles, five of which were published by predatory journals. Together with his PhD students, he contributed articles to Modern Economy, the American Journal of Climate Change and Low Carbon Economy (all of which are published by Scientific Research). He also contributed articles to two OMICS-published journals: the Journal of Coastal Zone Management and the International Journal of Waste Resources. However, at the time of publication, Van Dijk says, he was not aware that these publications were predatory journals.

Meine Pieter van Dijk (ISS)

When did you realise that something was amiss at these journals?

“I submitted an article on China to Modern Economy, and the only I comment I received was that I had to rewrite a sentence on Mao Zedong. I thought at the time: this can’t be right, because the article wasn’t about Mao at all. But I was happy to have had the article accepted, so I went along with it. Also, with top-tier journals, you will often receive four or five reviews, each of which will be three or four pages long. With these journals I received two reviews at most, and they tended to be very superficial. The discussion on predatory journals didn’t arise until later.”

What are the consequences of having your work published by such journals? Do you think it reflects badly on your research?

“Not necessarily. The article I had published by Modern Economy, which is now clearly a predatory journal, is actually included in the Google Scholar index and has been cited twenty times. Also, only five of my three hundred articles were published by such journals, so while it’s sad, it is not a huge deal to me. However, if you have only published one article, you may be left empty-handed. I once had a colleague who applied for a permanent position with an Indonesian university. When the dean discovered that his only article had been published by a predatory journal, the job was given to someone else.”

‘I work with PhD students from third-world countries, and not all of them are brilliant. We can’t all compete in the Champions’ League’

Meine Pieter van Dijk

Do you think it is common for PhD students not to realise that they are dealing with a bad journal?

“Some ten thousand journals are in print. Who knows off the top of his head which of these are proper journals? There may be about sixty decent journals in your field, only five of which will be truly top tier. You will try to have your articles published by these journals first, but if that doesn’t work out, you will try the less highly regarded ones instead. I’m not afraid to admit that. I wish to publish on my studies, and I wish to help my PhD students have their studies published. So when the top-tier journals don’t work out, we’ll try lower-tier journals. I work with PhD students from third-world countries, and not all of them are brilliant. We can’t all compete in the Champions’ League.”

It seems to me that the problem with having your articles published by journals without a proper peer review procedure is that articles by well-reputed academics may be published alongside articles by alternative medicine practitioners and studies paid for by companies, as described by De Volkskrant. I should think that would damage these academics’ reputations, and the reputation of science in general.

“I completely agree with you on that, but you are presuming that academics receive the entire issue, and that they actually read it. Of course that is not how things actually work. You will have a quick look, and you’ll think, hey, that looks pretty decent. You won’t read the whole thing. That’s why Beall’s list was so useful.”

'We did receive feedback'

Michaéla Schippers, a professor holding an endowed chair at the Rotterdam School of Management, tells us a story that demonstrates that it is harder to make a clear-cut distinction between proper academic journals and predatory journals than one might think. In association with her PhD student Andreas Alexiou, she published an article in Psychology in 2012. The Psychology journal is published by Scientific Research, which is on Beall’s list. However, her experience with the journal was not entirely what one might expect from a predatory journal.

When you and your PhD student submitted your article, were you aware that Psychology was considered a predatory journal?

“No. According to the information I had at the time, it wasn’t a top-tier journal, but at first glance, its articles struck me as being of decent quality. It’s an open-access journal, so we didn’t have to pay a fee. Back in 2012, the phrase ‘predatory journal’ was unknown, but obviously, we checked whether the journal met our minimum quality requirements. And it did. So then we submitted a conceptual article – which is to say, a confirmatory study, not based on any data. I thought it would be useful practice for my PhD student, having his first article published this way.”

‘I think this is a lower-tier journal rather than a predatory journal’

Michaéla Schippers

Did you notice anything ‘off’ during the submission procedure?

“There wasn’t an extensive review procedure, as with top-tier journals, but we did receive feedback, which we incorporated into the article.”

So you don’t consider it a predatory journal, since it doesn’t charge a fee?

“I think it’s a lower-tier journal rather than a predatory journal. I believe there’s a large grey zone between predatory journals and journals with a low impact factor, or no impact factor at all. The articles published by such journals aren’t necessarily of poor quality, but the journals do lack the extremely thorough peer review procedures employed by journals with a high impact factor. Which, I would like to point out, aren’t a solid guarantee of high-quality articles either.”

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