Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Real Cost of Predatory Journals

By Guy Nolch

Predatory journals not only scam genuine scientists, they provide plausible citations that promote pseudoscience.

This magazine relies in great part on the enthusiasm of scientists to write about their work, putting aside their professional and personal obligations for many hours to write in a style that is far removed from the academic language with which they’re familiar.

Each month I send unsolicited invitations to scientists whose research has twigged my interest, and in most cases they accept – some enthusiastically and others obviously grappling with the demands of their many other commitments. But last month I was taken aback when one scientist’s reply asked whether he would need to pay to be published in Australasian Science? Really? Of course not!

Then I thought back to a rash of emails that had bypassed my junk filtering a few weeks earlier. These emails, formatted in glorious HTML, were calling for submissions of research papers to journals with titles that were very similar to existing publications. The cost of peer review was to be born by the author.

Journals such as these are known as “predatory journals”. These prey on the “publish or perish” mantra that plays a large part in career advancement in science, and this is enabling them to charge thousands of dollars for each paper they publish.

Shouldn’t it be obvious to academics that this is a scam? Not when eminent scientists in their field are named as editors or members of the journal’s editorial board – without their permission of course.

The number of predatory journals is rising, and the practice has even morphed into predatory conferences. Earlier this year this magazine’s Patron, Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty, pulled out of a Melbourne vaccine conference after learning that it was organised by an Indian company that publishes hundreds of predatory journals.

In life, and on the internet, there are scams everywhere. Yet there’s an important reason for us to be more alarmed by the rise of predatory journals than simply because they’re directly targeting our special interest group.

Predatory journals undermine the integrity of academic publishing. If some scientists can’t distinguish between a genuine and a fake journal, how is anyone else going to do it? With the rise of open publishing on the internet, members of the public can access what looks and feels like genuine science and make decisions on important matters, such as their health, accordingly.

This is playing into the hands of groups with a vested interest in anti-science. Predatory journals pretend to be peer reviewed, but there’s nothing stopping groups with misguided but genuine beliefs, such as alternative medicine practitioners, from publishing poorly designed and analysed studies whose citations give their conclusions credence. There’s also nothing stopping front groups for the energy or tobacco industries, for example, from publishing deliberately biased studies to muddy the scientific debate.

Predatory journals may cost some scientists money and professional embarrassment, but the greater cost is that they can give unwarranted scientific credibility to those who reject or manipulate science to promote their agenda.

Guy Nolch is the Editor and Publisher of Australasian Science.