First came the spam emails professing faith in the recipient and requesting the safekeeping of millions of dollars that the sender, located in some distant land, had fortuitously chanced up. Many “lucky” recipients walked into the trap only to lose money.

The scamsters then moved on to hacking the email accounts of individuals and sending distress emails to all their contacts seeking money. In the past few years, as awareness spread of ‘419 scams’ — named after the numbered section of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud — the pitches have become ever more focused and sophisticated. The latest — and arguably the most insidious — form: Open Access “journals.”

Unlike subscription-based journals like, say, Nature, Econometrica or the American Journal of International Law, Open Access (OA) journals are freely accessible online. The business model revolves around the author-pay mode — where researchers pay for publishing their work.

This model has become an academic game-changer in the last decade. With the number of genuine OA titles proliferating by the day, and even reputed publishing houses like the Nature Publishing Group jumping on the bandwagon, keeping track of the new additions has become extremely difficult, particularly by scholars in developing countries. The author-pay mode, the number of titles, and the average developing country researcher’s inexperience in scholarly communication have provided the perfect milieu for electronic ‘dons’ to make a killing.

Modus operandi

Their modus operandi is to send mails to researchers and scientists soliciting manuscripts but never mentioning the processing fee charged per “article” published. Many of the bogus “journal” websites do not mention the charges. When they do, they are anywhere between $100 and $1,800. But some journals, like ‘Academy Publish’, offer a “discount” up to 75 per cent. “We currently offer a 75 per cent discount to all invitees,” the journal website states. The ‘Asian Journal of Mathematical Sciences’ charges $250 per manuscript. But it offers a bait: “If you do not have funds to pay such fees, you [sic] will have an opportunity to waive each fee up to 50 per cent. We do not want fees to prevent the publication of worthy work.”

If keeping the processing fee low is one way of enticing researchers, all fake journals, as a rule, promise quick processing time. With some publishers offering up to 200 journals, they ensure that a variety of titles covering every imaginable area of specialisation is available. Interestingly, only some of these titles have any “papers” listed and even these cover very different fields from medicine to physics to chemistry in one “issue.” Most of these ‘journals’ would not have progressed beyond the third volume. For instance, the Discovery group of publications has many “titles,” but only Discovery Science has about half a dozen “papers,” all from authors based in India.

Speaking to The Hindu, one of the authors from a reputed institution in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, expressed complete ignorance about the status of a ‘journal’ he had contributed an article to. So what prompted him to choose this ‘journal’? “I got an email from them asking me to consider sending my paper. I also saw other papers published by authors based in India”.

While many titles do not have editors listed on the websites, a few others carry the names of respected researchers from reputed institutions. “I get e-mails from the predators’ victims. Some have been named as members of editorial boards without their knowledge or permission,” writes Jeffrey Beall, in Nature. Prof Beall is Scholarly Initiatives Librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver and regularly updates his blog Scholarly Open Access (http://scholarlyoa.com/individual-journals/) with exhaustive posts on several issues pertaining to predatory publishing.

Unaware

Prof. Natarajan Muthusamy, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine and the Ohio State University Medical Center has been named as the Editor-in-Chief of a journal from the OMICS Publishing Group, Journal of Postgenomics: Drug & Biomarker Development. “I am not aware that I am Editor-in-Chief [of this journal]. I do not recall having committed to this job,” he told The Hindu in an email.

Aside from soliciting scholarly papers, emails requesting scientists to become reviewers, editors and editors-in-chief are not uncommon. “I receive at least two mails a week soliciting papers; also to become a reviewer,” says Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Director of the Chennai-based National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis. Dr. V.D. Ramanathan, who recently retired as a senior scientist from the same institute, has the same story to tell. “I get three to four mails a week. Some solicit by sending personalised mails where they cite my papers published in reputed journals.”

“They want others to work for free, and they want to make money off the good reputations of honest researchers,” Prof. Beall explains.

How to spot a fake

So how can researchers inexperienced in scientific publishing identify a fake journal? The first stop should be Prof. Beall’s blog where exhaustive lists (http://scholarlyoa.com/publishers/ and http://scholarlyoa.com/individual-journals/) of counterfeits have been listed out. The lists are a product of research done assiduously since 2009, first by following up on email solicitations and then based on tip-offs by scholars. “[They can] consult my list. Discuss with senior colleagues or mentors [to know] which are the best journals,” he told The Hindu.

Caution

Email solicitations are sent out by most, if not all, of the OA publishers. Hence that criterion alone should not be used for determining the status of a journal. Aside from the list of fake journals, all researchers should make it a point to read the exhaustive criteria listed out by Prof. Beall in his August 4 post (http://scholarlyoa.com/2012/08/04/criteria-for-determining-predatory-open-access-publishers/) to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Even if one were to accidentally chance upon these fakes, the websites replete with grammatical mistakes should serve as a giveaway. Many will have at least one blank dropdown box.

Some have titles that are a near replica of genuine ones. For instance, Springer’s Journal of Cloud Computing and the fake one from IBIMA Publishing are one and the same, except that Springer’s has a subtitle, which does not show up in Google’s search results.

At times even a glance at some of the websites should be sufficient to identify a bogus. For instance, the home page of Antarctic Journals group, which has twinkling stars as the background and titles presented in garish colours, should serve as a warning.

But some are too close to the original. Elixir Online Journal published from India is one such instance. “It [Elixir] closely copies the Elsevier logo, and its papers copy the Elsevier layout. The journal's goal is to look as legitimate as possible in order to get authors to submit papers and submit the author fees,” Prof Beall notes. “While it may contain some quality articles by those authors who have been fooled, I recommend that readers remain sceptical of the ‘journal’s content.”

The benchmark

But Scientific Research Publishing (SCRIP) takes the cake for imitation. Apart from correctly assigning and using DOI (Digital Object Identifier), it contains some quality “papers.” “Because the publisher is so successful at making its web presence seem legitimate, it has attracted some quality article submissions. Nevertheless, it is really little more than a vanity press,” he writes.

The ominous part is the wilful use of such “journals” to publish low-quality work or manuscripts that have been rejected by genuine publishers. A young researcher can use this medium to increase his publication list. The publish-or-perish atmosphere exerts tremendous pressure on senior researchers. This forces some to resort to unethical practices like plagiarism, data falsification and fabrication.

Will these fake journals become a most sort-after destination by such scientists? “I think predatory publishers have the potential to do irreparable harm to scholarly communication. Because many of these publishers do not have an honest peer review, articles that represent pseudo-science are being accepted and read,” Prof. Beall warns.

David Knutson, spokesperson for the Public Library of Science (PLoS), a leading OA group, says the problem is not with open access. “There is no evidence that … quality of peer review is worse for OA vs toll access journals,” he writes in an email to The Hindu. “There are many bogus publishers and bogus journals. Some of them are subscription, some of them are ‘free’ funded by commercial interests, and some of them are OA. The dodgy OA ones are pretty easy to spot. The dodgy subscriptions ones are somewhat less so in many cases because they exist within ‘trustworthy’ publishers.”

With no organisation or system in place to check the entry of counterfeits, the onus is on researchers to decide the reliability of what they read, and where to publish their work.

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