Editors are the gatekeepers of academic journals. They decide if studies are worthy of peer review and if papers are published or rejected. Editor roles are typically reserved for experts in the field. Yet many scientists find their inboxes filled with invitations to edit dubious journals in subjects well outside their area of study. These “predatory journals,” as they are known, are little more than money-making schemes that publish the work of unwitting or unethical scientists in exchange for payment.
Four Polish psychologists recently devised an experiment to learn more the world of shady academic journals. They created a sham CV for a fictional scientist they named Dr. Anna O. Szust—a play on the Polish word oszust, meaning fraud. They gave Szust degrees, publications, book chapters, professional affiliations, social media accounts, and a faculty web page at a Polish university that could be accessed through a link provided on the CV (though not through the university’s actual website).
They sent Szust’s CV and cover letter to 360 journals, split evenly between journals listed in the Journal Citation Reports directory, titles on the Directory of Open Access Journals, and known or potentially predatory publications. They published their results in the journal Nature on March 22.
The most prestigious journals ignored or rejected Szust outright. So did all but eight of the 120 journals from the open-access directory. And while 79 of the potentially predatory outlets passed over Anna O. Szust, 41 invited the fictional candidate to join their staff, sometimes within hours of her unsolicited email application. Four titles immediately appointed her editor-in-chief.
Some offers were contingent on Szust subscribing or donating to the journal. (Reputable journals do not do this.) Others asked that Szust pay to submit her own papers or recruit others to do so. (Again, not standard publishing ethics.)
The proliferation of these predatory journals—one site called Scholarly Open Access that tracked these (it’s no longer publicly available) noted 10,000 such titles by the end of 2016—leads to a glut of bad studies that diminish public trust in legitimate science. By the end of 2015, these suspect journals published roughly 500,000 papers collectively. Each poorly-vetted paper is potential fodder for someone seeking to buttress a dubious claim with bad science.
The researchers contacted every accepting journal to inform them of their initial deception and formally withdraw the application of fictional Anna O. Szust. Not all of them cared. At the time of publication, 11 journals still listed her as a member of their editorial boards.