Phishing for scientists 2019: Redirecting the responsibility

by Janice Nigro

The history behind “predatory journals”

The novel noun “predatory journal,” created in German-like fashion in a blog that no longer exists, refers to a specialized internet scam phishing for scientists. Organizers masquerade as online journals, tempting scientists to submit articles for publication in an open access format by promising rigorous review and accelerated publication. They accept your paper, ask for a fee (or maybe they ask for the fee first), and then nothing happens.

Using the favorite word of the moment, it’s a fake journal.

They are most easily recognized as the annoying spam emails littered with unrecognizable words, asking you to be a “featurette” in their upcoming edition or conference, and are authored by someone named simply Mary who writes to you from a hotmail account.

They are entertaining reads for sure, but as if in some off-beat spy/crime thriller, they have become the source of rumors, worry, harassment/bullying, spoofing/jokes, and destruction of legitimate journal operations and budding careers. What happened?

The whole idea went off the rails when a librarian in the USA brought worldwide attention to the problem. He started an important discussion to be sure because scientists were getting duped, particularly early career scientists in emerging economy countries. The discussion went too far though when it began to take the form of a protest against open access journals in general.

The argument was that open access has an apparent conflict of interest. The more articles, the more money the journal, legitimate or fake, makes. Therefore, unworthy manuscripts might be published just for the money and for that reason open access was bringing down the quality of science overall.

Ho hum you might say in the world of TV and movie plots, until you find yourself in the middle of a controversy.

The controversy

There was no controversy for me. I read the online journal I submitted my most recent article to. It has been around for almost a decade, and the journal with a focus on cancer research is well-regarded among scientists working in the field. For many reasons, it was the right venue for the article. Our study concerning a novel cancer model was thorough with a minor twist to the data rendering it an interesting read, but not breakthrough science.

I knew of the allegations against the journal that it was fake, but I discounted them because I read the journal and I edit many manuscripts that are submitted to the journal. The issue was resolved I had thought when the journal was reinstated at the beginning of 2018 to PubMed which is a free resource from the US government maintaining among other things selected citations and abstracts in biologically related fields. But it became a dilemma for me when the department of one of the authors claimed it was a fake journal all because the blog that no longer exists had listed it as a predatory journal. Students don’t get their degrees and candidates don’t get promoted due to such allegations.

So scientists were now duped into thinking a reputable journal was fake. No one knows why the journal ended up on the list, but in the age of the internet, it takes a lot of work to erase that kind of reputation. It never really goes away.

All open access journals have to work against this thinking maybe because of bias (anyone can pay to have an article published) or maybe just because the venue bucks tradition. Other online journals that are attached to more famous print journals such as Nature Communications and Cell Reports have fared a little better in this new age of publishing science, but these journals still maintain a level of selectivity that we cannot all reach, at least not every time we want to publish.

Open access is not going to go away. Scientists around the world have room to publish their work, and for it to be discussed. Publishing also provides a critical teaching opportunity that open access journals can fulfill as it tends to be faster. Like taking digital photographs versus film.

But after over a decade, the open access model is still struggling to gain equality as a reputable publishing format for career scientists in some disciplines in some areas of the world, probably due in large part to the number of so-called predatory journals that popped up. We’ve lost our way a bit. How can we help open access publishing achieve equality with traditional publishing?

Change your attitude

A previous paper of mine I sent to two print journals for possible publication. A cheeky reviewer at one of the journals basically asked if they could have access to my reagent, in effect demonstrating the value of my work, but then rejected my paper. I’ll never forget one of the reviews at the open access journal PLoSONE, which accepted the paper: “Magnificent piece of work.”

I swore after that experience I would never submit to a print journal again. My time, and maybe my field’s time, is worth something too. The PLoS review process didn’t take that much less time than a print journal, but once the paper was accepted, it was online within a short period of time.

Read the online journals you plan to publish in

If you never read articles in the journal you submit to, then you probably have no business submitting to it. You will become familiar with the scientists, the topics, and the style of the articles the journal might be looking for. My recent article was a straight forward genomics paper on a cancer model that was perfect for an online cancer research journal.

Get help from senior advisors

Ask if you are a trainee. If you are a senior person, pay attention/be interested. Some of the problems I see in the articles I edit stem from a clear lack of mentoring.

Make your own assessment

The blacklist is no longer publicly available, but you can see it if you pay for it. It’s bad enough that a whole sinister industry has grown out of the internet, but now there is an analytics firm available to assess the validity of a journal that concerns you (Cabells Scholarly Analytics). Really? I find this almost as scandalous as the scam of predatory journals. If we need a service to tell us that the journal is predatory, then we have failed already as scientists. You can find a list of criteria here.

Maybe journals are not failing us; we are failing the journals

The blame might be misplaced. Scientists are responsible for what they put out there. Scientists, reviewers, co-authors, we all have a vested interest in the success of the open access model. The predatory journal scam and our obsession with it is almost like a short circuit in the system to protect an old way of doing things because we are so stuck on tradition. Good papers have always come from good questions and hard work for me. And ultimately we should have a bigger picture than publishing papers, so where they end up shouldn’t matter. I know it does to everyone in the community, but we have to get over it.

Curiosity, that’s what drove scientists to work on luciferase, bacterial immunity, and many of the other odd, unconventional who-would-study-that systems that led to breakthroughs, at least in my lifetime. There’s no cookbook, no set of rules for success, and it’s painful that publication has become another box to check on the list determining whether scientists get to graduate, get a job, or get funding. Organizations and institutions should not be run as if such a cookbook exists.

It’s not really the scam that’s the problem, but rather why it fills a need

That’s what really drives this business. Once we direct our goals to where we publish or just that we publish, we’re no longer focused on the science. Good/important science will always be cited no matter which legitimate journal publishes the work. One of the most highly cited articles ever in my field of study as a graduate student was turned down by several high impact journals. It didn’t matter. Scientists found it anyway.

The benefits that science has to gain from online publishing are tremendous. Access to new knowledge is immediate (relative to print journals), and if the journal is open access, anyone with internet can read them. The best option is to figure out how to deal with online publishing appropriately now. An easy place to start is to pay better attention to our trainees and colleagues and the quality of the research we put out there. That’s our job.

Redirect the responsibility

The media has had a good time playing games with the scam artists phishing for scientists, and then reporting about it. But the responsibility is really ours as scientists. We can be better mentors, reviewers, and colleagues before our science stories ever hit the news.

How do you feel about publishing in open access?

©Janice Marie Nigro/

Looking for a scientific editor or writer? Contact Janice Nigro at Janice Nigro Ink. I have published in Cell, Science, and Nature, and articles I have edited have appeared in Cancer Research, PLoSONE, the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and Oncotarget.


2 thoughts on “Phishing for scientists 2019: Redirecting the responsibility

Add yours

  1. Thanks Janice for shining light on the subject. I’m one of those who was brought up with printed journals and find your experience very disturbing and sad to see that the unnecessary hurdles you encountered with ultimate rejection.
    I’m glad that you took a stand and applaud you for doing it. Keep up with good work. Best. Raj

    1. Thanks Raj! It’s super difficult today to publish in print journals. Scientists work in productive research environments around the world. I think now there is room online so the criteria for publishing in print have become more limiting. It starts to be a big waste of time to submit papers to print journals. They will get tied up in review for a long time with no real criticisms other than they are not interested in the paper. That’s fine but you spend three months every time you do that. Open access is great, but it has this scam artist side to it, so even some journals that are legitimate can get erroneously lumped together with the bottom dwellers. The system puts so much pressure on getting a publication. So there’s a market for these fake journals.

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