Veridiana ScarpelliIn 2015, editorial representatives from 360 open-access journals received an email from Anna Olga Szust, a young professor at the Institute of Philosophy at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland. In the message, she offered her services as an editor for the journals, although she provided few academic credentials: her résumé included just a few papers presented at conferences and one book chapter, the title of which suggested that young women born in the spring are more physically attractive than others. The responses came quickly. Anna was accepted as an editor by 48 periodicals, and four invited her to assume the position of chief editor—”with no responsibilities,” as one correspondent wrote. One person even offered to help her create a new journal.
The ease with which an inexperienced and unknown professor was able to receive such offers is serious enough. This case, however, gets even worse: Anna Olga Szust does not exist. Joining the middle initial and the last name forms the word oszust, which in Polish means fraudster or impostor. The character was created by researchers from universities in Poland, Germany, and the United Kingdom, who nicknamed her “Dr. Fraud,” as part of an investigation into the operating methods of what are known as predatory journals—paid publications that charge readers to view articles that have not been submitted to a genuine peer review.
Katarzyna Pisanski, a professor from the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex, UK, was one of the organizers of the experiment, coordinated by Piotr Sorokowski, a researcher at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. “Anna was specifically created to be a terrible choice of editor,” Pisanski told The New Yorker. The group published an article in Nature in March, detailing the experiment. They did not reveal the names of the journals, however. The frequency with which researchers receive email invitations to join editorial staff, even from journals outside their field of expertise, gave the group the idea of investigating the problems with recruiting in publishing. The emails from “Dr. Fraud” were sent to 360 randomly chosen journals, some of them listed in the Journal Citation Reports (JCR), linked to the Web of Science, and others listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). The group also used a list of suspicious open-access journals compiled by researchers at the University of Colorado.
No journal indexed in the JCR responded to the email. The study shows that of the journals that replied to the message, very few asked Anna O. Szust about her experience. And none made any attempt to contact the institution with which the false researcher was associated. “Dr. Fraud’s” résumé was carefully constructed by the authors of the study. The application email contained her academic interests, including history of science and cognitive sciences, her email address, a photo, and a link to her webpage on the Adam Mickiewicz University website. Social media accounts were also created on Google+, Twitter, and Academia.edu. At least a dozen journals offered Anna a position as an editor on condition of some form of payment or donation. In some cases, a fee was required. One periodical even charged US$750, then reduced the figure to “only US$650.”
Veridiana ScarpelliOther journals asked the character to organize a conference and told her that all papers submitted at the event would be published, as long as the authors paid a fee. One publisher even suggested sharing the profits: 60% for the magazine and 40% for Anna. According to the research, six of the eight DOAJ magazines that accepted Anna as an editor are still listed in the directory.
Publishing in a prestigious open-access journal is not cheap either. Journals published by the Public Library of Science (PLOS), for example, can charge between US$1,495 and US$2,900 per article. “Predatory journals charge a lot less, from US$100 to US$400,” said Jeffrey Beall in an interview with The New York Times. Beall is a librarian at the University of Colorado and created one of the lists of predatory publications used in the study. His opinion is that responsibility should not fall on the predatory publishers alone, since most researchers who pay to publish in low-level journals know exactly what they are doing. “I believe that many researchers have obtained jobs or promotions based on articles published in this type of journal, describing this scientific output as part of their academic credentials,” he says.
David Crotty, director at Oxford University Press, agrees that the number of predatory publications has increased because they meet a market demand. “Predatory publishers do act dishonestly and deceptively, but at the same time, they meet the needs of some authors who wish to deceive those responsible for evaluating their performance,” Crotty wrote in an article published on The Scholarly Kitchen website in February. While legitimate journals that rely on peer review often take months or even years to analyze and accept or reject an article for publication, predatory journals reduce that timeframe to just a few weeks by adopting a loose or non-existent selection process.
Some institutions have begun proposing actions to curb the advance of predatory journals. On February 18, the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME) released a warning that scientific institutions and research centers need to begin monitoring researchers who act as editors or editorial board members for suspicious publications. As a punitive measure, it suggests that institutions reject applications from such candidates. A study recently published in BMC Medicine also highlighted the need for scientific and educational institutions to be stricter with researchers who validate the practices of predatory publications. The authors of the study, including Virginia Barbour, chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), emphasize the dangers these journals pose in the medical field. “When not subjected to the rigorous scrutiny of peer review, the results of low-quality clinical research can end up included in a review article, for example, polluting the scientific record. In biomedicine, this could be harmful to patients,” concludes the study.