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Masters of disguise

Predatory journals seek to simulate respectability by fraudulenty naming prestigious scientists as article authors and editorial board members

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Predatory scientific journals that publish articles for financial gain without performing a genuine peer review are looking for new ways to deceive unsuspecting authors. One trick that is becoming more common among these journals is to fabricate impressive editorial boards by fraudulently naming prestigious researchers, and in extreme cases, publishing articles falsely attributed to renowned authors to simulate respectability.

A recent episode involved the African Journal of Political Science, published by International Scholars Journals (ISJ), and researcher Anca Turcu of the School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs at the University of Central Florida, USA. While retrieving publication statistics to update her résumé, Turcu found an article attributed to her in the African journal, but she never wrote the paper. The study, on waste recycling, was completely unrelated to her research interests, which include diasporas and electoral processes. On further investigation, she found that the paper was not only fraudulent in its attribution of authorship, it was also plagiarized from the journal Energy Policy, originally written by three Chinese researchers and published in January 2022.

The incident was reported on the Retraction Watch website, which contacted the editor in chief of the ISJ title by email. The level of fraud was found to be more extensive than thought. Jephias Mapuva, a professor at Bindura University of Science Education in Zimbabwe, responded that he had never had any connection with the journal. “It came to me as a surprise that I am listed as an editor in chief,” he wrote, attaching a copy of an email he had sent to ISJ demanding that his name be removed from the website. Retraction Watch also discovered that there are two different journals called African Journal of Political Science that share the same International Standard Serial Number (ISSN), an eight-digit code used as a unique identifier for journals. The older one belongs to the African Political Science Association and stopped circulating in 2004, but started receiving articles again last year.

The more recent journal — the one published by ISJ in which the fraudulent article was published — has existed since 2007. It has been known as a predatory journal since 2021, when Canadian psychologist Nadine Bekkouche issued a statement on her LinkedIn profile recounting her bad experience with the title. She had published a paper on student mental health in Performance Improvement Quarterly, a journal published by Wiley, and later received an email from the African Journal of Political Science inviting her to write about the same topic in the form of a commentary article. As soon as she submitted the text, she was asked to pay a fee of €1,000. She refused to pay and asked for the article to be removed. The demands continued by telephone and email, and at one point the journal tried to charge Bekkouche a fee to withdraw the article, which the researcher again refused to pay. “It was frankly abusive,” she said, warning other researchers not to fall for the same trap.

Founded in 2002, ISJ publishes 86 journals in a range of fields, from sociology to medicine and agricultural sciences. On its website, it lists postal addresses in New York, USA, and Abuja, Nigeria. It claims to follow the guidelines of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), an international association for scientific integrity in publishing, but its name does not appear among the more than 10,000 members. The company was also included on an infamous list of more than 8,000 predatory publishers and journals compiled by librarian Jeffrey Beall of the University of Colorado, USA, which ultimately ended up being taken down by the author due to threats of legal action.

The fraud committed by the African Journal of Political Science is not an isolated case in the world of predatory journals. At the beginning of the year, Prime Scholars, which publishes 56 scientific journals, was also accused of fraudulently naming researchers as editors or authors without their permission. The company has an address in London but seems to operate from India.

In a comment published in Nature in 2021, a group of scientists from the University of Montreal, Canada, and the Georgia Institute of Technology, USA, identified several ways that predatory journals disguise their unethical behavior. The team created a database called Lacuna, containing 900,000 articles from 2,300 journals not indexed in international databases, which includes predatory titles, as well as legitimate journals run by small publishers or institutions.

One case studied by the group was that of publishing house OMICS International, based in Hyderabad, India, which in 2019 was found guilty of deceptive business practices in a suit filed by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Researchers were invited by OMICS to submit papers or give lectures at conferences, only to be surprised by their manuscripts being instantly published in conference proceedings with no peer review and then hit with fees running into the thousands of dollars. The Nature article explains that the company continued to operate normally after the ruling in 2019, renaming the journals classified as predatory and linking them to a number of subsidiary companies, such as Hilaris, Longdom, and iMEDPub. But the suspicious practices continued. When analyzing the content in the Lacuna database, the researchers found nine articles in the Journal of Bone Research and Reports, published by iMEDPub, that were apparently written by fictitious authors and plagiarized from articles in an Elsevier journal called Bone Reports. Much of the text was slightly different, with words replaced by synonyms in an attempt to avoid detection.