Recent years have seen a huge rise in so-called "predatory" journals that seek to exploit the open-access model of publishing for financial gain.
One trend has been the flood of "hijacked journals", which are, essentially, counterfeit websites for already-existing, mostly print-only, genuine journals. Last month, Mehrdad Jalalian, editor-in-chief of the medical and health sciences journal Electronic Physician, based in Mashhad, Iran, reported on the story of 90 hijacked journals, which make money when unsuspecting academics pay a fee to publish in them.
“I do not believe that publishing in fake or hijacked journals is [necessarily] unethical conduct,” says Dr Jalalian, given that the authors of these articles may not be to blame. Instead, he adds, their institutions must also be held accountable for not training them on publication ethics.
However, one does have to sympathise with the scholars who have been tricked in such a way. Researchers worldwide have contacted Dr Jalalian to express their concern about their academic credibility being damaged after naively publishing research in hijacked journals.
Dr Jalalian, thus, raises an important question in his recent editorial: “Is the legitimate author allowed to republish her/his article in a legitimate journal – or would that constitute duplicate publication?”
It’s a question that has no easy answer, but one that I think needs to addressed, if not for the sake of the academics that have been conned, then for the legitimate research that is locked up on these dodgy websites.
Dr Jalalian says there are hundreds if not thousands of genuine papers stuck in hijacked journals. These papers should be labelled “stolen”, he says, and the authors should therefore be allowed to republish their papers in a legitimate journal after peer review.
“We believe it is better to vaccinate the academic world against the poisonous effects of both the hijacked and questionable journals before it is too late,” Dr Jalalian wrote in his recent paper.
Several lists that highlight suspected predatory publishers and journals already exist, but Dr Jalalian suggests that a more effective method of monitoring journals may be to make a list of legitimate journals, and sticking to these approved journals when submitting new papers.
Last month, in a proposal to the Committee on Publication Ethics, Dr Jalalian suggested designing a flowchart outlining the procedure of republishing legitimate papers. The next question, he notes, is whether journals will be willing to publish these recycled articles.
Some scholars may have have published in hijacked journals deliberately, but many would have done so unintentionally. There is, therefore, a need to distinguish between the unethical approaches of some researchers from the innocent naivety of others.
Dalmeet Singh Chawla is a freelance science journalist based in London