Predatory journals undermining PhD by publication route

Australian university limits journals accepted for doctorates amid mounting concern among academics

July 7, 2021
Person in front of a display of a group of full-scale replica sharks as a metaphor for Predatory journals jeopardise PhDs
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Academics have expressed mounting concern about the threat that predatory journals pose to doctoral students, with at least one institution tightening up its quality criteria for PhDs by publication.

As a “core consideration” of its doctorate policy, Western Sydney University (WSU) has narrowed the range of journals it accepts for published articles that form part of PhD theses. Its School of Nursing and Midwifery has gone a step further and insisted that papers must appear in outlets in the top 75 per cent of the SCImago Journal Rank.

The rule change came after an external examiner complained that papers submitted as a PhD thesis had been published in predatory journals. A review found that the journals did not meet WSU’s definition of predatory – publications that lacked peer review, transparency or reasonable editorial standards and solicited contributions deceptively.

But the case has intensified the university’s efforts in “strengthening references to the quality of journals” – work already under way to meet data collection and research assessment exercise guidelines, a spokeswoman said.

The episode reflects broader concerns that PhDs by publication encourage low-quality and repetitive science and are bedevilled by self-plagiarism and copyright problems, amid widespread anxiety about the proliferation of predatory publishers and conference organisers.

Academics say they receive requests to write for questionable journals or attend little-known events on a weekly or even daily basis, through poorly worded emails that do not initially reveal that participants are required to pay.

PhD students are thought to be especially vulnerable to such approaches because they are relatively naive about academic culture – particularly if they have clinical backgrounds – and risk being “seduced” by fawning invitations addressing them as “Doctor”.

“I don’t think one can assume that PhD students will know this is not on,” said University of Melbourne law professor Katy Barnett, who said she had recently advised a doctoral student to withdraw a paper from a publisher after noticing a plea for advice on Twitter.

“She was really excited,” Professor Barnett explained. “She said, ‘It’s my first academic publication and now they’ve asked for money – is this normal?’”

Professor Barnett said universities and supervisors needed to be more proactive in informing doctoral students about the “warning signs” of predatory publishers. “We’ve set in place incentives that [early career academics] must be published. It’s incumbent upon us to point out the pitfalls. We need better resources for how and where PhD students should publish.”

But she acknowledged the difficulty of compiling a list of predatory journals, partly because of publishers’ fly-by-night practices. “They change their names. They keep travelling along. What I would say as the indicia is, ‘If anyone asks you to pay for publishing in their journal, get out now!’”

Simon Knight, director of the Centre for Research on Education in a Digital Society at the University of Technology Sydney, warned of “perverse incentives” from expectations placed on would-be academics, with publication during honours courses becoming a prerequisite for acceptance into PhD programmes.

But restricting thesis-related papers to specified journals could also have unintended consequences, Dr Knight said. “Lots of journals are not in those rankings. New journals in emerging areas of knowledge; journals that are unconventional in various ways – they’re less likely to be in those commercial indexes,” he said.

WSU said that journal quality thresholds were being determined at the discipline level. An institution-wide restriction to better-ranked SCImago journals was not being considered “as this would exclude book chapters and other reputable publications”.


Print headline: Predatory journals jeopardise PhDs

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Reader's comments (3)

By saying that "What I would say as the indicia is, ‘If anyone asks you to pay for publishing in their journal, get out now!’” Professor Barnett seems to show that she doesn't understand Open Access publishing. These routinely, and legitimately, ask for an Article Processing Charge (APC). That's how they fund themselves while making their content available to all. Predatory publishing is now a huge and difficult problem that needs serious addressing, but identifying journals as predatory, or not, is a far more involved process than suggested.
If payment is what indicates that a journal is predatory then we are losing it. There are journals that subject articles to rigorous peer review but at the end of the day demand APC since their articles are free to access. Inasmuch as we have journals that do not meet the required standards, we should not yield to pressure from highly commercialistic journals listed in high-end sites to label 'all' open access journals as predatory.
There needs to be a clear scientific consensus on what makes a journal predatory. We have seen instances in the past of journals 'influencing' Universities to 'silence' certain academics who raised legitimate questions about journal intent and methods. And then, there are journals who employ devious tactics to get established academics to join their editorial boards in lieu of certain favours. And finally, there are journals that have been established for the sole purpose of making quick $$$ by promising rapid publication often with no peer-review at all. Academic publishing is a constantly evolving process and one that needs diligent involvement and meticulous management. You can almost be certain that predatory journals will always attempt to game the system.