When Alastair Harden began receiving emailed invitations earlier this year to submit papers to various similar-sounding open-access journals with what he saw as little obvious relation to his discipline, the PhD student and sessional lecturer in Classics at the University of Reading smelled a rat.
Closer examination revealed that the journals were all published by the Centre for Promoting Ideas, which, despite its British spelling, claims on its website to be based at what appears to be a non-existent address in New York City.
A visit to what Mr Harden described as the centre's "hilarious" website - which includes reference to a director named "Dr John Simth Jr" (sic) - convinced him to contact Times Higher Education.
He is not the first to question the centre's credentials.
It is among nearly 140 "predatory" publishers and 30 stand-alone journals on a list maintained since 2008 by Jeffrey Beall, associate professor and metadata librarian at the University of Colorado Denver.
Dr Beall defines "predatory" journals as publications that "exploit the gold open-access model for their own profit". That is, they present themselves as standard academic journals but seek to maximise their income from article fees by publishing all submissions with little or no scrutiny.
Many predatory publishers, according to Dr Beall, refer to themselves as "centres", "institutes" or "networks", and are often run by people from the developing world (but who are often living in the West).
He said they exploit the fact that academics in some developing nations are judged on the quantity of their research output, which gives them a strong incentive to publish as much as possible regardless of quality.
But some countries give academics additional credit for publishing in foreign journals, which explained why so many predatory journals were registered in Western countries such as the UK, the US and Canada, Dr Beall added.
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Stories abound of academics' names being added to the editorial boards of "predatory" journals without their knowledge.
One such victim is Stephen Blamey, fellow by special election in philosophy at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, who is listed as a member of the editorial board of the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, one of the Centre for Promoting Ideas' five journals.
"I became aware of this when a would-be contributor emailed me," he said. "He had become suspicious because of a $200 (£1) publication fee that had to be paid into an account in Bangladesh. I'd never even heard of the journal."
Dr Blamey asked the journal to remove his name, but a "bland" promise to do so has not been acted upon.
A similar story is told by another supposed board member, Sara Maioli, lecturer in economics at Newcastle University - although in her case, her emails to the journal went unanswered. Dr Smith, the person listed as the centre's director, did not respond to an invitation to comment.
Several recent calls for papers issued by Centre for Promoting Ideas journals claim that they are "under the indexing process" with mainstream bibliographic databases such as Scopus.
However, a spokesman for Elsevier, which owns Scopus, said the journals had already been rejected and the centre would be asked to remove the reference to the database from any future "marketing materials".
The editors of some "predatory" journals give every appearance of having been invented.
One example is "Dr Stephen West", listed as chief editor of the International Journal of Arts and Commerce, published by the Center for Enhancing Knowledge, UK. He is described as a professor at the University of Glasgow.
However, the university does not employ an academic of that name, and Professor West's biography appears to be a word-for-word copy of the website biography of Maurizio Carbone, a (real) professor of international development at Glasgow.
Chris Taylor, reader in Cardiff University's School of Social Sciences, was so suspicious about a call for papers - to be published for a fee of £100 - from the International Journal of Arts and Commerce that he reported it to the police.
He said he had heard nothing since.
Dr Beall has added the Center for Enhancing Knowledge, UK to his list after investigations revealed that its domain name was registered at the address of a money transfer shop in Birmingham, and that several articles on its website were previously published elsewhere.
The person listed as its executive director, James Rhian Davies, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
The downside to open access?
Dr Beall, who is a member of the editorial board of the subscription journal Cataloging and Classification Quarterly, said that mainstream open-access journals were not part of the problem.
But he said "predatory" journals exposed the downside of the gold model: namely, that it puts publishers at the service of authors rather than readers. This meant that they had less of an incentive to maintain the integrity of the scholarly record than subscription publishers.
"I am overwhelmed by the amount of plagiarism I see in predatory publishers' journals," Dr Beall said. "They are also blurring the line between science and pseudo-science.
"It threatens to bring down the entire system of scholarly communication," he warned
Even experienced Western academics may not immediately identify "predatory" journals as dubious.
Dr Maioli said she knew of colleagues who had published in the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, while both Simon Bell, senior lecturer in design and visual arts at Coventry University, and Simon Huston, lecturer in property studies at the University of Queensland, agreed to an emailed request for reviewers by the International Journal of Arts and Commerce. They now find themselves unwitting members of its "editorial board".
Dr Beall said it was difficult to judge the credentials of journals "unless you are an expert in the field. Some fields have so many journals now that it is almost impossible for anyone to keep up."
He said this was particularly likely to be true of early-career academics, but added that faculty at all levels were often insufficiently vigilant about establishing publishers' bona fides.
Nevertheless, the number of tip-offs Dr Beall receives from academics continues to increase, to the extent that he has been adding up to four publishers to his list every week. He is concerned that the volume will increase further still in the wake of the UK government's intention to see all publicly funded papers published under the gold open-access model.
Nor, it seems, is there much that can be done about "predatory" publishers.
Dr Beall is not aware of any prosecutions to date, and publishers' organisations, such as the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, have no jurisdiction over non-members.
So should the UK government reconsider its open-access policy?
Dr Taylor wondered whether it should - particularly if the transition undermines the society journals that traditionally have been the "key signifiers of legitimate, quality-assured publishing".
Dr Beall concurred.
"Too many open-access commentators look only at the theory and ignore the practice," he said. "We must completely understand what we are giving up by abandoning the traditional scholarly publishers and adopting new models or, at our peril, we may not be able to go back."
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