The number of articles in so-called predatory journals has risen almost eightfold in the past four years, according to an in-depth study of murky publishers that wave through scientific papers with little or no checks on their credibility.
Indian academics accounted for more than a third of authors, while another quarter came from elsewhere in Asia, suggesting that the issue of predatory journals is limited in Europe and North America.
Predatory journals have sprung up alongside the move to open access, whereby publishing is funded by academics paying an article processing fee, rather than by charging readers subscription fees.
Yet some of these open access journals are considered “predatory” because they lack proper checks on quality and publish articles rapidly. To demonstrate this lack of rigour one scholar managed to get a nonsensical paper accepted at a predatory journal – which then asked for an $800 (£525) article processing fee.
In a paper published in the journal BMC Medicine, two academics based at the Hanken School of Economics in Finland have mapped the dramatic rise of papers in predatory journals.
In 2010, there were about 1,800 active predatory journals; by 2014, this had grown to 8,000, “‘Predatory’ open access: a longitudinal study of article volumes and market characteristics” found.
There was an even more dramatic rise in the number of papers published by these journals, rising nearly eightfold from 53,000 in 2010 to 420,000 in 2014.
More than 60 per cent of the corresponding authors were from Asia, of which 34.7 per cent were from India, while a further 16.4 per cent were from Africa. Only 9.2 per cent were based in North America, and another 8.8 per cent in Europe.
In Nigeria, for every one article published in a reputable journal (as defined by the Web of Science, a citation indexing service), a “staggering” 16 were published in predatory journals, according to the authors Cenyu Shen, a doctoral student, and Bo-Christer Björk, a professor of information systems science.
In India, the ratio was close to one to three. But in the United States, for every 100 papers in reputable journals, just six were published in predatory ones.
The most common subject (apart from “general” papers) was engineering, with nearly 100,000 papers published in predatory journals in 2014. This was followed by biomedicine, social science, business and economics and earth science.
Subjects such as arts and humanities, chemistry and mathematics had relatively few papers featured.
On average, it took the predatory journals 2.7 months from submission to publication of a paper, a much shorter period than for normal journals, which generally take nine to 18 months, although the open access route is usually much quicker, the paper says.
Some commentators have questioned whether such journals are indeed predatory, or actually work in symbiosis with academics who exploit their lax standards to get published and boost their careers.
The authors of this latest study agree, saying that the authors “probably submit to them well aware of the circumstances and take a calculated risk that experts who evaluate their publication lists will not bother to check the journal credentials in detail”.
The term “predatory” is actually misleading, they argue. Instead such journals should be called “open access journals with questionable marketing and peer-review practices”.