8 Ways to Identify a Questionable Open Access Journal

How to watch out for predatory journals in the Open Access world

Updated on October 13, 2014

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Open access journals provide many benefits for both authors and readers. But like any type of business, there are open access journals that operate for the right reasons. However, some are simply trying to make money without any scholarship involved.

These “predatory” journals don't just take your money. They also take your control over your scholarship. Once they have “published” your paper, it may be impossible to submit it to a true journal.

In addition, so-called “vanity presses” that accept every article without a rigorous peer review process may misinform readers performing online research and undermine public trust in the peer review system itself.

So if it is important to avoid predatory companies masquerading as scholarly journals, how do you spot those journals? Here are a few warning signs. These points are only potential indicators of a journal or publisher being dishonest.

Some legitimate journals may meet a few of these points, particularly when they have just been launched. However, if you are thinking of submitting to or citing an article from a journal that meets a number of criteria on this list, we recommend doing more research about the journal first.

Here are 8 top indicators of questionable publishers.

1. The journal asks for a submission fee instead of a publication fee or tries to keep the copyright to authors' work.

The majority of open access journals are supported by contributions from authors. Having authors pay a fee allows for the published material to be free to readers. This cost should come in the form of a publication fee that is paid only when an article is accepted for publication. The amount of the fee should be stated clearly on the website.

Some dishonest or predatory journals require a submission fee (or “handling fee”), payable whether or not the manuscript is accepted. This fee can be $700 (US) or more. Sometimes fees may not be mentioned before submission.

Likewise, open access journals should let authors maintain the copyright, with the work ultimately released under a Creative Commons license. Journals that demand to keep the copyright while claiming to be open access should be treated with extreme caution.

2. The editorial board is very small or “coming soon.”

The strength of a journal is reflected in the members of its editorial board. When good scientists are involved in running a journal, the peer review process is strong and thorough.

The journal also receives stronger papers. Unfortunately, some disreputable journals are launched without finding any highly regarded scientists in the field to serve on the editorial board. If the journal is in your area of research, you should recognize some of the names on the editorial board. If you do not, search for publications from the board members and see if they are publishing good research in good journals.

Never submit to or rely on research from a journal that has no editorial board or editor-in-chief. You have no idea who is reviewing the work and deciding if it will be accepted. Choosing editors is one of the first steps in launching a new journal. If a journal does not have editors, it is probably just trying to collect money in exchange for posting any manuscript online.

3. A single publisher releases an overwhelmingly large suite of new journals all at one time.

Dishonest publishers often expand their selection of “journals” to catch any possible author. The journals typically begin with the same set of words (e.g., “The New Journal of...”). If the publisher you are considering is offering hundreds of new journals, it is unlikely the publisher can actually find appropriate editors to support each journal. Launching that many new journals also leads to the “editorial board coming soon” issue described above.

4. The journal says an issue will be available at a certain time, but the issue never appears.

A good journal will receive enough content to publish an issue when scheduled. Be wary if the journal you are investigating says its next issue was due six months ago, but no papers have been published yet.

5. The website is not professional in quality.

Avoid websites with a lot of advertisements to unrelated products

Many journals make revenue with advertisements from scholarly societies, biotechnology firms, and manuscript service companies. However, beware of journals that post advertisements from rental car agencies or florists. This is a sign that the journal is not deeply tied to the scholarly world.

Look for typos throughout the website

In addition, if the language on the website is highly flawed (more than just the occasional typo). If no contact information is available, it may be best to move on.

6. The journal title notes a national or international affiliation that does not match its editorial board or location.

Using terms like ‘American' or ‘British' is somewhat misleading if the journal is published in another country. Typically, journals with ‘American' or ‘British' in the title are associated with top societies based in those nations.

Claiming ‘International' status in the title without the appropriate distribution of editorial functions across the globe may denote a false claim as well. Sometimes a journal adds one of these terms to seem more established than it really is. As with all of our points, the inclusion of these terms is not necessarily a problem, but it is worth investigating further.

7. There are fundamental errors in the titles and abstracts.

An occasional typo is not a big issue. Everyone makes mistakes. However, a fundamental error in the title and throughout a paper may indicate that the reviewers and editors were not truly familiar with the topic.

An example would be repeated mention of “Vibrio cholera” in place of the correct species name “Vibrio cholerae” (cholera is the name of the disease, not the bacterium). When looking through the articles from a journal that interests you, keep an eye out for repeated basic errors.

8. The content of the journal varies from the title and stated scope.

If a mechanical engineering journal is publishing articles on the treatment of pediatric cancers, chances are there is little or no editorial management of the content. Journals in one discipline will have expertise in reviewing the scholarship of that discipline.

Interdisciplinary articles should at least have some relevance to the stated focus of the journal. Journals that expect to be “Multidisciplinary” will reflect that in the range of subjects represented by their editorial board.

Taken together, these diverse indicators should make it easier for both authors and readers to identify credible online open access journals.

If you'd like a reliable list of reputable journals to submit your manuscript, use our Journal Recommendation service.

Special thanks to Ben Mudrak and Marie McVeigh for their contributions to this article.

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