Who does my peer review belong to

“Accepted for publication” - publication without peer review? The phenomenon of the "predatory journals"

Predatory journals are the scientific counterpart to fake news.

The identification of predatory journals is not easy, there is no universal solution or strategy.

In recent years, the model of how scientific literature is published has changed dramatically:

Subscription-based journals: Traditionally, journals have funded their infrastructure by publishing interesting articles for their readership, thereby gaining subscribers. Such journals were and are also called “subscription-based journals” because of their business model, since articles could only be read if one had an active subscription. If you didn't have the same, the articles were behind a “paywall”, and in some cases enormous fees had to be paid in order to be able to read individual articles. It was paradoxical that the public sector had to pay twice: on the one hand, by public research funding agencies (FWF, DFG, etc.) financing the research and thus supplying the journals with scientific work and, on the other hand, the university libraries, which also had to subscribe to the journals.

Open access journals: From this criticism, a publication model developed in which authors who wanted to publish their work had to pay for publication in the respective journal. Because the author had paid for the publication, the article was subsequently also available free of charge to the potential readership and thus every scientist or interested person could read the article. Because of this feature, these journals were also referred to as "open access journals". In theory, the most important difference between a subscription-based and an open access journal was that the author had to pay for his article, but not the reader, since all articles - regardless of which journal they were published in - were made through the Peer review procedures had to be carried out in order to receive the title “scientific”.

The rise of the "Predatory Journals"

Another development revolutionized the way science came to be among scientists: the Internet. It used to be that journals were actually still physical journals that were distributed to individual subscribers and filled libraries. The disadvantages of a physical journal were, for example, the enormous costs (printing, distribution, etc.), the limited number of pages per article per issue and the fact that there is no possibility of direct correction. So it happened that with the development and v. a. With the spread of the Internet, the idea arose to post articles online first ("Epub ahead of print") before they were finally included in a print edition. In contrast to the "old" traditional journals that tried to enter the digital age with this system, open access journals are almost exclusively online-only journals that no longer deliver any print versions. The inherent advantage of such an approach was that you were no longer limited to a certain number of pages per issue and could even publish continuously. On the other hand, in order for Open Access journals to be profitable, they had to publish a certain number of articles per year (since they were not funded with a subscription).
In summary, it can be said that subscription-based journals are financed by the number of subscribers and open access journals by the number of articles per year. As a result, subscription-based journals chose their articles very carefully and paid attention to what was interesting for their readership or what could lead to them getting more subscriptions. In the course of development it unfortunately became apparent that there were some “black sheep” among the open access journals. They did not really care what was sold to them as scientific work and accordingly accepted articles with no or inadequate peer review (which was not surprising given the business model discussed and the monetary pressure behind it).




Predatory journals: This was when so-called “Predatory Journals” became visible (cf. Bohannon, 2013). These open access journals were given this name because they were aimed solely at publishing as many articles (and thus as many APCs [article processing charge]) as possible - without adhering to scientific standards. Young, inexperienced scientists and scientists from developing countries in particular were at risk of publishing in such journals. One librarian who studied this phenomenon excessively and also compiled a list of “potential” predatory journals and publishers was Jeffrey Beall of Denver, Colorado, USA. The so-called "Bealls list" was henceforth, v. a. by science, applied quite uncritically and taken offline again in 2017 after massive legal threats against Jeffrey Beall and his employer (a copy can still be found on the network and is also constantly updated). Since the end of Beall's list, science has been struggling with the challenge of providing potential authors with tools and criteria to identify “predatory journals”.

Identification features

There are no hard criteria with which one can reliably distinguish “predatory journals” from legitimate open access journals. Rather, it is an interplay of multiple factors that then result in an overall picture. In truth, publishing has a lot to do with mutual trust, as the internal journal (including open peer review) is not public for a number of reasons. In light of this, an essential and currently unsolved problem is how to distinguish new, young journals (which are basically willing to run a journal seriously, but have some "teething problems") from real "predatory journals". The Editorial Office with the Editorial Board or the Editor-in-Chief is a key focal point and contact point for authors. In addition to the journal owner or the publisher, v. a. the editorial board / editor-in-chief, which provides information on the process and structure of a journal. Unfortunately, it has been shown that it is also possible here that people are randomly added to such editorial boards (without their consent and / or knowledge), that people have been refused to be deleted from the journal homepage, or that simply People were invented. So simply looking for and looking at the page of the editorial board is not a good marker for judging the seriousness of a journal.

Trustworthy? A good way to get a first impression of the seriousness of a journal that goes beyond simply looking at the journal homepage is to get in touch with the editor-in-chief. The heart of a scientific journal, however, remains its peer review process and the certainty that it will be carried out. Thus it should be clearly visible on the journal page how the same process is carried out. Ultimately, of course, this is not a sure guarantee that the peer review process will actually or adequately be carried out. The fact that peer review reports are mostly not public (closed peer review) and that reviewers mostly receive no (monetary and / or social) recognition have led to the fact that journals sometimes name their reviewers and that a page ( http://www.publons.com) has accepted this problem.

Another important piece of evidence for a predatory journal are aggressive email campaigns that encourage authors to publish their results in a specific journal. Most of these emails are riddled with spelling errors, incorrect information (e.g. impact factor, wrong address) and the promise that the article will be published within a few days (including the peer review process). Most of the time, the proposed journal has nothing to do with the expertise of the email recipient. If you want to check the given address of the Editorial Office on Google Maps, for example, you should always keep in mind that an empty field is no guarantee that a new office building will not be there in the meantime (Google Maps does not provide live images!) And that one The exclusive address in a large city can also be a letterbox company (a Google search can quickly provide clarification).

Generally, at the beginning of a journal search There is always a Google query, as many relevant fraudulent journals and publishers are already known and there are corresponding experience reports. Another possibility is to get in contact with authors who have already published in this journal in order to find out more about the quality, the service and the peer review process. So authors v. a. provide information on whether and how detailed the peer review was carried out (which was a major criticism of the practice of predatory journals).

Listing in databases: Another factor that is important to every author who wants to publish a scientific article is the question or the need for the scientific knowledge to be found or disseminated. It is therefore by no means insignificant in which databases a journal is listed or kept. On the one hand, this is of interest because it is directly related to who or which group of scientists / interested persons the article is made available to; on the other hand, different databases also have different inclusion criteria. This starts with technical details and ends with content-related criteria. In principle, however, it can be assumed that a journal that is listed in several databases (and not just databases that have technical / formal requirements) has an increasing degree of seriousness. Ultimately, unfortunately, this is no guarantee either, since the inclusion in databases can often take a long time (Web of Science), the inclusion in a database may not only be linked to formal criteria or the journal is not interested in getting into to have a (specific) database listed.

A question of optics: Of further interest to writers should be how the journal handles the work that is sent after an acceptance. Ultimately, the preparation of the scientific paper was linked to a lot of time, money and personal commitment and accordingly there should be an interest in presenting this data in the best possible way, both visually and linguistically. This also includes the question of what the layout of the journal looks like and whether there are other services (e.g. spell checking). Ultimately, publishing is a service process and it should be seen as such.

The problem

When it comes to the publication of scientific papers, the publication system as we know it has serious disadvantages, most of which arise from the peer review process: Firstly, the peer review process can take an enormous amount of time because, on the one hand, suitable experts have to be found (which sometimes turns out to be non-trivial when it comes to a very small area of ​​research where everyone knows everyone else - see the story of the discovery of the double helix structure by Watson & Crick) and, on the other hand, appraising work is an enormous time and this effect increases the more reviewers are involved.

Another problem is, that many subscription-based journals - due to the limited number of articles per issue - have a very high rejection rate and thus authors have to have a high threshold for frustration. Predatory journals that promise short peer review times and rapid publication as well as have high acceptance rates (due to the fact that they are not limited in their number of pages) are penetrating this need. This means that articles are published whose scientific quality is not recognizable - which does not necessarily mean that everything that is published in a predatory journal is actually unscientific. Thus, universities and other funding organizations are cheated on the one hand because they bear the publication costs and on the other hand the scientific community, which cannot say whether the published data is valid. This can lead to people who exploit this system being able to publish things that support their thesis but have nothing to do with science per se. On the other hand, such work can then trigger scientific research or controversially illuminate topics that are actually not controversial. Patients and laypeople in particular cannot distinguish whether a journal is a serious one or not. Accordingly, adverse consequences can arise from the implementation of the “knowledge gained”, such as withdrawal from therapy or trust in ineffective therapies.

For authors who have a specific agenda, z. B. the pseudo-scientific validation of your business model / product, predatory journals are of course a welcome option, as it may be extremely difficult to expose the fraud in such journals (not only on the reader, but also on the science itself) / to identify. So it may be easy for scientists who research and work in the respective subject to recognize such a publication as unscientific and (at best) to ignore it. And yet there are always institutions that consciously or unconsciously incorporate such publications into their decision-making. Particularly dangerous in this context is the fact that scientific facts are twisted and politically instrumentalized. This is also where the greatest danger to science lies: we, as the scientific community, have to be sure when we have a scientific article in front of us that the article was created and published according to the rules of science (whatever the result of the study was). It makes a big difference whether a single author puts forward a thesis or whether the thesis has been validated by a "study". In this respect, the fight against predatory journals is also a fight against fake news and fake science in and of itself.


The field of predatory journals is certainly not new, but it has been massively accelerated by the open access model. The scientific elaboration of this topic is based on the questions of how one can recognize such journals, which mechanisms should be introduced so that such journals can never grow, and on the education of young authors in particular. All of these factors should help ensure that scientists, decision-makers and the general public do not lose trust in science and can rely on the fact that a “scientific” article is actually science.