Are we thinking about predatory publishing the wrong way? Our image of predatory publishers is that they are scammers, acting deceptively and fooling unsuspecting researchers into paying money to publish in what they think is a peer reviewed journal that adheres to widely adopted industry practices, only to provide no peer review whatsoever. While that certainly does happen (hopefully less and less as awareness of this phenomenon grows and tools to prevent it are adopted), there is more to the picture here. It is increasingly clear that there are authors who knowingly choose to publish with these sorts of outlets, with a full understanding of the journals’ poor practices and lack of anything resembling peer review. This is a deliberate choice being made, and given some incentive structures, one that actually makes sense.

alien vs predator

We know that the work of some researchers is simply no good. It doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, is poorly designed, or in the worst cases, is meant to prop up absurd conspiracy theories or hairbrained hypotheses. For this sort of “researcher,” the choice to publish in a journal that does no review is a necessary one. No legitimate journal will have them.

But these are not the only patrons of such journals. We must then ask the question, why would a different class of researchers, those doing legitimate research (of varying quality), also choose to publish in predatory journals?

A recent study showed that researchers from many of India’s highest regarded institutions regularly publish in predatory journals. An explanation of why this may be happening can be found from a few other sources. A 2015 study in BMC Medicine showed that 75% of authors in predatory journals are from Asia and Africa. A 2014 article in Current Sociology asserts that in Nigeria for example, criteria such as impact factor are generally ignored in the evaluation of a faculty publication record for appointment and promotion decisions, while all that matters is whether the papers are in journals published outside of Nigeria. Career advancement, in this instance, is based on publishing an article in an international journal — not a journal with an Impact Factor, not a journal indexed in Medline or Web of Science, not a journal in the DOAJ.

We know that in every other area of academia, that researchers are usually very busy people, pressed for time, who really want to do research rather than jump through administrative hoops and meet publisher requirements. There is a clear pattern of taking the path of least resistance to getting done what needs to get done, and this seems no different. A requirement has been set, and predatory publishers provide the easiest and fastest route to getting it done. Different incentives lead to different, but rational behavior.

These researchers have the choice between submitting to a legitimate journal and going through a lengthy and rigorous peer review process with the potential for rejection, or paying (at most) a few hundred dollars and having their articles immediately published, no questions asked. Since both actions count exactly the same toward furthering their careers, the answer seems fairly obvious. What we are seeing for some researchers, then, is an informed choice to minimize efforts and maximize advancement in a system with a lack of oversight in evaluation.

So while predatory publishers do indeed act in a dishonest and deceptive manner, they are at the same time serving a market need, namely the desire by some authors to fool those in charge of evaluating their performance. Bypassing editorial scrutiny provides an advantage to these authors due to poorly designed and unmonitored incentives set by their institutions.

We must then ask the question, why would a different class of researchers, those doing legitimate research (of varying quality), also choose to publish in predatory journals?

While many are quick to point the finger at open access (OA) as the root cause of predatory publishing, this seems off base. OA business models provide a mechanism for predatory publishing. It would not be possible to publish a subscription journal with no peer review and no adherence to industry practices as librarians would not subscribe to such a publication (or would cancel it immediately once such practices came to light). And while OA is an enabler of predatory practices, like so many of the woes of academia that are pinned on publishers (e.g., over-reliance on the Impact Factor), this is yet another case where the true root of the problem is the academic career and funding system, and as usual, its lack of effort put to true evaluation and oversight.

To their credit, some academic systems are beginning to catch on. After the India study cited above, the University Grants Commission came out with a white list of 38,653 approved journals which will be recognized for academic credit. Publishing elsewhere will not be counted toward advancement. This is certainly a step forward, but suffers from the same problems that plague all white lists, and has already been shown to be imperfect. Still, better imperfect than non-existent.

So when we think of predatory publishing, we can’t just think of authors as the victims. In some cases, it is clear that they are willing conspirators. The real victims are the OA movement (which gets unfairly tarnished by the poor practices of these publishers), honest researchers (as legitimate research is seen as less trustworthy due to the flood of unreviewed and questionable material masquerading as the real thing), and the general public (whose confidence in science is undermined).

The solution here must come from academic institutions. Take away the incentive for these publishing behaviors and predatory publishers will lose the market niche they serve. This means a serious effort at academic oversight and true evaluation of research quality and outputs, something that at least so far, has been difficult to institute.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


33 Thoughts on "Predatory Publishing as a Rational Response to Poorly Governed Academic Incentives"

Why don’t we call the automatic acceptance of papers into overtly deception journals (leaving aside for the moment how to classify these, or measure on a scale) as “predatory [paid] posting” instead of “predatory publishing,” or some classier language…

I think that this trend is a result of victimised academics who are dissatisfied with the incentives that traditional publishers are providing, who are looking for viable alternatives. The solution here must come from academic publishing. Provide incentives for academics to publish in credible peer reviewed publications and predatory publishers will lose the market niche they serve.

Maslow’s Hammer
“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

I suspect there is more going on here (and for all other issues in scholarly publishing) beyond the notion that some portion of researchers are angry at publishers.

Denialism –

Given the massive profits that traditional publishers have earned as a result of academics (see ‘The Oligopoly of Traditional Publishing’; in PLOS –, it is unfathomable how few incentives have been created for content generators. Yes, there might also be additional factors also at play, but traditional publishers denial of these essential inequities will come back to haunt them.

The incentives are jobs and funding. For most scholars, they have chosen a career in research, and their institution/funder sets the incentives for them to succeed in that career. Publishing is a service industry, and we provide a service to the community that helps researchers meet the demands that are imposed upon them by their employers and funders. We can certainly provide incentives to make the choice of one publisher/journal over another more attractive, but the true incentives here are not in the hands of the publishers.

In this particular case, the publishers that are succeeding are providing the incentive of not having any editorial scrutiny or peer review (while falsely presenting to readers/adminstrators the claim that such things have actually happened). This is an incentive that very few legitimate publishers would be willing to provide.

The incentives that you have identified, namely ‘jobs and funding’ do not emanate from traditional publisher, but from the universities. Given the massive profits being realised by traditional publishers, they should play a more significant role in redirecting a part of their profits back to academics and/or their institutions as incentives – this is in their hands – but they will not fund the academic community.

First, a correction: a significant number of the journals published by big commercial publishers are owned by research societies and research institutions (approx. 3,150 titles from the big five alone). The publisher acts as their service provider and the profits generated do indeed go back to the research community (at least the share retained by the journal’s owner).

And while I agree with you that the research community should control its own publishing efforts and put any surplus generated back into the community, most authors don’t really care about this. In this survey, for example, the association of the journal with a research society came 3rd to last as far as factors influencing authors in their choice of publication venues (

As a not-for-profit publisher, we often emphasize this as a reason to submit your articles to our journals, but in reality, what matters is that the universities and funders favor the journals with the biggest Impact Factors, regardless of who publishes them. And what the universities and funders want is what matters to researchers, not what publishers want.

Yes, the solution here must come from academic institutions. One approach is to promote a transformation of academic culture so that university libraries become the principal publishers of academic research. Accredited universities already have (and are guaranteed to retain) the branding needed to give confidence that anything they publish will be free from these kinds of deceptive and predatory practices.

Why would the library necessarily be the seat of such efforts? University presses have existed for more than 500 years and supply the exact branding and oversight you propose. Is this a case of reinventing the wheel? Why would someone trained to be an expert in library science be a good candidate to run a publishing business? Would that position perhaps be better filled by someone trained in publishing?

University Presses can align themselves with publishing service facilitators that are trained in academic publishing, providing the services that a traditional publisher could, while allowing the university to retain control of price, profits and content. Who needs traditional publishers?

Yes, exactly as they have done for more than 500 years. As someone who has only worked in the not-for-profit, university press world of scholarly publishing, I see it as the ideal way to serve the needs of the research community.

But again in response to the original commenter, why should the library be central to such efforts?

Sorry – this is just semantics. Yes, let’s label them ‘university presses’ if that’s preferable (which may or may not involve personnel connected with university libraries). [Several universities already host open access journals, in connection with their libraries, and without using the label ‘university press’]. The important point here is that progress might be made to address the ‘predatory’ problem, if: (1) more universities were engaged in publishing activity (under the purvue of university administrations and hence with the advantage of their branding); and (2) if the the culture of researchers were to evolve to favour these as a domain for dissemination of their discoveries.

University presses and institutional repositories could evolve or new platforms could be developed to support institution-centered, institution-branded research publication, as Lonnie suggests. Institutions could take responsibility for quality control and accountability, and the criteria for promotion and funding could evolve to remove perverse incentives to publish — which are the root cause behind the appearance of “predatory” publishing. More at (Can scientists and their institutions become their own open access publishers?)

I do think we’ve gotten the language and the metaphor wrong here.
Journals in this ecological niche are more like parasites at the lower end (co-opting a process towards their own ends, without regard for whether the host is harmed), or scavengers at the upper end (PLoS One can be said to perform an important tidying function – lest the landscape be littered with the carcasses of rejected manuscripts).
Perhaps, it is the rest of the journals that are predators – in the best, most healthy ecology, predators target, stalk, then capture the best they can catch. They are the apex of the food chain – whether they are the glamor predators (the lions and tigers like Nature and Science) or the less intimidating kind (the cats that catch mice, or birds that eat bugs).

Whatever metaphor you choose, however, I think David is right to identify that author motives are a part of this whole dynamic. There are probably authors that are just misled – but there are surely others that take advantage of the chance to complete a paper without too much scrutiny.

Publication is an essential activity in scholarly life, but the choices of what and when and how to publish are strongly influenced by the criteria used to evaluate scholarly life.

“Predatory” journals (I prefer to call them “parasitic” and save the term “predatory” for the big predators, those who make billions of $ with our research funds) are indeed filling the role that has been missing for too long: a public, free of charge, open publication platform where scientists could deposit their papers, submitting them to an open reviewing by peers on-line and accepting the fact that they could be liquid (i.e. evolutive) publications.
The result is more or less the same but there are two big differences:
1. Peer review occurs and operates a real feedback in the public platform system,
2. Authors’ financial contribution disappears (or almost) if the platform is subsidized by public funding, just covering the real costs, while parasitic publishers act as leeches.

Can you let me know which of the “parasitic” publishers are indeed “free of charge”, as it seems to me they do business by charging authors. I also see no functionality on their sites to allow for open peer reviewing.

Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with services like arxiv and biorxiv and the like. These actually do what you’re suggesting without the fraud, without pretending that peer review has occurred and without making authors pay. And for what it’s worth, arxiv has been around since 1991, long before the emergence of this phenomenon.

David, good post, but the victims are not just the proponents of OA or the OA movement itself. Whatever you call these journals, the fact is that you can achieve publication in a supposedly international journal by paying “a few hundred dollars.” This is a significant problem in our post-truth, post-expert world as such publications will potentially become the weapons that are used to undermine the scientific community and perpetuate alternative facts and realities. Pre-print servers may now face the same issues, but at least they filtered and checked by experts before being posted.

Right, as noted in the rest of the sentence after the victimization of the OA movement above:

The real victims are the OA movement (which gets unfairly tarnished by the poor practices of these publishers), honest researchers (as legitimate research is seen as less trustworthy due to the flood of unreviewed and questionable material masquerading as the real thing), and the general public (whose confidence in science is undermined).

The only silver bullet against predatory journals will be lifting the secrecy around peer review — as has been said before, it “just begs for misuse”:

The solution could come from existing publishers, by making some form of open peer review the new industry standard. Academic institutions could require some proof, evidence, or certification of peer review attached to articles under evaluation. More pragmatically, funders should consider mandating open peer review.

Question: if predatory publishers are willing to fake impact factors and other metrics, create fake editorial boards and such, why do you think they wouldn’t be willing to create a set of stock fake peer reviews to post with every fake paper?

Here’s a different angle: what about an independent third party that monitors journal peer review across the board? To have your publication “count” toward funding and career assessment, you’d need to have the stamp of approval from this group (hopefully a not-for-profit, community-run group). An example of how this could happen is PRE from AAAS:

That’s a good point, re: counterfeit peer reviews. But a fake peer review is easier to spot in the open.

I like the idea of peer review certification. Maybe it’s value added by Publons and similar websites giving credit to peer reviewing activity.

Another indirect benefit of open peer review against predatory publishing is in terms of training of vulnerable researchers. Reading peer reviews makes one a better author.

Important topic, tough problem, well done article, helpful and interesting comments.
Disclosure: I am an Executive Advisor for Cureus, a fully-electronic general medical journal from San Francisco and Palo Alto listed in PubMedCentral.
We call Cureus “medical publishing beyond open access”. It is also an anti-predatory medical journal.
Free to the author; free to the reader; rapid publication after pre-publication peer review; a formalized crowd-sourced post-publication peer review process; funded by sponsorship, grants and licensing. Give it a try.

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