Fake journals in the age of fake news: the dangers of predatory publishing
The emergence of “predatory journals” has clouded the available health information needed for sound, evidence-based advice to support decision-making for patients and the public.
Health research has led to improved therapies, new medicines, new surgeries and improved patient safety. According to Statistics Canada, average life expectancy in Canada is now 82 years and much of this improvement can be attributed to advances in public health and biomedical research.
Many of these advances have come about through the accumulation and sharing of knowledge between researchers. The process of scientific communication occurs primarily through the publication of research findings in medical journals. This process, however, is being disrupted by a new phenomenon: predatory journals.
The Royal Society of London published one of the first academic journals in 1665 as a way for members to share their work. Many of its features continue today, including peer reviews in which independent scientists critically review works prior to publication, and proper archiving that allows researchers to access and build upon existing knowledge (the original issue of Royal Society journal can still be read). At that time, access to journal publications was limited to scientists and others who paid publishers to read the articles.
However, standards are rapidly changing. Many journals are moving toward an open-access model in which readers no longer pay for the articles. This has been perceived as a fair and equitable development since research is often funded by governments and belongs in the public realm. Publishing in these open-access journals can come at a significant cost as some journals charge researchers (or their research institutions) thousands of dollars to publish the research and make it available to the public, which helps the journal recoup costs for editorial and archiving services.
Predatory journals have entered this shifting landscape and have found an opportunity to profit. They promise researchers quick publication at a fraction of the cost of legitimate journals. However, articles in predatory journals often don’t follow the usual practices of peer review and archiving. Put plainly, predatory journals are fake academic journals. Despite these breaches of good publication practices, their articles often appear in Google searches.
While some may not realize they have submitted to a predatory journal, others knowingly submit to these journals to embellish their credentials. Academia is a publish-or-perish world where success is often assessed by the volume of a researcher’s publications. Predatory journals offer an easy way to circumvent the usual labour-intensive process of a peer review and offer a false stamp of legitimacy to research that does not meet scientific rigor. We have personal experience with this as the dying mother-in-law of one of this article’s authors was offered false hope by an alternative medicine practitioner who used a predatory journal article as justification for vitamin-infusions treatments.
To tackle the spread of predatory journals, our research team based at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute helped develop a definition of predatory journals at an international summit in Ottawa with 43 participants from 10 countries representing a diverse group of patient partners, publishers, research funders, researchers, policymakers, academic institutions and libraries. The group defined predatory journals as:
- Focusing on their own interests at the expense of the scientific process;
- Not respecting academic publishing standards such as archiving articles;
- Conveying unclear or misleading information in their journals or websites and often copying the look and feel of well-known legitimate journals
- Using aggressive practices to invite researchers to publish, such as numerous unsolicited e-mails
The complete definition was published recently in Nature.
The rise of predatory journals has several significant implications for patients, the public, policy-makers and funding agencies and institutions.
Patients are increasingly savvy and empowered to manage chronic or life-threatening conditions in an ever-strained healthcare system. They are taking to Dr. Google, where they can find a vast amount of information – some good, some bad. According to the Survey on Health Research Priorities, 55 per cent of Canadians use the Internet to access health information. Since predatory journals can easily be found through a simple Google search, this makes it difficult for patients to find credible, evidence-based information.
This raises significant concerns since only 5 per cent of Canadians are very knowledgeable about health research and its role in improving healthcare and day-to-day lives. Research is perceived as something far away, undertaken in academic institutions with ivy growing on their walls. In 2019, with anti-science rhetoric at a high point, trust in institutions declining and fake news rampant, the World Health Organization named vaccine hesitancy – the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate – one the main threats to public health. Publishing distorted/fake results in predatory journals only compounds this lack of trust.
Research is also powered by the contributions of people who consent to be part of research projects. It is their health information that is being used to make health advances but it is also their data that is being wasted by publishing in predatory journals.
As policy-makers face increasing pressure to develop sound, evidence-based advice to support decision-making for patients and the public, synthesizing knowledge into useful policy can be difficult with predatory journals muddying the evidence base. In the past, even members of Health Canada had ties to a journal they did not recognize as predatory. Similarly, large companies that deal with human health issues (e.g., Monsanto, which is now part of Bayer) have had brushes with predatory publishing. It is clear that both government agencies and corporations must develop approaches to deal with predatory journals and data from them.
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Canada’s national research agency, invests approximately $1 billion each year to support health research. According to the Health Charities Coalition of Canada, not-for-profit organizations invest more than $200 million in health research each year. Some of these funding dollars are used to publish in predatory journals and don’t contribute to advancing scientific knowledge or improving health outcomes. The National Institutes of Health, the largest funder of biomedical research in the world, has issued a statement to discourage publication in predatory journals. Canadian funding organizations should follow suit.
For now, it is important to be aware of predatory journals and how they might affect the information available to patients and the public. We recommend checking the integrity of open access journals by determining if they are listed in the DOAJ (Directory of Open Access Journals). Further, a newly released Top Factor tool can be used to get a sense of how transparently a particular journal or publisher is operating.
The work to address all of these challenges is just beginning. We are developing a website portal to educate patients, policy-makers, research funders and others to better identify predatory journals. We will continue to work with patients and the public to ensure they have the tools to practically identify and help fight the growing threat of predatory journals.
We ask readers of this article to join our efforts to fight this growing challenge and contribute to our program of research and outreach. We need to work together to ensure that we aren’t fooled by predatory journals.
Laurie Proulx is a Patient Partner with the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and volunteer Vice-President with the Canadian Arthritis Patient Alliance.
Manoj Lalu is an Associate Scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and Anesthesiologist at The Ottawa Hospital.
Kelly Cobey is an Investigator and the Publications Officer at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.
Donna Rubenstein is a Patient Partner with the Nova Scotia Health Authority and Building Research for Integrated Primary Healthcare in Nova Scotia, Dalhousie University. She is also Board Chair of Lake City Works, a not-for-profit and social enterprise supporting people with mental illness in Nova Scotia.
The authors are affiliated with the Centre for Journalology at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.