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On the temptations of predatory publishing

On the temptations of predatory publishing


Loraine Bodewes

Series on scientific integrity: part 4

A recently founded journal has asked if they could publish your research but you wonder if the editor concerned will carry out a scientific check (peer review). Do you accept the request? Or do you offer your text to another journal, which does follow the scientific guidelines?

Patrick Schrauwen, professor of Metabolic Aspects of Type 2 diabetes, finds this a stimulating suggestion, as was the intention of the Platform for Research Ethics and Integrity which came up with it especially for this series of articles. A good opportunity, he feels, to focus on bogus journals and the publication culture in general. 

But first: what kind of journals are they and just how bogus? Schrauwen refers to Gary Lewis, a researcher at the University of London, who illustrated this brilliantly a few years ago.

Lewis sent an article to the journal Psychology and Psychotherapy: Research Study. He had researched which hand politicians use to wipe their bottoms. The results were remarkable: it appeared that right-wing politicians used their left hand and left-wing colleagues used the right hand. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Research Study was very interested and was keen to publish it. No adaptations were necessary. It would, however, cost Lewis 581 euro.

This is the style of the so-called predator journals, run by con-artists, whose only aim is to make money. Even if that is by publishing nonsense. That is what Lewis wanted to prove with his invented experiment. 

These predatory journals are very active, approaching scientists and offering to publish their research. Schrauwen receives such e-mails every day and deletes them without reading them. “I am quite strict in this. Reliable journals do not go fishing for research data. What does happen, is that an editor will request a review article. That is when you describe how things stand in a research area that you know well.”

Rat race

Young researchers, however, don’t always realise that they are dealing with predator journals, also because these journals are very good at camouflaging their intentions. “Sometimes they present themselves as a brand-new journal, with resounding names like Diabetes Science, the first edition of which – they claim – is not yet full. And as it happens, they have read your previous article with quite a lot of interest.” 

Some researchers fall for it, but others maybe consciously take them up on the offer, just to stay afloat in the publication rat race. After all, that is what they are assessed on and every article counts.  

The assessment of scientists based on their (number of) publications is currently a topic of discussion. There is less focus on the separate publications and more on their social impact, on what the articles have brought about. Have they led to a debate? Have policies been adapted? But even then, young researchers can be tempted to agree with publication in bogus journals, says Schrauwen. “If it no longer matters so much in which journal you publish, I fear that fake articles will be discovered less easily.”


Don’t misunderstand him: there is a lot wrong with the traditional (medical) publication culture. The H-index (a personal measure for scientific productivity) and the impact factors of journals (a measure for how often an article is quoted) have been given too much weight in assessments, says Schrauwen. 

So yes, the system needs to be changed, but whether it is wise to overturn the impact factors and the H-index completely? “They no longer play a role in the pre-application of a Veni grant. You have to describe what you want to research and what its social importance is. The danger is that those who can sell themselves well, have an advantage.”

Moreover: how do you even measure social impact, Schrauwen wonders. “Imagine that a scientific article from fifteen years ago is suddenly picked up by policy makers and leads to adaptations in health care. How do you qualify something like that? We don’t have an answer for that yet.”

Six dilemmas

Together with the Platform for Research Ethics and Integrity, Observant has drawn up six dilemmas that researchers may face. They will be published every other week in Observant.

The Platform for Research Ethics and Integrity, which was set up in 2018, has set itself the objective to promote a healthy research culture at the UM. They do so by making researchers aware of the pitfalls and by starting a discussion on the subject.

For quite some time, PhD candidates have been able to involve a confidential adviser in cases of conflicts with colleagues, just like every researcher can do with the UM confidential adviser. Should the conflict touch on scientific integrity, a report will be filed with the Committee for Scientific Integrity. They have been investigating complaints of scientific misconduct since 2012. This was prompted, among others, by the Stapel Affair, in which a psychology professor from Tilburg was exposed as a fraud.



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