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To catch a predator: Be wary of journals that publish bad science

Most academic publishing is sound. But money, time, people and animals are falling down a black hole of bad science

Fake news isn't just an issue for political discourse. Though the majority of scientific papers are carefully reviewed and trustworthy, those published in predatory journals are not. It looks like real science, but the quality varies from inconsistent to nonexistent. How does a noble scientific idea fall into the black hole of bad journals? We asked science integrity researcher Larissa Shamseer.

Types of journals

Legitimate journals accept only a fraction of submissions, all content is peer reviewed (rigorously edited by qualified scientists). There are two main types, open access and subscription.

Subscription: Charge institutions, readers and libraries. Examples: Science, The Lancet

Open access: Charge article processing fees (about $1,000-$5,000) to scientists once their manuscripts are accepted, and offer content free to readers. Examples: The British Journal of Medicine, Public Library of Science (PLOS)

Predatory journals call themselves open access, but have low fees, low standards and high acceptance rates.

Why do scientists publish in predatory journals?

Lack of education: Scientists are smart. But even ones from prestigious institutions like Harvard have been fooled, especially if they don't know the warning signs, Shamseer said.

Pressure from funders: Grant-giving organizations like charities, trusts and government agencies often require results be publised publicly. So if you are rejected by a legitimate open access journal, or can't afford one, the predatory route could tempt.

Pressure to publish: Success in science depends on getting published. Authoring a paper in a predatory journal can help pad a CV. There's not enough monitoring to catch people doing this, Shamseer said.

How can you spot a predatory journal?

It can be hard, even for experts. But there are red flags:

- Bad web design, spelling and grammar errors, grainy headshots and warped images

- Asks for submissions by email

- Offers quick publication, often in a month or less

- Advertises to authors more than readers

- Charges less than $150 US for open-access publishing

- Nearly identical name or logo to famous journals

Why do predatory journals matter?

According to a paper Shamseer recently co-authored in the journal BMC Medicine (that's a good one!), predatory journals usually aren't included in the academic databases scientists use for essential background research and reviews. (But they do often show up on Google Scholar, meaning someone doing a casual web search can stumble on them). If you volunteer to be a patient in a study or clinical trial, you expect your contribution to count. The need to build knowledge for future generations is also why we justify killing animals for science (for example, a recent study of 2,000 predatory medical journal articles found 8,000 animals died on the altar of bad science). Secondly, predatory publishers may not guarantee their websites will be maintained and their information archived properly. Worst of all, legitmate work gets mixed in with flawed, fradulent or flat-out bad science, dragging down public trust.

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DEFINITION: Journalology is the science of science — the study of academic publishing practices.

USE IT IN A SENTENCE: You believe that study on ESP Deborah? You really need to brush up on your journalology.


Tune in to Metro Science on Facebook live on Friday, September 29 at 12 p.m. EST (That's 9 am in Vancouver, 10 a.m. in Alberta, 11 a.m. in Winnipeg and 1 p.m. in Halifax). Citizen scientist columnist Genna Buck will explain the coolest science stories of the week and answer your question: Why does laundry get stiff when you air-dry it?

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