We conceived a sting operation and submitted a fake application for an editor position to 360 journals, a mix of legitimate titles and suspected predators. Forty-eight titles accepted. Many revealed themselves to be even more mercenary than we had expected.
We study human behaviour, and conceived of this sting when working together at the University of Wrocław in Poland. Although our research rarely focuses on scholarly publishing, we became increasingly disturbed at the number of invitations we received to become editors or to review for journals completely outside our field. We learnt that some of our colleagues, mainly early-career researchers, were unaware of predatory practices and had fallen for these traps. It became clear that the problem was huge, yet had not been empirically examined.
So, in 2015, we created a profile of a fictitious scientist named Anna O. Szust and applied on her behalf to the editorial boards of 360 journals. Oszust is the Polish word for 'a fraud'. We gave her fake scientific degrees and credited her with spoof book chapters. Her academic interests included, among others, the theory of science and sport, cognitive sciences and methodological bases of social sciences. We also created accounts for Szust on Academia.edu, Google+ and Twitter, and made a faculty webpage at the Institute of Philosophy at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. The page could be accessed only through a link we provided on her CV.(Sigh---the disappearance of Beall's list continues to be a painful absence)
The profile was dismally inadequate for a role as editor. Szust's 'work' had never been indexed in the Web of Science or Scopus databases, nor did she have a single citation in any literature database. Her CV listed no articles in academic journals or any experience as a reviewer, much less an editor. The books and chapters on her CV did not exist and could not be found through any search engine. Even the publishing houses were fake.
We sent Szust's application to 360 journals, 120 from each of three well-known directories: the JCR (journals with an official impact factor as indexed on Journal Citation Reports), the DOAJ (journals included on the Directory of Open Access Journals) and 'Beall's list' (potential, possible or probable predatory open-access publishers and journals, compiled by University of Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beall; Beall took down his list in January this year for unknown reasons, after we had completed our study).
To be indexed by either the JCR or the DOAJ, journals must meet certain standards of quality, including ethical publishing practices. Journals listed on the DOAJ must also be fully open access. By contrast, Beall's controversial yet widely used blacklist identified potential predatory journals. It consisted of journals that, in his opinion, exploited researchers and failed to meet basic standards of scholarly publishing.
But what happened with the unsolicited applications?
In many cases, we received a positive response within days of application, and often within hours. Four titles immediately appointed Szust editor-in-chief. No JCR journal accepted Szust. By comparison, 40 predatory and 8 DOAJ journals appointed her as an editor..................
Szust was almost never questioned about her experience. No one made any attempt to contact her university or institute. One journal spotted that Szust's cover letter stated that becoming an editor would allow her to obtain a degree that she had listed as already having obtained. That journal nonetheless appointed Szust as editor.
Fifteen journals on Beall's list, 45 DOAJ journals and 48 JCR journals replied to Szust's application but did not make her an offer. These journals sent three broad types of responses: a short message acknowledging receipt; a condescending or discourteous rejection; or a longer, kinder explanation of how one actually becomes an editor (first you publish papers, then you become a reviewer, and so on).
At least a dozen journals appointed Szust as editor conditional on, or strongly encouraging, some form of payment or profit (see ‘Spot the predator’). In some cases, this was a direct payment, such as a subscription fee requested by one journal of US$750 (later reduced to “ONLY $650”), or a donation of $50 (although Szust was accepted without paying).
Others asked Szust to organize a conference after which the presenters' papers would be published (for a fee) in a special proceedings issue. One publisher suggested that the profits be split (“60% us 40% You”). Twice, Szust was offered the opportunity to start a new journal as lead editor. One e-mail proposed “30% of the revenue earned thru you” for launching a new journal, but 20% for joining an existing journal as editor.Once appointed editor, the researchers found that the honor was difficult to withdraw in some cases.
Although journals that accepted our fraud were informed that Szust “kindly withdraws her application”, her name still appears on the editorial boards listed by at least 11 journals' websites. In fact, she is listed as an editor of at least one journal to which we did not apply. She is also listed as management staff, a member of conference organizing committees, and ironically, a member of the Advisory Board of the Journals Open Access Indexing Agency whose mission it is to “increase the visibility and ease of use of open access scientific and scholarly journals”.The authors are declining to name the offending journals. But the International Journal of Current Research and Review lists Szust on its editorial board, and Botimekonferenca lists her as Executive Editor of IGoAR under its heading: Management stuff of IGoAR---these results after a quick google search.