Fake or ‘Hijacked’ Journal Invites (and How to Spot Them)

In a publish-or-perish world, academics are under immense pressure to find outlets for their papers.

It can feel like an uphill battle to identify the right journals, write to their criteria, submit oneself to the scrutiny of peer review, and wait forever in the hope that an article might result.

So when an email arrives in one’s inbox offering a fast-track to publication — especially when it’s full of nice words (‘we found you online, we love your work’ etc etc) — it can be incredibly tempting to fall into the metaphorical arms of this seductive digital suitor.

Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of con artists out there who will try to scam academics with a little ego-stroking. They do this by convincing academics to submit to journals that are either completely fake, predatory, or ‘hijacked’ – and then charging a lot of bogus ‘publication fees.’

These scams can occasionally be quite convincing, especially in the case of ‘hijacked’ journals. In these cases, the scammers falsely use a real journal title (that you might be familiar with as a reader) to establish a sense of legitimacy and trust.

Here’s an example of a call for papers to a hijacked journal that I recently received via email:

Emailed 'call for papers' showing warning signs of being fraudulent

In this example, the fake URL given for the hijacked journal is associated with an IP address in the Ukraine that also hosts other hijacked journals. A news story on one of the other hijacked journals alleges that the perpetrator converts credit card payments for ‘publication fees’ into Bitcoin and then runs with the money.

Bottom line: if you get caught out in one of these scams, you can kiss your money goodbye with no real publication to show for it.

Trouble is, a request for ‘publication fees’ is not, on its own, necessarily a red flag.

Red flag
Say what?

It may seem insane to ask an author to pay to publish their own work, but that can happen with legitimate journals.

Some open access publications (which make research freely available to readers) fund themselves by charging authors instead of readers. They may charge an ‘Article Processing Charge’ that replaces the funding they’d otherwise get from subscriptions, and allows them to maintain their open access model.

Even some journals that aren’t open access (i.e. that use the traditional subscription model) may still charge fees in some circumstances; for example to cover the costs of including colour figures or large numbers of pages. These fees are becoming less defensible as physical printing costs become less relevant, but they do still happen.

If a legitimate journal asks for any kind of publication fees, they should very clearly state what the money is used for. They should also invest in the quality of their content with a rigorous peer review process, a qualified editorial board, and high presentation standards in the finished publication.

An illegitimate journal may ask for fees without providing all of that good quality and/or open access material in exchange.

So how do you spot one of these fraudulent publications? Fortunately, their ‘calls for papers’ share a lot of tell-tale characteristics:

  • The journal contacts you out of the blue and often includes some kind of quasi-compliment about your work available online
  • The email features grammatical / spelling errors or is overly formal
  • The journal’s description is so broad that just about anyone could submit just about anything and still be within scope
  • Googling the editor’s name brings up no evidence of a legitimate academic at the helm
  • Obvious red flag: their email may go to your spam folder or be marked ‘spam’!

If you’ve already engaged with a journal that you think might be predatory, here are a few ways to tell whether they’re dodgy:

  • They charge upfront, before peer review. While a ‘publication fee’ is not necessarily unusual, a ‘submission fee’ or ‘handling fee’ is.
  • They accept your paper with little-to-no review process
  • Membership of the editorial board is unclear (or consists of made up names)
  • The journal’s website seems unprofessional
  • The journal is included in Beall’s List of predatory, fake, and hijacked journals (the list is no longer actively maintained, but can still be of some help in identifying older scams)

If you see these warning signs, do not submit. In addition to losing money, you may also lose the ability to publish your paper in a legitimate journal. The promise of a quick publication is simply not worth the risk of wasting all your hard work.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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