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I recently got an unsolicited email advertising a questionable-looking mathematics journal. Upon investigation, it looks pretty shady: page charges, manuscripts to be submitted in Microsoft Word (legitimate math journals always use LaTeX), overbroad scope, and a promise for peer review within two months (unreasonably short for mathematics).

In its three years of operation, one particular author has been published in it three times, including an “elementary” proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, and another paper that appears to be a proof of a statement for which an explicit numerical counterexample is known. (Interestingly, it appears the same author has also published a proof of the Goldbach conjecture in a journal with a nearly identical name from another publisher indexed in MathSciNet, and has also apparently settled the Twin Primes and Collatz conjectures!)

(Since the preceding paragraph may not make any sense to non-mathematicians, let me say: this is roughly the equivalent of a physics journal publishing a paper that claims to have achieved time travel with household materials. I should note that the journal has a subscription fee (which I have no intention of paying), so I can't actually read the articles in question; but their abstracts are pretty damning.)

However, the journal’s editorial board includes some names from reputable institutions; people with many publications in high-quality journals. (There are many other names from institutions I know nothing about.) Giving them the benefit of the doubt, it’s entirely possible that they are not paying attention to what the journal is doing, or they agreed to be editors without checking on the journal, or even that they have been listed without their knowledge (this has been known to happen).

Is it appropriate to try to inform these editors what’s happening in their names? If so, how can I do it tactfully?

On the one hand, if someone was using my name on a shady journal, I’d want to know. On the other hand, I don’t want to offend or embarrass them by just sending an email saying: “this journal you edit is crap”. It’s even possible that they somehow approve of the journal (e.g. they have a philosophy that the world generally needs more journals and fewer barriers to publication), in which case, I fear no good can come of me criticizing it to them.

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    Thanks for your response. I have the journal now. I would myself make a distinction between criticizing a journal and dropping names of editors of the journal: it is our job as practitioners of X to evaluate and monitor journals in subject X. Criticizing a person seems much more, well, ad hominem. Moreover, because the workings of the editorial board of a journal are totally opaque to an outsider, one cannot with any expectation of accuracy and justice criticize any one editor. As you say, one may well wonder whether everyone who is listed on the editorial board is really "on board". – Pete L. Clark Jun 13 '14 at 3:56
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    Maybe they know full well what they’re doing. Maybe they are also involved in real journals, which receive a lot of unpublishable junk. In order to appease these junk submitters, and thus cut down on repeat submissions of junk, they provide them with a junk journal to publish their junk in. Thus, the submitters think they get published, while real academics only read the serious journals. Everyone’s happy. – Timwi Jun 13 '14 at 11:59
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    @Timwi: except for anyone whose library budget is partly wasted on junk journals because of restrictive bundling deals (not relevant in this case, but does happen). – Lazzaro Campeotti Jun 13 '14 at 15:12
  • Maybe the reputable authors were trapped? They agreed to join many years ago when the journal was new and then never left the editorial board, e.g. because the journal wouldn't remove them from the list or because they forgot that they are on the board? – Captain Emacs Jun 9 '20 at 10:49
  • This is the first post I read in this forum where it is not taken for granted that the whole world knows about the famous Mathematics conjectures and prizes, but explains what they mean to non-mathematcians! Well done! I would give +7 if I could. – user111388 Jun 9 '20 at 11:15
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I wouldn't worry too much about tact. There's enough information in your question to identify the journal, and it looks impressively bad, even by the dismal standards of junk journals. It's so terrible that I'd consider it unethical to be actively involved as an editor, and humiliating to be passively involved. Bringing this to the editors' attention would be doing them a favor: if their names are being used without their knowledge, then they'll find out, if they haven't been paying close enough attention, then they'll get a valuable wake-up call, and if they are already well aware of how terrible the journal is, then at least they'll learn that someone has noticed their involvement and disapproves. Of course it would be quite an awkward e-mail. Perhaps the easiest solution is an anonymous e-mail: it won't make things less painful for the editors, but at least it won't affect your relationship with them.

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    I'm impressed that you could identify the journal from my information. Unless you got the same email I did? – Nate Eldredge Jun 13 '14 at 2:45
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    Goldbach proofs indexed in MathSciNet aren't so common, and the first one I found was by an author who fit all the other facts in your question. – Anonymous Mathematician Jun 13 '14 at 2:58
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    The problem with this advice is that shady journals do not usually allow their "editors," who are involuntarily made members of the fake editorial board, to resign. – Anonymous Physicist Jun 9 '20 at 10:36
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You are under no obligation to tell the editors, but if you chose to email them, it would not be out of place. The key is to not insult them or the journal. Something along the lines of "I see you are the editor of X. I research topic Y. Do you think my research is in scope at the journal? It seems like some of the articles take a less rigorous approach than others. Can you tell me about the peer review process and any publication fees?"

The email handles a number of cases. If they didn't know they are an editor, they now do. If they thought the journal was thoroughly peer reviewing stuff, they now know it is not. If they did it to be able to say they are an editor, they now realise that they have been caught. If they did it because they support this type of publishing model, it will give them a chance to express their views and since they are willing to sign on as an editor, they probably are happy to express their views.

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    I think this is a nice idea. One comment: there are many STEM fields in which "this paper takes a less rigorous approach" is something measured to say about a paper which may have other merits. In math, I think that almost anyone would read that phrasing as "some of your papers are totally bogus [why did you publish them?!?]". I personally find that past a certain point, overly polite or oblique language comes across as condescending (but I guess many other people must feel that the type of language I prefer is overly direct and confrontational). – Pete L. Clark Jun 13 '14 at 5:47
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    Not being insulting is very important. But I'm not convinced by the approach of pretending that you want to submit a paper. If they're a genuine editor, you're wasting their time. If they're not, they now think you're the sort of researcher who wants to publish in junk journals. I suppose they're likely to send you a reply saying, "Holy carp, I have nothing to do with those guys! I've told them to stop using my name." and you can reply to that saying that you suspected this all along and didn't really want to submit a paper. – David Richerby Jun 14 '14 at 16:37
  • @DavidRicherby I did not suggest to pretend that you are going to submit a paper there in the immediate future, but rather focus on determining if the journal should be on your "list" of journals that you consider publishing in. – StrongBad Jun 14 '14 at 16:46
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    This answer is passive-aggressive and not completely honest. Better to do nothing. – Anonymous Physicist Jun 9 '20 at 10:34
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I put this somewhat to the test.

I stumbled upon a journal with very similar characteristics in another field. The main difference is that it has operated for over three decades. I tried to contact all editors, except the top two, who were obviously “in on it”.

  1. I could find current contact informations for eight editors and assumed them to be somewhat active, though many of those were older than seventy.
  2. I could not find contact information for five editors, but I could reasonably guess their current or last institution. I presumed those to be very likely dead or at least retired.
  3. I found three editors to be certainly dead, one since more than a decade.
  4. I failed to identify or find any information about two editors.

I started with e-mails to two editors from Group 1, whom I considered least likely to condone the journal’s actions. One month later, I contacted the rest from Group 1 and the last institutions for Groups 2 and 3. Another month later (now), I evaluated this. I should note that none of the editors were even remotely in my own topical vicinity, so there was very little risk of this backfiring at me.

The basic e-mail I sent was (with some modifications when contacting the former institution and similar):

A dubious journal lists you as editor

Dear Prof. [name]

It might interest you that a allegedly scientific journal called [name]¹ lists you as an editor. Given the state of the journal², I presume that this is without your consent or that the journal has gone south since. Please note that this is not your typical pay-to-publish predator.

Best Regards,
[my name]

¹ [link to journal]
² [links to exemplary, recent, and clearly unscientific articles]

My result was:

  • The first two editors I contacted responded:

    • One was grateful for being informed and quickly managed to get their name removed from the journal’s list of editors.

    • One told me that they edited some special issue for the journal decades ago and never did anything since. They shared my concerns and acknowledge that many papers are “silly”, but rather see the journal as “taking chances”. Their name is still on the list of editors.

  • One former institution replied that they were looking into it. The respective editor is still on the list.

  • Nobody else responded and no other name was removed from the list of editors.

I don’t know whether I had a good hand picking the first two editors or whether the journal took some measures after I contacted them and before I contacted the second batch. I also have to assume that many of my e-mails to Group 1 went to inboxes that are no longer used.

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You could phrase your concern in the form of a technical question:

Dear Prof. So-and-so, I noticed that you are on the editorial board of the Journal of Shady Results, which recently published the proof of a statement for which Other-Person provided a numerical counter-example [1]. Is the journal claiming [1]'s counter-example was incorrect?

If you prefer a more indirect route, write your concerns to Beall to help expedite the journal's blacklisting. Once on the list, you can send an incredulous e-mail to the well-known person asking if he is actually involved with this journal.

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    This seems to be a lot of game playing. What is the rationale for not being direct? We are all adults. – Brian P Jun 13 '14 at 2:31
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    When egos are involved ... one can't be too careful. – Ari Trachtenberg Jun 13 '14 at 3:39
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    Beall currently only considers open access publishers. – StrongBad Jun 13 '14 at 5:09
  • The Beall part of the answer is now outdated. – Tommi Jun 9 '20 at 11:56

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