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I'm a graduate student with, so far, one published article in a peer-reviewed journal. Since the article came out, I've been receiving increasing amounts of "academic e-mail spam" from people wanting me to attend their conferences, publish in their (usually pay-to-publish) journals or order research supplies from them. (The latter kind tend to be the easiest to filter out — even though my field is biomathematics, it doesn't mean I have any use for frozen mouse embryos whatsoever.)

Some time ago, an e-mail turned up asking me to review a manuscript, conveniently attached to the message, for a pay-to-publish open access journal in a somewhat related field. Googling for the name of the publisher, I found them described as e.g. "a borderline vanity press".

At the time, I wasn't really sure how to react. On one hand, I could think of several reasons to just go ahead and review the manuscript:

  • The main complaint about the publisher seems to be that their peer review is insufficient — a claim supported by the fact that they seem to be picking random grad students as reviewers. Still, given that they're at least making some effort at peer review, surely I should encourage them in that? After all, if nobody agreed to review manuscripts for them, how could they ever improve their review process?

  • Declining to review the manuscript might deprive the authors — who, if the journal is indeed a "scam", are presumably the victims here — of useful feedback. Surely they at least deserve that much return for their time, efforts and money?

  • Also, if the manuscript did get published in a scientific journal, no matter how dubious or marginal, it would enter the body of scientific knowledge, and might be used as a reference by others. Given that, surely it is my duty as a scientist to try, given the opportunity, to do what I can to ensure that it is at least correct?

Still, despite these arguments, I initially found the idea of willingly responding to spam to be deeply unsettling at a fundamental, almost visceral level. Also, I felt concerned that, by doing volunteer work for a possibly unethical publisher, I'd be supporting their business model and perhaps lending them an undeserved appearance of legitimacy. In particular, given that the subject of the manuscript wasn't that close to my own field, I worried that it might have errors that I would not be capable of spotting, and that, even if I made this clear in my review, the publisher might still use the review to support the publication of a possibly flawed article.

(Edit: Just to be clear, I wasn't worried that they'd reveal the names of reviewers, just that, even if I was the only one who sent back a review, they might still use it to claim that "yes, the paper was peer reviewed.")

In the end, the decision was actually rather easy: after a cursory glance at the manuscript, it became clear that there was no way I could support its publication as written, especially given that large fragments of it were clearly plagiarized, and I wrote back to the journal stating as much.

However, if I ever receive a similar request again (and I assume I probably will, sooner or later), what do you think I should do with it?

  • 5
    Why not name and shame the publisher? – Nate Eldredge Mar 28 '13 at 22:59
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    @Nate: Based on my Google search, I'd say they've been named and shamed well enough already. I'd rather not mention them by name here, since it's not really that relevant. I'll note that they're listed on Beall's list, though. – Ilmari Karonen Mar 28 '13 at 23:07
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    Ps. I do realize that a possible answer might be "it depends on the publisher." If so, I'd be very happy to see examples of a range of responses, depending on the degree of "scamminess" of the publisher. – Ilmari Karonen Mar 28 '13 at 23:14
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    "Also, I felt concerned that, by doing volunteer work for a possibly unethical publisher, I'd be supporting their business model and perhaps lending them an undeserved appearance of legitimacy." I can think of one very large and established publisher which engages in practices that, at the very least, are "possibly unethical". – Anonymous Jun 26 '13 at 9:26
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You have no obligation to accept reviews from any journals.

In the long term, you should of course accept review tasks, since the review system is built on everyone doing their part in return for the reviews you get on your own papers. But if you think the journal is not serious, there is no need to waste your time on a review.

The problem will lie in identifying what is real and what is not. Apart from researching the journal yourself, as you have done, you should also ask more senior scientists of their opinion.


Edit: Following up on the request for additional input on whether reviewing for dubious journals could be harmful in some way:

I think the greatest risk is that you may provide legitimacy to a journal that is not legitimate. It may be harmful to you if the journal in some way represents, let's say, creationism, in that you may become associated with something you really do not support.

I do not see any clear problem for the authors whose paper you review. Their greatest problem, assuming they are common scientists, should be that they submitted it there in the first place.

Personally, I delete all e-mails with requests from journals I do not know of. I know the journals in my field, and the new serious journals that have sprung up have a firm basis in the community, so they are also "known". I do check on some of these unknown journals occasionally, out of curiosity, and I particularly check the sort of papers they publish and the editors of the journal. That usually tells me if the journal is of interest.

Some of these journals may be legitimate, but they end up being extremely narrow regionally in terms of the origin of their authors and editors, and thus probably also their readership. A new journal is a difficult thing to get accepted unless you start with a wide base in the community, so some of these journals may be very legitimate but still have to prove themselves somehow. The problem is how to distinguish good from bad, and that is truly not easy in many cases.

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    +1, good answer. However, what I'd also really been hoping to get opinions on is whether, assuming that I do indeed have the time and willingness to review the manuscript, there's any chance that I might actually be doing more harm than good (to myself, to the authors, and/or to scientific publishing in general) by agreeing to review a manuscript sent to me by a sufficiently scammy journal. And yes, I do realize that this is kind of a fuzzy question. – Ilmari Karonen Mar 28 '13 at 23:23
  • @IlmariKaronen I have added some view points in response to your comment. Thanks for reiterating the questions – Peter Jansson Mar 29 '13 at 7:56
  • "common scientists"? Not sure what this means. – Faheem Mitha Jul 23 '14 at 8:06
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I might actually be doing more harm than good (to myself, to the authors, and/or to scientific publishing in general) by agreeing to review a manuscript sent to me by a sufficiently scammy journal.

Yes, exactly. Don't encourage predatory publishing. Don't encourage the authors, who almost certainly have no interest in your feedback and just want an additional publication, hoping it will help them get that cosy government job/tenure in a university that doesn't care about quality. All of this is a simulacrum of science.

if nobody agreed to review manuscripts for them, how could they ever improve their review process

True, but you shouldn't worry about it. Because we don't need more journals, especially not pay-for-publish, low-quality journals.

You probably know very well which are the good journals in your field, and if you publish (or even submit) to these, chances are they will ask you to review eventually. And this is what the scientific community expects you to do, not to give credit to a publisher that has no interest in science whatsoever and just wants to collect as many 'article processing charges' as it can, quickly.

  • “We don’t need more journals” The fact that it can take papers years to get published due in part to publishing backlogs seems to suggest otherwise to me. – nick012000 Sep 18 at 8:08
  • @nick012000 the issue is too many papers, not not enough journals. – Cape Code Sep 26 at 12:36
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No!

Simply say "No, I'm too busy at the present time."

No one will be hurt or offended, and it is not like you'll be lying.

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    well it is lying if you're not too busy at the present time... – eis Nov 29 '15 at 11:05
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I attempted to review for some of these "predatory" journals, thinking: if the papers are genuinely peer reviewed, how bad could it be? I now consider it a poor decision on my part.

  1. My impression from the outset was that the editor intended for the paper to be published as soon as possible (from when I first saw it to when it was published online took about 3-4 weeks). I felt like it was going to be published, one way or another. (Although, I felt the authors took my feedback seriously.)

  2. There was a lot of badgering; I was hounded by emails about deadlines and reviews. For one paper, the initial review had a deadline of 10 days, and a revision had a deadline of 3 days (I'm not joking). Prior to even agreeing to review the revision, I started getting hounded about the 3-day deadline passing. They just expected me to drop everything to immediately review this paper.

  3. Prior to finishing reviewing one paper, the same journal sent me a request for another paper, with another 10-day deadline. (At this point, I snapped, and sent a fairly rude email back---they still haven't stopped emailing me.)

All in all, it wasn't a good experience, one I would avoid in future.

  • 1
    If the only red flag you got was a 10-day review deadline, I wouldn't be so convinced it was a predatory journal. I know of a couple of fledgling journals (Open Access types published by MDPI) that have similar deadlines (with a disclaimer to ask for more time if needed), claiming they are trying to fast track the typically slow process. They're definitely not top of the field but I did publish some of my PhD work there. And honestly - I found that 10 days is plenty since I usually push the review till the last 3 days anyway and just do it when it's due. – penelope Jan 10 at 12:20
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    And as an additional note - once as an author I got a request to respond to reviewer's comments in 10 days, but since they turned out to be quite substantial I asked for a months time and they were glad to grant it. Similarly on the subject of "dropping everything off at a moments notice" - when I got a review request for a seemingly interesting paper (or maybe it was a follow-up or 2nd round review) in the middle of my deadlines, I asked for an extra week until my deadlines passed and there was no problem with it. Not a fan of 10-day deadlines either, but I don't consider it a decisive factor – penelope Jan 10 at 12:23
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    @penelope For what it's worth, I personally don't touch anything by MDPI with a ten-foot pole. Not only did they spend time on Beall's List, they were specifically called out by Beall as one of the publishers who pressured him to shut down his list. – user37208 Jan 10 at 15:03
  • #2 is an unfortunate consequence of authors liking fast peer review and journals attempting to provide it, unfortunately. If it happens again I would suggest declining to review, and cite the 10-day deadline as a reason. The editor could conceivably extend the deadline in that case, or make a case to modify it at the next editorial board meeting. – Allure Sep 17 at 7:13
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    The reasonabless of 10-day limit on peer review is presumably field-dependent. – Tommi Sep 17 at 7:33
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This thorny question has no easy answer, and a lot is going to come down to your personal values. I'll emphasize just one thing: there is no universally acknowledged definition of "predatory publisher" (see also this answer). The least controversial characteristic (but even then it's not absolute, see the first link) is that the journal does not conduct peer review, but by approaching you they're clearly conducting peer review, i.e. if this is your definition then the journal is not predatory.

Therefore my first reaction to your question is: what makes you say the journal is dubious? You mention several points; let's examine them one by one:

  • It is pay-to-publish. More technically this model is called "open access".[*] If you dislike this publishing model you wouldn't be alone (Jeffrey Beall does too), but it would be extremely awkward for you, because an increasingly large number of funders are mandating the papers they fund be published open access.
  • It is described by someone, presumably Jeffrey Beall, as a "borderline vanity press". See the second link above for analysis of this. There are reasonable people who disagree with Beall. Trusting his judgment saves you from having to do the analysis yourself of course, which is very convenient (same reason why university rankings are so popular), but not necessarily correct.
  • They spam you. The line between spam and not spam is not obvious (see second link above). They've already reached you when you work in a related field, which is a sign they're doing selection instead of simply mass mailing everyone. Also, I suspect if you call reviewer invitations "spam" you are on the extreme side. Not necessarily wrong (because what's spam and what's not spam is not obvious), but relatively extreme.
  • You end up doing voluntary work. Isn't that the case for almost all journals & publishers?
  • You may not spot errors in a flawed paper, which allows the publisher to claim the paper was peer-reviewed. This wouldn't be unique to this publisher or journal. There are countless published papers that were wrong and the reviewer didn't spot the errors. Example. Obviously the publishers of the two journals in question (Annals of Physics and Classical and Quantum Gravity, published by Elsevier and IOP Publishing respectively) are going to say the paper was peer-reviewed, which is also strictly speaking true.

In other words, it is not clear that the review request you received is from a dubious journal. You may think it is, but not every reasonable person will agree with you. If the journal is not dubious, the question you ask becomes really hard to answer.

Given all this, should you review anyway? It's up to you. You're under no obligation to review no matter who is inviting. You could plausibly say you don't have time for this (especially since papers submitted to not-well-known journals are unlikely to be very exciting). You could say you'll review anyway because of the reasons you gave in the three bullet points. It's something only you can decide about.

[*] Even more technically, open access refers only to the article being free to read somehow. It comes in many different flavors, some of which might not require an author to pay to publish.

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    @TommiBrander there are several different OA models, and the one you refer to is called diamond/platinum. I'm not sure if it's something I want to get into in this answer ... will try editing it. – Allure Sep 17 at 7:44
  • Given how much of the work that goes into making journals is voluntary, surely there's room for a foundation to set up journals which are free at both ends? Maybe charge for the paper copy. – TRiG Sep 17 at 9:58
  • @TRiG diamond/platinum journals exist, but (as you can see from the link in the answer) they usually require external funding to work. Paper copies are already always charged for, and the number of print subscriptions is declining and will likely continue to decline. – Allure Sep 17 at 12:56
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You should decline. In addition to the detriment of encouraging predatory publishing, you make yourself look bad or at least, like you think value of your time/input is low.

If you want to review, reach out to some editors of good journals (at the subspecialty level) and ask for reviews. Include what topics you are most capable of reviewing.

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