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Understanding Unethical Publishing Practices

Background on how to evaluate a journal for unethical (sometimes known as predatory) publishing practices

What is unethical publishing?

Unethical or suspicious publishing (sometimes known as predatory journal or vampire press) is an opportunistic publishing technique that exploits the academic need to publish but offers little reward to those who use their services.

The academic "publish or perish" scenario combined with the relative ease of website creation has inadvertently created a market ripe for the exploitation of academic authors. Some publishers are unethical on purpose, while others may make mistakes due to neglect, mismanagement, or inexperience. While the motivations and methods vary, these publishers have common characteristics:

  • Their primary goal is to make money (i.e. there will be fees).
  • They do not care about the quality of the work published (i.e. no or little editing or peer-review).
  • They make false claims or promises (i.e. claims of impact factors and indexing).
  • They engage in unethical business practices (i.e. not as advertised).
  • They fail to follow accepted standards or best practices of scholarly publishing (various).

How the scam works

Unethical publishers exploit a new publishing model by claiming to be legitimate open-access operation, and take advantage of the Gold Open Access model. Under this model publication charges provide publishers with income instead of subscriptions (see Paths to Open Access, from Iowa State University, for more information about publication models).

It's important to realize that Open Access does not make a publisher predatory, their bad behavior does.

Unethical/predatory publishers make false claims (such as quick peer-review) to lure unwary authors into submitting papers. While sending such a publisher a manuscript may lead to publication, there is no guarantee that it underwent peer review, is included in indexes like Web of Science and Scopus, or that it will be available in a month much less in five years.

What's the harm?

Unethical publishers do authors a disservice by claiming to be full-service publishers. Remember, as an author you are providing a valuable product, and legitimate publishers provide valuable services to protect your work. Some of the dangers of publishing with a questionable publisher are outlined below:

Your work may be subject to sub-par peer-review

The peer-review system isn't perfect, but there is general consensus that papers that undergo peer-review are better for it. If you plan to seek promotion or tenure you want to make sure you are publishing in a place that values your work and is willing to devote time and resources to improving it.

Your work could disappear

One of the advantages of publishing with a responsible publisher is that they make commitments to preserve your work. Opportunists looking to make a quick buck are not going to care if your paper is still available in 5 years, much less tomorrow. This situation is the stuff of nightmares if you plan to go up for tenure or promotion.

Your work will be hard to find

Some predatory publishers advertise that they are included in well-known databases like Web of Science or Scopus when they are not. Since Brown University subscribes to hundreds of databases, including Web of Science, this is easy to check. While most predatory journals will probably be covered by Google Scholar your work won't be as visible if it's missing from other research databases.


Finding out you've been the victim of a scam is never fun. While the repercussions of publishing with questionable publishers is still largely unknown there have been a few documented cases where it has hurt careers.