Phishing for scientists

September 1, 2016

Dr. Janice Nigro, Filipodia Editor


If I were going to write a crime novel, it would never really enter my mind to develop a story and characters around publishing and science. Yet, in researching the topic for this post, I came across a list of adjectives that suggest otherwise. Sure there are scandals in science to talk about, and ‘retraction’ is unfortunately an all too common word we see in print, even in the most prestigious of journals. But ‘counterfeit’, ‘fraud’, ‘predatory’, and ‘hijacked’? What exactly are we talking about?


Just like ‘winged’ and ‘pipe’ and ‘fish’ (as conjoined to denote the winged pipefish, otherwise known by its scientific name as Halicampus macrorhynchus), ‘predatory’ and ‘journal’ seem unlikely words to be used together to make a new noun. In this case, the new noun represents a specialized Internet scam where the organizers masquerade as an online journal publishing articles in an open access format [1]. It is an elaborate scheme designed only to strip an author of a fee for an article that is never really sent out for rigorous review and might never actually be published.


‘Counterfeit’ and ‘hijacked’ describe what might be considered an even more insidious version of a predatory journal or a whole other crime altogether. These journals are meant to trick the potential customer into believing he/she is subscribing or submitting to a reputable/established journal. They manage this hoax by using a domain name that is very similar to that of the reputable journal. Even worse, they overtake an existing Web address of a known journal (apparently all you have to do is wait until the right moment and buy it) or create one for established print journals that do not yet have a website 1 [2].


Jeff Beall, a librarian (, first put the two words ‘predatory’ and ‘journal’ together and fastidiously maintains a list of existing so-called predatory journals. In a cheeky article published in Science in 2013, the authenticity (or perhaps inauthenticity) of the predatory journals on Beall’s list was tested [3]. Totally fabricated articles (including author, institution, and location) were submitted to 304 of these journals with over half of them responding with an acceptance for the bogus article submitted. The author’s story is informative, although many suggested that controls were needed 2,3, such as submission to conventional subscription journals. At the very least, the author details his experiment, revealing how a predatory journal might differ from a legitimate one.


Is there help for us? Jeff Beall’s lists of predatory journals and publishers are available at his website ( He continually updates the lists and provides a list of criteria used in determining predatory status 4. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) also has created a 16-point list, Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing, to help any author evaluate the validity of a journal 5, and an abbreviated five-point list has been published in a blog post in The BMJ 6. While these resources help you to identify predatory journals, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) aims to direct you to legitimate open access journals by maintaining a list of those that use rigorous peer-review (


What to look for: the not-so-subtle. It is hard to believe we can be fooled, because the problems with the fake journals might appear early, such as in the initial correspondence. The phishing email alone provides clues. The English grammar and spelling can be of poor quality, and the email address used for correspondence will be @hotmail or @yahoo, for example, rather than one for the official domain (website) of the company, such as, just as for any other phishing scheme. A Web address for the journal might not be provided within the message, and if one is given, you might wonder where you are when you get there. The graphics at the site might seem excessively creative, and not in the tradition of an official journal online 7. Publication fees might be requested upfront rather than upon acceptance, and this reason alone should cause suspicion.


What to look for: the subtle. The predatory journals will try to emulate a reputable journal by taking on a similar name. At the same time, some titles might seem a bit concocted (Journal of Health, Sport and Tourism). Editors might not have real names or even be located at a real address. The bank account for fee deposit is in a country different from the reported address or headquarters. The journal is not actually linked to PubMed or any other official reference database as they might claim to be.


Consequences of predatory journals. There are consequences of predatory publishing that go beyond the crime of taking your money. Obviously, the fact that the data is online might be a detriment to other valid studies in the field, assuming the work has not been properly evaluated. Some of these fees are costly for the targeted customer, and therefore, papers might have a large number of authors in order to reduce the cost for individuals. Who are all of these so-called authors? Some journals never actually publish the articles. This scenario however might not be worse than actually being published on one of these websites. While an article might be available on the Web, it might be difficult to find and cite because the journal is not linked to any formal central database such as PubMed [4]. Some of the data published in these journals then is likely to be well-conducted and important, but we (the bona fide colleagues in your field) might never find it.


What is the impact on open access? We can develop a fun read on the topic, but several authors have pointed out that we have to be careful not to give open access a bad name. Open access is not the problem; the problem is “predatory publishing” [4]. Although Beall has launched an important crusade against these journals, he can be a bit harsh in delivering his message. For example, he states in his article in Nature, “Conventional scholarly publishers have had an important role in validating research, yet too often advocates of open access seem to overlook the importance of validation in online publishing. They promote access at the expense of quality: a shortcoming that tacitly condones the publication of unworthy scientific research [1].” This particular problem is not unique to open access. Traditional journals are just as susceptible to scandal in the absence of proper review and editing procedures.


Open access journals (the legitimate ones) however may have different goals; although they might not routinely publish sexy science, they still want to publish high-quality science. I hope anyway, because I love open access. The real scam might be in the fees that traditional journals have always charged us, and then charge us again as subscribers to have access to our own work (although “green” open access which allows authors to have access to their own articles is one way around subscriptions).


What can/should we do? Be aware, first of all. We need to use Jeff Beall’s lists to evaluate publishing in a potential open access journal. Many of the people publishing (or trying to publish) in predatory journals happen to be investigators early in their careers in developing countries where there is tremendous research potential [5]. It is perhaps no accident then, as one author reported receiving an excessive number of spam emails to her Bangladesh e-mail relative to her e-mail in Canada 6. These spammers know their customer base and that these individuals are desperate to publish.


Phishing for scientists is not something that is only happening in other countries. We all receive these emails (I just received one as I am writing this article), and we can all be fooled by a hijacked site. Like any scamming activity, it is in our best interests to make our global community aware of the problem. Our community is becoming effectively smaller with the Internet and easier travel. We need to be involved in the choices that are being made in developing countries as well as our own because these are people we want and need to work with.


Finally, a curiosity for me is, who dreamed up this scam in the first place? It is so very specialized. In my hypothetical crime novel, it would have to be someone from the inside, someone acutely aware of our vulnerabilities as students and professionals in the academic system. Maybe it isn’t the crime we should be thinking about, but rather why it fills a need. That’s really what drives this business.










[1] Beall J (2012) Predatory publishers are corrupting open access. Nature 489: 179.

[2] Bohannon J (2015) How to hijack a journal. Science 350: 903-905.

[3] Bohannon J (2013) Who’s afraid of peer review? Science 342: 60-65.

[4] Clark J, Smith R (2015) Firm action needed on predatory journals. BMJ 350: h210.

[5] Xia J, Harmon JL, Connolly KG, Donnelly RM, Anderson MR, et al. (2015) Who publishes in “predatory” journals? Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 66: 1406-1417.