The Predatory Journals: The Dandelion of Biomedical Research

For years I have complained about predatory publishers found in PubMed. The publishers entry point is through PMC. Articles submitted to PMC are searchable and findable using the PubMed interface DESPITE being from a journal that is NOT indexed in MEDLINE.

Librarians and very savvy researchers might know the distinction, but the vast majority of the people using PubMed do not know or care. If it is found in PubMed then it they believe it has passed some sort of litmus test. Librarians, ask yourself, how many times have you done a long complicated search in PubMed and then looked at the journals to try and weed out predatory journals. Several different people have questioned, criticized or stated concerns about the PMC backdoor to PubMed. However, a recent post on Scholarly Kitchen reveals things have gotten worse. Predatory journals can now be found in other biomedical databases such as Science Direct and WoS via cited references. Where PMC was the backdoor for predatory publishers to be findable in PubMed, the cited reference has become the backdoor for these publishers to be findable in other biomedical databases.

Citation Contamination: References to Predatory Journals in the Legitimate Scientific Literature by Rick Anderson identified seven journal titles that fell victim to publishing junk articles or fake editor approval. He then looked for any published articles that cited and article published in these seven journals. What he found was articles published in predatory journals are indeed being cited by authors who are writing in non-predatory journals and thereby are findable in WoS and Science Direct and DOAJ.

Rick Anderson isn’t the only person to have discovered this problem. Authors of the article, Citations of articles in predatory nursing journals, in Nursing Outlook found “814 citations to articles published in predatory nursing journals. These articles were cited in 141 nonpredatory nursing journals.” The authors correctly noted that CINAHL and MEDLINE do not index predatory journals and that the prevalence of predatory journals in other databases is still small. Yet these journals are findable in PubMed (through the PMC backdoor) and other databases through the cited references backdoor, I feel it inadvertently and falsely gives these journals some legitimacy to authors.

Unfortunately, NLM has yet to adequately address the PMC problem. NLM employees responded to the CMAJ article “How predatory journals leak into PubMed” stating, “journals that apply to be in PMC undergo a rigorous assessment of scientific and editorial quality.” Really? Then why are there articles from predatory publishers even in PMC? IMHO, rigorous assessment of scientific and editorial quality means that no article published in a predatory journal should be allowed, regardless of whether NIH grants were used for the research.

Rick Anderson’s post is very recent (published Oct. 28, 2019), as of today (Nov. 5, 2019) I have not found any responses from the databases he mentioned regarding infiltration of predatory journals via cited references. Several databases have stated they have taken steps to help prevent the indexing of predatory publishers’ journals, but I couldn’t find anything dealing with the issue of cited references.

Predatory publishers have become the dandelion weed in the garden of biomedical literature. While they have not completely infested the landscape, their seeds distributed on the winds of Google, PMC, and other databases have invaded legitimate biomedical databases that researchers, clinicians and others use to share knowledge and treat patients. It will take a concerted effort by librarians, legitimate publishers, editors, and researchers to eliminate the predatory journal seeds from spreading further into the biomedical databases and invading the literature. If not, our biomedical databases will be like this.

3 thoughts on “The Predatory Journals: The Dandelion of Biomedical Research”

  1. “IMHO, rigorous assessment of scientific and editorial quality means that no article published in a predatory journal should be allowed, regardless of whether NIH grants were used for the research.”
    I’m pretty sure almost every single librarian wanted full-text access to publicly funded research. Don’t blame PMC for following this policy. If you don’t like it, get the policy changed. The first issue, however, is how to define “predatory journal.”

  2. I agree, publicly funded research should be available to all. But, I don’t think publicly funded research should be published in these journals at all. However, being in PMC allows that journal to gain some sort of credibility which it has not earned as journal. That is a problem that NLM must address because most people searching PubMed don’t realize there are junk journals in there. It is better to address the situation while the problem is still small (when you compare the amount of records in PMC). I agree the first step is to define a predatory journal. While creating publication submission stings, is great to illustrate the sheer audacity of some predatory publishers, it doesn’t help identify questionable publishers as a whole. I like what Cabell’s is doing with their Blacklist. They analyze various behavior indicators and list the areas that blacklisted journals fail to measure up. However, I am concerned that Cabell’s is too new and lacks content. While testing the system, I decided to also test their Whitelist with well known respected journals. Cabell’s Whitelist failed to have many well known legit medical journals (JAMA, NEJM, etc.) When I questioned them they said they don’t have medical journals in the Whitelist yet. IMHO it is much easier to get a list of medical journals that qualify for the Whitelist than the BlackList because there is already a list of non-predatory medical journals from databases like MEDLINE. So that makes me question whether their Blacklist is comprehensive, since I would assume that content is more difficult to come up with. Perhaps more people are interested in the Blacklist and their are focusing their efforts on that more than the Whitelist. But I do like the approach they are taking with behavior indicators.

  3. Dangerous Dandelions

    Agree that this should be a real focus for PubMed and PubMedCentral.

    Three things of possible interest:

    1) The article below shows that this can have real world negative consequences:
    https://thewalrus.ca/the-rise-of-junk-science/

    2) Haven’t had a chance to read it yet but the article below from the latest issue of the Journal Medical Reference Services Quarterly sounds interesting:

    Putting Misinformation Under a Microscope: Exploring Technologies to Address Predatory False Information Online

    The dissemination of misinformation in health care and the sciences has become a growing concern over the last five years. Whether the false information is spread with malice or merely ignorance, researchers, providers, librarians, regulatory bodies, and internet platform providers have all begun taking steps to identify false information and halt its proliferation online. Some companies have begun looking at ways to apply artificial intelligence and machine learning to timely and widespread identification efforts. This column will investigate what technologies are currently being considered for addressing the misinformation crisis, discuss concerns over the application of such technologies, and consider methods for libraries to become more involved with the technological side of the issue.

    3) A couple of related posts from a listserv earlier this year

    An article just published in Lancet Psychiatry on this topic. A real issue as indicated by: “These articles had received a total of 19673 citations in that time (the citation data were taken from Google Scholar and ResearchGate), ranging from zero to 5912 with a mean of 156·13 citations per journal and 2·84 citations per paper”

    The article also listed the KScien site which I hadn’t heard about before – has information on predatory journals / publishers / conferences / misleading metrics etc

    Below is the related predatory journals in PubMed post from earlier this year …

    Scholarly Kitchen recently published a list of their most read articles in 2018 . There was one on PubMed which made for some concerning reading.

    The article referred to a paper – The surge of predatory open-access in neurosciences and neurology – which found:

    Neuroscience:    87 predatory journals vs 100 genuine

    Neurology:          101 predatory journals vs only 73 genuine

    One the positive side: Of 192 predatory journals – none were indexed in Scopus or Medline, and just one in DOAJ.

    On the negative side: Approx. 15 and 25% of the predatory journals were indexed in PubMed / PubMed Central!

    On the positive side again: The predatory journals published many fewer articles than the herbivorous journals; on average only 12 articles per year.

    Which suggests that, in terms of predatory content at least, Medline is a much better option than PubMed

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