Gavia Libraria

Assessing the scamminess of a purported open-access publisher

The Loon once had high hopes that open-access publishing would be more self-policing than toll-access. The establishment of OASPA, and OASPA’s bold initial claims about providing a mark of quality for the industry, briefly fed those hopes. Alas, it didn’t happen, and the woodwork is currently crawling with verminous scumsucking scammers, preying on developing-nations researchers trapped in cargo-cult institutions as well as naïve first-world graduate students and young, hungry faculty.

So the Loon often sees grad students, faculty, and librarians asking about the reputability of a publisher that just crossed their radar. Since neither comprehensive blacklists nor whitelists exist to help us (pace Jeffrey Beall), the Loon thought she’d share the heuristics she uses to assess these publishers.

Communications practices

  • Is their website competently designed and functional? If not, assume a scammer. (Caveat: Many Open Journal Systems sites are remarkably ugly, but still belong to reputable efforts.)
  • Are they sending out mass emails asking for editors and submissions? Often a sign of a scammer (though, it must be said, a couple of legitimate OA publishers have done this; they shouldn’t, and Hindawi at least has ceased the practice). Is the subject matter of the journal(s) advertised in the email appropriate to the recipient? If not, assume a scammer.
  • Are they sending out mass emails asking for links to their journal website? Scammer, just like any other linkbaiter.
  • Are they in the Directory of Open Access Journals? Nota bene, if they are, it doesn’t automatically mean they’re legitimate; the DOAJ doesn’t check closely. But if they’re not, it’s worrisome.
  • Does the publisher offer usage statistics or any other sort of metric, alternative or otherwise? (Don’t bother checking for impact factor; they won’t have one. Not having one isn’t a sign of anything but newness, anyway; it doesn’t tell you anything useful.)

The publisher’s stable

  • Is the journal stable in a coherent discipline or set of disciplines? If not—if the stable ranges all over the map, and this is a young/unknown publisher—assume a scammer. PLoS, BMC, Hindawi—the legits tend to start disciplinarily small and expand (if they expand) outward. (The likes of PLoS ONE are an exception, of course, but the Loon has yet to see a scammy publisher try a PLoS ONE clone.)
  • Anything set your alarm bells ringing? The Loon has seen comically misspelled journal titles once or twice, as well as ludicrous journal mission statements. (Hey, “Scientific & Academic Publishing”? It’s Geographic Information Systems, just so you know.)
  • Check journal-launch dates. Did the publisher launch a flock of journals at once? This is logistically near-impossible to do well (or indeed at all), no matter what the underlying business model; assume a scammer.
  • Likewise, are many of the journals empty shells, with no or very few published articles? Classic scammy sign; the publisher is throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.
  • How many of the journals publish regularly? The lower the number (that is, the more irregular the journal schedules), the likelier this publisher is to be a scammer.
  • A particularly dangerous warning sign: the publisher issues a lot of “edited volumes” rather than actual journals. This is really only a somewhat more advanced case of rot than the irregularly-published journal. The scammer has given up on collecting enough victims to publish something that looks even vaguely like a journal.

Often, the above criteria combine into a fairly strong hunch about the publisher’s scamminess. Those still unsure about a particular publisher may wish to proceed to:

Production values

  • Download a journal article or two. Assess the writing quality. Assess the copyediting. Assess the typesetting quality. If any of these is markedly lacking, spot-check a few more articles, varying the journals you look at. This isn’t an infallible sign, because goodness knows plenty of publishers on all sides of the business-model question let howling typographic and content horrors pass (the Loon is looking at you, Haworth), and a few scammers are smart enough to have fixed their typography and layout (the Loon is looking at you, InTech), but a pronounced lack is still indicative.
  • If you have the disciplinary background, skim some tables of contents to check articles for currency, interest, worth. The Loon confesses that this is quite often beyond her; she typically asks a liaison-librarian colleague with appropriate expertise for his or her opinion. When she looks at scammy journals within her expertise domains, though, she typically sees work that’s years behind the state of the art, even considering the slow pace of normal scholarly publishing.
  • Does this publisher have anything on its site about its digital-preservation practices? Are they a LOCKSS, CLOCKSS, or Portico member? Do they participate in the DOAJ’s OA-journal preservation program? Are they partnering with a library for preservation? This is a basic scholarly responsibility; a publisher that hasn’t considered it is either a scammer or a bunch of irresponsible heads-in-the-sand ostriches.


  • Are editorial boards listed? If not, assume a scammer. If so, have you heard of any of these people? Again, the Loon often has to defer to others’ disciplinary knowledge here.
  • This is a tricky and often misleading one, but: do editorial and author slates consist mostly or entirely of scholars from developing nations? Richard Poynder explains astutely why this is a scamminess indicator: the developing educational/research infrastructure in these countries often privileges the appearance of scholarly publishing over the actual quality thereof, leaving a huge market for scammy pay-to-play “publishing” outfits. Do not use this criterion by itself! Not a few developing nations are building wholly legitimate open-access journal stables, in part because developed-world scholarly publishers often can’t be arsed to publish knowledge local to developing nations or work with non-native speakers of English on their prose—and more shame to them for it.

Business model

  • Has the publisher ever had any financial support at all other than author fees? Grants (including grants that have run their course; several reputable OA publishers have gotten their seed money via startup grants), an existing reputable publisher applying capital, a membership program, an institutional or library or grant-funder backstop? If not, that’s a worrisome sign.
  • If there’s advertising, is it reputable, relevant to the journals, not immediately skeevy?
  • Does the publisher run conferences? Are they exclusively in exotic junkety locations? Are the conference fees exorbitant, compared to other conferences in the field? Do they publish proceedings, and if they do, are those proceedings any good? Just as there are scammy journals, there are scammy conferences that are pure excuses for expensive vacations and profitmongering.

That’s what the Loon looks at. Any scamminess criteria she’s missed?

7 thoughts on “Assessing the scamminess of a purported open-access publisher

  1. anon

    The editorial board is key. I am co-administering mpow’s OA authors fund and we’ve had some interesting experiences. In one case, a faculty member was thinking about submitting to a journal and after I did some digging I told him that he should be careful b/c the journal sounded a little sketchy from what I found trolling the interwebs. Long story short: he contacted one of the members of the editorial board and then abruptly changed his mind about publishing there. He never told what exactly the issue was but I suspect that the person in question had no idea that a) they were on the editorial board or b) that this particular journal existed.

    One other point: the system right now is really confusing for all involved and each individual in the end will have to make the call. We had an experienced researcher co-publish a chapter in an OA book – we warned him of the publisher’s reputation but he told us that he was quite satisfied with his experience with them: the peer review was rigorous and the publisher seemed to be on the ball organizing everything. We funded the chapter, though I’m still not sold that the publisher is 100% reputable.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Oh, excellent point—the Loon has heard other stories of reputable scholars being added to editorial boards of scam journals without their knowledge or consent. Thank you.

      1. Henry Cohn

        I wish there were some way of keeping track of this sort of misbehavior. I think it happens all the time (see, for example, the note at the bottom of http://people.cs.uchicago.edu/~razborov/), but life goes on and the fraudulent journal generally suffers no consequences. I don’t suppose anyone is maintaining a list? Along the lines of Beall’s list, but focusing on cases of clear-cut fraud (as opposed to what could be mistaken for a honest journal with very, very low standards).

        1. LibraryLoon Post author

          Would RetractionWatch be interested in a sibling list/blog? The general phenomenon seems right up their alley.

  2. Molly Keener

    Additional criteria I use:
    – look for a copyright date on the website: if it’s out of date (and it’s not early Jan.), be wary
    – look at the web address: if it seems odd (e.g., http://www.ijhssnet.com – why the “net”?), be wary
    – look at the frequency of publication (flip of the Loon’s): if it publishes regularly, but with bloated issues, be wary; and related, if there has been at least one special issue in the first six months of publication, be wary
    – if there is an announcement that the article processing fee has risen significantly (e.g., from $20 to $200) within the first year of publication, be wary

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Very nice, thanks!

      The Loon notes that some reputable new journals do choose to start off with a bang via a themed issue.

      1. Molly Keener

        Oh, I agree that a themed issue might be a great kickstarter for a new journal. I should have clarified that an issue that is named a “special issue” but seemingly has no difference in theme, length, scope, etc. than standard issues is suspect.