University Libraries

Questionable Publishers

There have always been unethical publishers, looking more to exploit scholars than to facilitate research and scholarship. Although the problem has grown since the advent of online-only publishing, it is not a new one, nor is it limited to open access publishing. In fact, questionable publishers exist on both sides of the open-access/toll-access line, and the characterization of this problem as one of open access is often a tactic used to discredit open access.

Unfortunately, the nature of the problem (including frequent changes of publication names or business affiliations) makes it very difficult to maintain a comprehensive list of questionable publishers. However, the following points may help you assess whether an unfamiliar publisher is on the level.

Tips for Assessing Publisher Quality

These tips are adapted from "Assessing the scamminess of a purported open-access publisher" by LibraryLoon under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

Communications practices

  • Competent website design and function can be an indicator of quality; badly designed sites may indicate problems. (Caveat: Many Open Journal Systems sites are remarkably ugly, but still belong to reputable efforts.)
  • Sending out mass emails asking for editors and submissions; or emailing about journals far removed from the recipients' subject areas, is often, though not always, a sign of poor quality or unethical practices.
  • Sending out mass emails asking for links to their journal website is an indicator of unethical (and unprofessional) practices.
  • For purported open access journals: Are they in the Directory of Open Access Journals? Nota bene, if they are, it doesn’t automatically mean they’re legitimate. But if they’re not, it’s worrisome.
  • Usage statistics or other metrics, alternative or otherwise are often an indicator of good intent and practice. (Impact factor listings are unlikely. Not having one isn’t a sign of anything but newness; it doesn’t tell you anything useful.)

The publisher’s stable

  • Is the journal stable in a coherent discipline or set of disciplines? Subject areas that range all over the map, especially with a young/unknown publisher, are indicators of questionable quality. Legitimate open access publishers tend to start disciplinarily small and expand (if they expand) outward.
  • 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.
  • Likewise, are many of the journals empty shells, with no or very few published articles? Do many of the journals publish irregularly - or does the publisher work even more irregularly, issuing a lot of “edited volumes” rather than actual journals? All of these are bad indicators.

Production values

  • Assess the writing quality, copyediting, and typesetting quality of a few existing articles. 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 many reputable publishers fall short on typographic and editing quality from time-to-time - and a few unethical publishers do quite nicely with typography and layout!
  • If you have the disciplinary background, skim some tables of contents to check articles for currency, interest, worth. If you do not, recruit a friend (or a librarian who specializes in the discipline) for help with such assessments.
  • Does this publisher have anything on its site about its preservation practices? Are they a LOCKSS, CLOCKSS, or Portico member? Do they participate in the DOAJ’s OA-journal preservation program, or are they partnering with a library for preservation? This is a basic scholarly responsibility; a publisher that hasn’t considered it is either unethical or irresponsible.


  • Are editorial boards listed? If so, have you heard of any of these people? You may have to defer to others’ disciplinary knowledge here.
  • 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.
    However, 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 neglect to publish knowledge local to developing nations, or refuse work with non-native speakers of English on their prose regardless of the quality of the underlying scholarship.

Business model

  • Has the publisher ever had any financial support 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 high-quality, reputable, relevant to the journals?
  • Does the publisher run conferences? Are they exclusively in exotic 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 questionable journals, there are questionable conferences that are pure excuses for expensive vacations and profitmongering.

For more on the issue, please read:
Smith, Kevin. Lions and tiger and bears, OA, or, scaring the children, part 1 Scholarly Communications @ Duke, June 28, 2012.
Anderson, Kent. "Predatory" Open Access Publishers - The Natural Extreme of an Author-Pays Model Scholarly Kitchen blog, Mar 6, 2012.
The author of the above tips on assessing publishers also offers a helpful set of tips for examining a solicitation to submit to a specific publication.

For one partial list of titles about which questions have been raised, visit Beall's List

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