Ethics: Predatory Publishing: Keeping the Wolves from Your Office Door

  • Jeanne Merkle Sorrell, PhD, RN, FAAN
    Jeanne Merkle Sorrell, PhD, RN, FAAN

    Jeanne Sorrell is former Senior Nurse Scientist, Nursing Research and Innovation, at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, OH, and Professor Emerita, George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. She earned a BSN from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI, a MSN from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, WI, and a PhD from George Mason University. Her scholarly interests focus on philosophical inquiry, writing across the curriculum, qualitative research, and ethical considerations in healthcare.

  • Jacqueline K. Owens, PhD, RN, CNE
    Jacqueline K. Owens, PhD, RN, CNE

    Jacqueline Owens is an Associate Professor of Nursing and Program Director for the RN to BSN program at Ashland University in Ashland, OH. She is the Editor-in-Chief of OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing. Jackie has a bachelor of science in nursing degree from Ashland University, a master of science in nursing degree from Kent State University in Kent, OH and PhD from the Joint PhD in Nursing program at Kent State University/University of Akron in Akron, OH. Her areas of interest include disaster response and electronic publishing.

Expansion of the open access movement for scholarly publication has introduced new challenges to authors, editors, and publishers. Open access is a broad term that describes a business model for publishing, but has evolved to include several specific models, briefly described in Table 1. Some editors of open access journals prey on potential authors by promising quick peer review and publication of their manuscripts. Authors then learn, sometimes too late, that the “peer review” is not a scholarly review and that there is a substantial fee for the publication process. These wolves in sheep clothing have been called “predatory publishers,” a term coined by Jeffrey Beall, an academic librarian who has focused on unethical open access publishing practices.

Table 1. Common Terms Related to Predatory Publishing



Open Access

  • Business model for publishing that typically require a fee from authors, sometimes called an article processing charge (APC) which covers publication costs and allows author to retain copyright. This is sometimes referred to as the “gold” open access model.
  • Other models may exist that combine all or some aspects of open access but have slightly different features. A “green” open access model does not charge an author fee, but encourages the author to self-archive a prepublication in an open repository.

Free Access

  • Business model for publishing that provides a voluntary release of copyright restricted content. This can be for marketing purposes or may be a service to the profession. Some journals use a hybrid model that features an early release of some content and/or an embargo of other content which is freely accessible after a certain time.
  • May be called platinum access.
  • Does not charge author fees, costs typically covered by donations, subsidies, organizations, and grants.

Predatory Publishing

  • Author centric business model for publishing fake or scam journals that use APCs to cover the publication costs.
  • Sometimes called, “Pay to Publish.”
  • Often breaches published standards of editorial integrity such as peer review and archiving. May use flattery to entice authors.

Predatory Publishers

  • Publishers that oversee multiple journals, sometimes called a “fleet.” A predatory publisher may quickly launch a great number of new journals in a fleet, possibly hundreds of new titles.

Single-Title Independent Journals

  • These journals publish independently; they are not owned by any multi-title publishers.
  • Sometimes called “standalone” journals.

Author Centric Model versus Reader Centric Model

  • The model of predatory publishers is author centric, not reader centric. These publications cater to the needs of authors, not readers. Paying authors seeking publication of their scholarly work are the consumers, not the readers of the journal (Beall, 2014a).
  • The goal of author centric journals is to publish as many papers as possible but to collect often exorbitant fees for publication. Quantity is more important than quality. The mission is not to provide information to consumers (Conn, 2015).

Sources: (Beall, 2015, 2014a; Chinn, 2014; Pickler et al., 2014)

In 2014, the International Academy of Nursing Editors (INANE) launched an initiative to raise awareness and educate nurse authors and publishers about the consequences of predatory publishing. Beall has created a list of predatory publishers and standalone journals available on the blog, Scholarly Open Access (n.d.). In this column, we will consider the ethical implications of predatory publishing and describe guidelines to help authors evaluate open access journals.

Ethical Implications

Consequences of predatory publishing can impact both an individual scholar, an entire discipline, and the public. At the macro level, predatory publishing practices diminish the credibility of the body of literature for a discipline (e.g., citations of questionable manuscripts published in predatory sources) and threaten the credibility of open access models that engage in ethical publishing practices (Beall, 2014a). Everyone suffers when there is no process in place to archive important work, and it suddenly disappears (Flanagan, 2015).

Predatory publishers share common characteristics that give rise to ethical concerns. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) is an organization that has focused on disseminating information to guide publishers, editors, and editorial board members in ethical practices related to publishing. In 2013 COPE, in collaboration with other organizations, published Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing. The issue of transparency has important ethical implications, as predatory publishers often exhibit a lack transparency that may even be seen as dishonest (Beall, 2014b). The COPE document lists 16 principles of transparency that predatory publishers often ignore (Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing, 2013). Four of these principles that appear to be particularly significant in relation to ethical concerns are discussed here.

Peer Review Process

The first principle listed by the COPE document focused on peer review. Careful review of manuscripts by reviewers who are expert in the content and methods outlined in the manuscript has long been an important aspect of scholarly publication. It is also an important part of promotion and tenure review of faculty, in that it is expected that the candidate’s work has been peer reviewed. Predatory publishers may state that manuscripts are peer reviewed but accept articles with minimal or no expert review, leaving the author with publication of a manuscript in a low quality journal (INANE Predatory Publishing Practices Collaborative, 2014). This seriously impacts trust in accuracy of data in the manuscript. It also jeopardizes career progression for authors who naively believe the claim of peer review, only to discover that their own academic peers do not accept the journal as a scholarly publication.  In fact, predatory journals may deliberately target individuals whose academic pressures motivate them to look for quick publication and may blind them to deceptive practices of the journal (INANE Predatory Publishing Practices Collaborative, 2014).

Editorial Boards

The COPE document stated that scholarly journals should have editorial boards or other governing bodies composed of individuals who are recognized experts in the journal’s subject areas. Names of these individuals should be provided on the journal’s website. Journals with predatory practices not only fail to meet this principle but may attempt to deceive readers by listing names of scholars on their editorial boards without the knowledge or permission of these individuals (Beal, 2014b).

Author Fees

Potential authors should know any fees they will incur as a result of having their manuscript published in a journal. Predatory journals may bury this information on the website or may not communicate it at all until after the manuscript has been submitted. The website of one open access journal stated that there was no fee for publication processing. A closer review of the website, however, revealed that authors were required to pay $290 for a subscription; the “subscription” allowed them to receive one print copy of the article (Kozok, n.d.) For faculty in developing countries, a requirement for promotion may be an article published in an English language journal, so they may be resigned to pay the publication processing fee (Kozok, n.d.). Some fees for article processing may be thousands of dollars. Beall described a situation where an article was accepted, and the author subsequently and unexpectedly received an invoice for over $2,500.00. This author tried to withdraw the submission and was told it was not able to be retracted since a DOI had already been assigned (Beal, 2014b).


The COPE document addressed the need for electronic backup and preservation of access to journal content in the event the journal ceases publication. Beall (2014b) pointed out the importance of this principle, since authors who pay to publish their manuscripts reasonably expect the articles to be perpetually available to readers. Predatory journals often have no plans for backup and if they go out of business, their content may be lost forever, to the detriment of the authors. Kozok (n.d.) described a situation in which on December 12, 2014, all the journals published by Progress Publishing Company became inaccessible, apparently no longer in business. The manuscripts of hundreds of authors who paid for publication of their work were no longer available.

There are other ethical concerns related to predatory publishing, such as fabricating impact factors for journals, publishing text that is verbatim from publications in other journals, trying to deceive potential authors by titling a journal with a name similar to a legitimate scholarly journal, and falsifying the publication site, since authors may prefer to submit a manuscrpt to a U.S. or U.K. publisher (Beall, 2014b; INANE Predatory Publishing Practices Collaborative, 2014). Predatory publishers also may send flattering emails to authors, stating that they have read the author’s impressive article in another journal and encouraging them to submit a manuscript to them or to be a “guest editor” for the journal (INANE Predatory Publishing Practices Collaborative, 2014). Nurse authors may also receive invitations to “predatory conferences” that exploit individuals anxious to present their scholarly work. These conferences may be marketed with unethical tactics, using nebulous titles and flattering invitations to assure presenters that they will be guaranteed an important speaking role at the conference (Pickler et al., 2014).

In summary, predatory publishers may pretend to follow principles of transparency but use various tricks to make potential authors believe that they are representing legitimate journals. These journals are not focused on dissemination of science, but on the potential profit (Beall, 2014b). The articles may have weak or fabricated evidence. The collective harm done by these practices is particularly dangerous in published research related to healthcare, as the “pseudo-science and poor scholarship…could conceivably result in harm to patients and the health information seeking public” (INANE Predatory Publishing Practices Collaborative, 2014, Predatory Motivations and Practices section, para 5).

Evaluating Journals

One result of the 2014 INANE initiative was a collaborative document describing conditions created by the open access movement and predatory motivations and practices (INANE Predatory Publishing Practices Collaborative, 2014). This group has also instituted a call to action encouraging nurse authors to use Beall’s list of predatory publishers (Scholarly Open Access, n.d.) as they consider journals for submission of scholarly work.

Rapid expansion of predatory publishers and their unethical practices has led to much discussion about the value and risk of open access publishing. There is much value in open access done properly. Open access can and does increase the amount of scholarly publications available to nurses by eliminating user cost and increasing options for ease of access (e.g., phone, tablet, laptop), and can, but does not always, decrease the time to final publication (Chinn, 2014; Flanagan. 2015; Pickler et al., 2014). Many journals (e.g., OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing) combine several ethical publishing models to both support the cost of publication and offer at least a portion of content as open access to readers (Conn, 2015; Pierson, 2014).

Charon Pierson, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, and a member of the Governing Council of COPE states that, “[P]redatory publishers have perverted the laudable goal of making science more available to a broader audience by publishing anything, fake science and even sentences randomly generated by a computer program, for a fee, and calling it peer-reviewed scientific literature” (Pierson, 2014, p 583). With massive fleets of journals becoming available every day, how can a nurse author develop a seasoned eye for the unethical practices of predatory publishers?

The INANE collaborative and editorial leaders in other disciplines are working to spread the word to scholars about how to evaluate open access venues and avoid consequences of predatory publishing tactics. Table 2 was reprinted by permission of INANE (Predatory Publishing, 2014) and offers basic guidelines to evaluate integrity. Beall’s Scholarly Open Access blog (n.d.) also provides detailed information about criteria to evaluate scholarly open access publishers and journals.

Table 2. Guidelines for Evaluating the Integrity of a Journal (INANE, 2014; reprinted with permission)


What to look for

Red flags

Who is the Editor in charge of Journal content?

  • A person who has a reputation in the discipline.
  • Direct contact information for the Editor is provided.
  • You cannot find any evidence of the Editor standing in the discipline.
  • There is no contact information.

What is the journals process for assuring quality of content?

  • A clearer description of the process for review of manuscripts prior to publication is stated.
  • The names and duties of editorial advisory or review panel members are listed.
  • A promise of rapid review and publication (quality reviews take time).
  • Mystification of those who are involved in the review process.

Does the journal have sound business and publishing practices?

  • The journal is a member of COPE.
  • The Journal is in the INANE/NA&E Directory of Nursing Journals
  • Information about the author processing charges (APC), if any, is clear and easily accessible
  • If the journal shows an impact factor, it is verifiable in the Journal Citations Reports (Web of Science).
  • The publishers/journal is on Beall’s list at Scholarly Open Access.
  • The Journal name or other information is suspiciously like another journal.
  • The journal/publisher solicits manuscripts using excessively complimentary emails.




“Ethics is a pause to wonder, to question, to step back, to notice” (Moules, 2006, p. 7). Ethical values shape the decision-making processes used by individuals and groups. They provide a common frame of reference and serve as a unifying force for a profession. Expansion of open access opportunities for scholarly publication has created a new environment for authors to explore as they consider the meaning of publishing their work in a particular journal, reflecting on what constitutes scholarly reputability (Thorne, 2014). Open access journals provide an important access for a quick turnaround to disseminate important research findings. But authors need to be diligent in reviewing characteristics of these journals to make sure they are not predatory.

It is essential to create spaces for dialogue about ethical issues in publishing. The INANE community has led the campaign to encourage nurses to work together to identify ethical issues that have emerged with the development of open access journals. Pierson (2014) noted that “we must be knowledgeable about ethics in writing, reviewing, and publishing if we are to mentor the next generation of nursing scholars and preserve the integrity of our scientific record” (p. 583). She noted that nurse authors need to ensure that their work is discoverable, citable, and archived for future scholars. Open access journals offer important opportunities for knowledge dissemination but there is also the potential for exploitation. In order to move our science forward, we need to be wary of predatory publishers. We need to mentor new scholars in how to identify journals that reflect best practices in publishing, building on the foundation of peer-reviewed, ethical, and replicable work already established in the profession.

Jeanne Merkle Sorrell, PhD, RN, FAAN

Jacqueline K. Owens, PhD, RN, CNE

Citation: Sorrell, J., Owens, J., (July 22, 2015) "Ethics: Predatory Publishing: Keeping the Wolves from Your Office Door" OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing Vol. 20 No. 3.