Exactly one year ago, I was invited to give a presentation on author services at a publishing workshop of the International Association of STM Publishers, in Hong Kong. A year later, I am back in Hong Kong to give a talk to postgraduate research students and early-career researchers at The University of Hong Kong about ethical peer review and publishing, and to warn them against scam publishers and companies offering fake peer review. Editorial and publication support services for researchers and academic authors are now abundant, so how do you choose a trustworthy service provider and how can you tell it is high quality and works ethically?
The main advice for authors looking for publishing and publishing support services is due diligence--that is, always do your homework and ask the right questions. You would have spent time and effort performing the research work you want to publish, so put the same skills into practice and research the editorial/publishing company, service, or freelancer thoroughly.
You can initially use word-of-mouth referrals from people you trust; ask them for advice and about their experiences with the company. Search for online warnings of scams from past victims or cases that have made the news. Get second opinions. Look for signs of scam companies when researching websites; signs may include:
- Poor-quality webpages and poor English
- Plagiarized website or closely follows style of one or more other companies
- Misleading company name, or a name that sounds like another company
- Owned by a parent company known to scam users
- No address or contacts, or only PO box
- Unclear services and method of service delivery
- Unclear prices/pricing and method of payment
- Offers/costs/timings and promises that sound too good to be true
- No ethics policies
- Services are unethical (eg, sell ready-made papers)
- Fabricated endorsements
- Fabricated staff/advisers/consultants, use of stock photo portraits
- No information on who does the services
- No policy for complaints or refund claims
- Claims of partnerships without details
- Undeclared sponsor/founder and company mission
- No samples, or samples are of poor quality or plagiarized
- Fake information for performance, indexed status, impact factor; or the indexes/factors themselves are fake (like global or universal impact factor)
- The website or its coding has numerous tags/keywords (including names of reputable companies) that drive traffic to the website
Also beware of spam email from such services. Get second opinions. Below are some tips on scam book/journal publishers and scam services, which I collected while preparing relevant presentations on the topic.
Scam book publishers
In book publishing, there are two extreme models (and a number of models in between) for how to cover the necessary activities such as reviewing, editing, design, printing (or e-book production), sales/distribution, and marketing. The traditional model is where a publisher owns the rights and pays the author an advance against royalties, and the publisher takes care of and pays for all activities. The self-publishing model is where the author keeps the rights and pays for all costs, either to a publishing service (known as a vanity press) or separately to vendors and/or freelancers while managing each step on his or her own.
In both models, agents exist to help navigate the process, so do your homework before hiring one. Check the track record and past examples of traditional publishers; talk to past authors. If using a vendor that outsources to freelancers, know who your assigned freelancer is. Look for freelancers with good qualifications and reputations and who belong to professional societies.
- Reading/review fee
- Submission fee
- Editorial fee
- Fee for their own recommended editor
- Printing fee
- Website fee
- Marketing fee
- Self-purchase of books
Scam journal publishers
Traditional subscription journals may charge readers, whereas online open access journals are free for readers and may instead charge authors. The open access option has inspired the establishment of fake (so-called predatory) publishers and journals that either do not actually exist but take authors' fees and intellectual property, or post articles online with little or no peer review. They may promise very fast peer review times and high acceptance rates, or may offer guaranteed publication. They or their parent company may also organize and charge for fake meetings/conferences that are poorly run or may not exist (with associated supplements and conference proceedings).
The Think Check Submit website has a checklist of questions to ask when looking for a suitable journal.
Ways that scam journals/publishers mislead authors may include the following:
- Journal name (or abbreviation) looks like a famous or legitimate one
- Journal name sounds like the international version or an endorsed variation of a legitimate one
- Journal website falsely states official affiliation with an academic society
- Journal name has a western country name in it or implies it is international but the editorial board is mainly from a non-western country
- Journal name is the same as a legitimate one, but the website is not the real URL (hijacked journal)
- Journal name is the same as a legitimate one that is print version only (ie, fake website created)
- Publisher buys a legitimate journal/publisher to give the impression of legitimacy
- Publisher buys a legitimate journal but just for its title
- Fees: the journal/publisher may
- Force authors to buy specific author services such as editing or illustration revision; may say it is a condition of submission or acceptance
- Charge fees that are very high or very low, without an explanation about what they are for
- Inform author of article processing charge (open access fee) only after submission; may say the fee is a condition of acceptance/publication
- Charge a high fee for withdrawal of a paper before/after acceptance, or for retraction after publication
Scam author services
Again, always be clear what services and costs are involved, when the payment is to be made, and who is actually providing the service. The range of possible services is getting wider, and could include reviewing, editing, translation, illustration preparation, multimedia production, plagiarism checking. Check you trust the company and website before submitting personal information or research files.
Here are examples of how author/editorial or publication support services may be unethical:
- Services and prices are unclear; or unethical services are provided (eg, sells articles or authorship)
- May be owned by or affiliated to an unethical publisher/journal, and use of the paid author services is a condition of submission/acceptance
- Staff providing the service are not qualified or as described in the website, are not real people, or have been copied from a legitimate site
- Any peer review service is done poorly using template comments, or nominates unqualified/unsuitable reviewers
- Any peer review service involves fake review by own staff, or offers authors to write their own review or recommend colleagues
- Performs journal submission process for author, posing as corresponding author
- Guarantees journal acceptance and publication
- Steals authors' intellectual property
- Makes offers of questionable paid partnerships to academics
- New methods, some of which have been reported to COPE/Retraction Watch:
- Makes offers of paid partnerships to journal editors
- Offers to pay journals to accept papers
- Threatens to blackmail potential clients
- Promises authors to find a venue for their paper, posing as the journal and giving fake acceptance letters
As the saying goes: "buyer beware"!
Dr Trevor Lane
Education Director and Senior Publishing Consultant
Note: Edanz Group is a corporate associate member of COPE, and Dr Trevor Lane is an individual associate member and Council Member of COPE. COPE is a founding and contributing organization of Think Check Submit.