Hijacked journals — scam websites that impersonate legitimate titles — have duped unsuspecting researchers out of author fees for years. Now, a tool will help researchers check the validity of the titles they are considering before submitting their work.
The online spreadsheet, called Retraction Watch pirated newspaper checker, lists more than 150 headlines and associated web addresses of allegedly pirated newspapers. It was written by Anna Abalkina, an economics researcher at the Free University of Berlin, and the scientific misconduct blog Retraction Watch.
The tool’s creators say it could help prevent searchers from being tricked by fake journal websites. But others say simply listing the affected titles might not be enough to fix the problem, which is exacerbated by broader issues in scholarly publishing.
Pirated journals usually exist as “cloned” websites that appear similar to legitimate journals, but contain subtle changes to the web domain that go unnoticed at first glance. Some of these bogus journals have also hijacked International Standard Serial Numbers, or ISSNs – eight-digit codes used to identify periodicals – and some are indexed in classic bibliometric databases such as Scopus. Although they look like the real journal and collect fees from potential authors, these publications do not review peer-reviewed manuscripts and only occasionally publish them.
The phenomenon is not new. Almost a decade ago, Nature reported that scammers had cloned the websites of two European scientific journals, prompting hundreds of researchers to pay author fees. There have also been previous attempts to squeeze out pirated journals. Researchers have published lists of affected titles in peer-reviewed articles, and University of Colorado librarian Jeffery Beall’s now-defunct blog listed more than 100 allegedly hacked journals before it was shut down in 2017.
Abalkina and Retraction Watch’s effort, launched at the Global Research Integrity Conference in Cape Town, South Africa, this month, will be updated as more hacked journals become available. identified.
Addressing the issue is important because research databases often import articles from Scopus and, in doing so, may inadvertently include non-peer-reviewed articles masquerading as legitimate research, says Abalkina. Last year, Retraction Watch reported that a World Health Organization (WHO) library on COVID-19 research included more than 380 articles from hacked journals. The WHO told Retraction Watch that it is currently reviewing these citations.
Articles from hijacked journals that are indexed in Scopus may persist even after the journal itself is closed, adds Abalkina. “That means those articles can be cited.”
“The problem with pirated journals is that manuscripts that are not properly peer-reviewed and available for open access on a bogus website become a source of ‘ideas’ for policy makers, researchers and doctors. It could put hundreds or thousands of people at risk,” says Salim Moussa, a marketing researcher at the University of Gafsa in Tunisia. He adds that previous efforts to flag fake newspapers have failed to stop the scams, and some authors willingly submit their articles to them. “Hijacked journals are a manifestation of a much deeper problem in scholarly research and publishing.”
Young researchers might turn to hijacked journals if they’re under pressure to get a paper published in titles indexed in citation databases such as Scopus and Web of Science, Moussa says. “Hijacked journals will continue to exist as long as there are researchers desperate enough to pay the article processing fees to publish their manuscripts there.”
The hijacked log checker will prevent some researchers from falling victim to cybercrime, says Mehdi Dadkhah, an information technology scientist who just completed a fellowship at Ferdowsi University in Mashhad in Iran. But he warns that many researchers won’t be aware of the tool or even know what pirated journals are.
However, Mohammad Khosravi, a computer scientist at the University of the Persian Gulf in Iran, says he thinks hijacked journals are becoming less dangerous for scholarly communication because researchers increasingly favor journals from major publishers who are technically ” very difficult” to divert.