Protecting research integrity from predatory journals

09 November 2023 | STORY Natalie Simon. PHOTO Supplied. Read time 6 min.
Professor Nicki Tiffin has been targeted by a predatory journal, who used both her work and her name without her permission.
Professor Nicki Tiffin has been targeted by a predatory journal, who used both her work and her name without her permission.

As awareness grows of the risks of predatory journals, these questionable publishers are resorting to dirty tactics, including plagiarism and identity theft, to give their journals a veneer of respectability.

Professor Nicki Tiffin, formerly a University of Cape Town (UCT) researcher and currently at the South African National Bioinformatics Institute at the University of the Western Cape, was surprised to receive a notification in August 2022 that she had published a paper in the European Journal of Biomedical Informatics (EJBI). She had never submitted a paper to this journal.

When Professor Tiffin who had been based in UCT’s Division/Dept, Faculty investigated, she discovered firstly, that the EJBI is a predatory journal. These are journals, some of which even fall under respectable publishers, which use the author-pays-model purely for profit. These journals have no proper peer review process and will accept and publish any manuscript, assuming the publication fee is paid over.

Her second discovery was more alarming, the paper published in EJBI was a plagiarised version of her paper, The Development of Computational Biology in South Africa: Successes Achieved and Lessons Learnt, published in the highly respected PLOS Computational Biology journal in 2016. That year Tiffin was employed at UCT and the PLOS paper was published with the UCT affiliation, making this plagiarism a reputational risk both to UCT and Tiffin.

“It has been quite hard to understand what the journal gains from this kind of fraud,” said Tiffin to Retraction Watch, who first published an article about this issue. “It seems most likely that they are attempting to pad out their content with known researchers claimed as authors, to appear more like a bona fide journal.”

No recourse


Tiffin reached out to UCT’s Office of Research Integrity for support to help her get the plagiarised paper taken down. Paula Saner, Research Integrity Manager, has been working for over a year to get EJBI to retract the paper, but with no success.

“I wrote to EJBI asking them to retract the article or at least correct the publication record. I wrote to the website domain hosts to notify them of the fraudulent publication and even reached out to UCT’s cybersecurity team, who were unable to do anything,” said Saner.

A legal team at UCT’s Research Contracts and Innovation also got involved, writing to PLOS to tell them about the article fraud.

The EJBI then changed the name and affiliation of the author, but the affiliated institution had no record of that researcher.

The change of affiliation at least meant that the reputational damage to Tiffin and UCT was removed. Until a few months later when Tiffin found the paper was back online under her name and UCT.

“We don’t know why the EJBI did this,” said Saner. “Nicki did not pay them or approach them, but their use of her name and work illegally can negatively impact her career.”

Tiffin is not the first researcher to experience this . Earlier this year Retraction Watch reported a similar story of a senior lecturer in the University of Central Florida’s School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs, Professor Anca Turcu, found her name on a plagiarised paper published in a predatory journalhhe had no relationship with. Nor did she have any involvement in the original plagiarised article. The paper published in her name was not in her research field.

What is frightening about these instances in how powerless the researchers and even their institutions are in the face of these shadowy predatory journals that are so difficult to pin down.

What is frightening about these instances is how powerless the researchers and even their institutions are in the face of these shadowy predatory journals that are so difficult to pin down,” said Saner. “This journal has stolen Nicki’s identity and her intellectual property and reflected it back in a way that is not reflective of who Nicki is as a researcher. And because we are not in their jurisdiction there is nothing we can do about it legally.”


Battling against predatory journals

Jeffrey Beal, a librarian at the University of Colorado Denver, in the United States, was one of the first to identify the rising trend of what he called, predatory publishing. In a Nature article in 2012 Beal described these publishers as dishonest and lacking in transparency.

“They aim to dupe researchers, especially those inexperienced in scholarly communication,” he wrote. “They set up websites that closely resemble those of legitimate online publishers and publish journals of questionable and downright low quality.”

In a more recent paper Beal described predatory journals as “the biggest threat to science since the inquisition”.

This is also true in South Africa where, a study by the Centre for Research and Evaluation of Science and Technology (CREST) at Stellenbosch University, revealed that publication in predatory journals by South African academics is “not only present but increasingly becoming prevalent”.

The best tool we have against predatory journals is awareness and education.

“The best tool we have against predatory journals is awareness and education,” said Saner. “They tend to hide their identities, using Gmail or similar email accounts, and lie about their countries of origin.”

This makes them difficult to pin down and prosecute, even though their actions are illegal.

“If however, levels of awareness by researchers reach a point where they know to check and double check the status of the journal they are publishing in and are critical of any email they receive soliciting papers for publication, we can hopefully stop the profit incentive for this highly unethical behaviour,” added Saner.

It Is however no mean feat to identify a predatory journal. Sometimes legitimate journals are also hijacked and become predatory journals. UCT Libraries offers a guide to help researchers identify predatory journals.

“There is no clear and final list of which journals to trust and which are predatory,” she explained. “It is important to always exercise caution when choosing a publication, ideally talking it over with a trusted colleague or supervisor who has more publication experience.”

“As predatory journals threaten to undermine the integrity of research, it is important that all researchers are vigilant to protect research integrity and the reputation of our researchers and institutions.”

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