Predatory journals, as defined by COPE in a thoughtful discussion document, are those that operate for profit in a “deceptive or fraudulent way and without any regard for quality assurance.” These journals undermine trust in science by enabling the dissemination of flawed work under false banners of quality. Recently, ICMJE and COPE made recommendations to address this important problem, promoting interventions such as improvements in author education, vigilance in verifying a journal’s stated affiliations and policies, and the use of tools such as https://thinkchecksubmit.org/.
However, one of ICMJE’s recommendations to authors is to “avoid citing articles in predatory or pseudo-journals.” Similar ideas appear in the COPE discussion document on predatory publishing, which advises that reviewers, editors, and journals “[d]iscourage citation of articles published in fake journals.”
Citations do present a lever that can be pushed to combat the problem of predatory journals, but it’s a flawed one, for several reasons:
- No clear definition of “predatory.” Journal quality is not binary, but rather multidimensional, and different stakeholders value different properties. It is unlikely that consensus could be reached on whether a journal should be considered “predatory.” Therefore, there’s no clear boundary for acceptable and unacceptable citations.
- Journals are a risky proxy for article quality. While current research assessment incentives drive the perceived quality of articles to correlate with others published in the same journal, one can argue that journal title is a poor indicator of the quality of individual articles. It is unproductive to assume an article is unworthy of citation because of the journal in which it is published.
- Citations can be neutral links, not endorsements. Not all citations take for granted the claims made in the original article. “Negative citations” can refute cited articles.
- Discouraging citations harms individual researchers. Requesting the removal of citations to articles will cause much of the harm intended to fall on predatory journals to come to individual authors instead. Discouraging citations to articles that authors have used in their own research encourages plagiarism, deprives the creators of the original article of due credit, and erodes the scholarly citation graph for readers.
The issue of citing articles appearing in certain journals has implications for other research products, such as preprints. In fact, the peer review status of preprints and articles published in predatory journals may be quite similar. When authors cite a preprint, they are acknowledging work they used as part of their own research while bearing in mind that the preprint has undergone a low level of scrutiny; as a result, they may have appraised it more critically themselves. Since work should be evaluated based on its contents, not the journal in which it is published, a more constructive policy might read: “Advise authors to critically read all papers cited.” Such a policy is appropriate for peer-reviewed articles in any journal, as well as for the citation of preprints.
If journals do begin to discourage citation in certain journals, widespread preprint posting can ensure that work can be fairly cited regardless of the journal in which it is peer-reviewed and ultimately published.
This post is adapted from feedback provided on the COPE discussion document on predatory publishing by Jessica Polka on January 15, 2020.