Digitalization reduces technological and financial barriers to scientific publishing. Science can thus become faster, more inclusive and more plural. At the same time, the growing acceptance of specific forms of Open Access has also led to the rise of author-pays business models based on Article Processing Charges (APCs). The increasing publication pressure in the scientific system in combination with APCs provides incentives for creating “predatory” journals that only supposedly or very superficially conduct peer review in order to maximize their profits from such APCs. These manuscripts are at best inadequate and at worst deliberately tendentious and misleading.

How to stop predatory publishers? (Credit: SarahRichterArt, CC0)

Recently, an investigative report by the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung and public broadcasters WDR and NDR has revealed that even researchers from reputable academic institutions publish in or represent publishers of dubious quality. In their attempt to reveal “Fake Science” (using the English term in their German reportings), journalists easily accomplished the publication of a non-sensical article in an allegedly peer reviewed journal charging APCs. What they also show is how these unscientific practices not just harm the reputation of legitimate open access journals but are also a potential source – and allegedly scientific proof – for fake news more generally.

This blogpost discusses how reputable (Open Access) journals can defend their credibility against somewhat or even completely dubious Open Access journals. In our opinion, the most sustainable response, which however would only be possible in the mid to long-term, would be to abandon author-pays business models altogether and switch to publication infrastructures financed by universities and institutions (for an example of such an approach, check out the Open Library of Humanities). In the short-term, however, certain open-peer review practices might also be helpful to address the problem of predatory open access journals.

Predatory Open Access Journals

With the growing number of Open Access journals, a category of dubious Open Access journals has also emerged which, although they describe themselves as peer reviewed, publish virtually every contribution submitted against payment of a publication fee. These journals are oftentimes summarized as Predatory Open Access Journals. The “predatory nature” of these journals is seen in the fact that the journals accept submitted manuscripts very quickly and subsequently confront the authors with – sometimes unexpected – APCs. Sometimes the journals also try to prevent authors deterred by the APCs from withdrawing their manuscripts. According to a study by Shen and Björk, the volume of articles in Predatory Open Access Journals increased from 53,000 to 420,000 between 2010 and 2014.

Table 1: Varieties of problematic Open Access journals

Journal type Characteristics Orientation
Fake Journal APCs, no peer review Purely profit-driven
Trash Journal APCs, formal but superficial peer review Primarily profit driven
Bad Journal Sometimes APCs, below-average peer review Primarily science-driven


Important for a critical discussion beyond the Closed/Open Access dichotomy is to distinguish between different varieties of problematic Open Access journals (see Table 1). Clearly “predatory” in the sense of fraudulent are what we would call fake journals. Fake journals do not conduct any peer review (although this may be claimed in the external presentation), but charge APCs to publish a manuscript. Fake journals conduct aggressive spamming to generate manuscripts and names for editorial boards. Trash journals also charge APCs to publish a manuscript after a short turnaround time. However, this is preceded by a formal but superficial peer review. Short, generic and predominantly positive reports are presented to the authors. However, the manuscript is generally accepted without major changes. Trash journals also exist in the sphere of influence of large and reputable scientific publishers. Both fake journals and trash journals are primarily profit-driven. For both journal types the (alleged) peer review is a necessary and useful façade for skimming off APCs. Bad journals, on the other hand, are of below-average academic quality, which is mainly due to the fact that they are not in a position to build up a relevant community, attract respected editors and reviewers and, therefore, high-quality manuscripts. Bad journals have a questionable peer review, but are not “predatory” because they are not primarily concerned with skimming off APCs through fake or bad peer reviews.

Open Peer Review as an answer for reputable journals?

Not everything that claims to be peer review is peer review. One way for science-driven (Open Access) journals to differentiate themselves from dubious journals or to curb their reach is to provide specific insight into and thus information about the quality of their own peer review process. For some time now, various forms of increased openness of peer review procedures have been summarized under the term open peer review. In a recent study, Ross-Hellauer analyzed a total of 122 definitions of open peer review and identified seven forms of (greater) openness (Table 2).

Table 2: Forms of openness in peer review (according to Ross-Hellauer, 2017)

Forms of openness in peer review Description
Open identities Authors and reviewers know the identities of each other.
Open reviews Reviews are published together with the accepted manuscript.
Open participation All members of the wider community can review an unpublished manuscript
Open interaction Direct reciprocal discussion between authors and reviewers is possible and is promoted.
Open original manuscripts Original manuscripts are made available on preprint servers before the review process begins.
Open commenting Open commenting of the final manuscript is possible.
Open platforms Review is not organized by the issuing journal, but by another organisation.


Dialogical openness and transparency openness

The classification of Ross-Hellauer demonstrates that there is not one open peer review, but a wide variety of conceivable forms of openness. The different forms of openness in peer review can be divided into two categories: Those that are primarily aimed at improving scientific results (dialogical openness) and those that make the review process comprehensible to outsiders (transparency openness). To make visible the quality of a peer review process, two forms of transparency seem particularly helpful: open identities and open reviews.

Open identities: It is already good practice for many established journals to publish a list of participating reviewers at the end of a year. It would therefore be conceivable to link reviewers directly and visibly to articles that are published in a journal. It would also be conceivable to indicate at least their university affiliation, institute or working group instead of the identities of the reviewers. It can be expected that fake journals are not willing to disclose the identities of their reviewers as well as the reviews, as this would reveal their unsuitability and/or overload.

Open reviews: Reviews often contain a profound discussion about methodical or theoretical aspects of a manuscript. The provision of the reviews (with or without identities of the reviewers) would not only enrich the content of the respective article and thus also of the journal as a whole, but would also make the quality of the review practice of the journal visible to outsiders. Disclosure of reviewer might lead to a situation in which reviewers will accept fewer requests for reviews or in which submitted reviews will be less critical for fear of possible “revenge reviews”. On the other hand, the opposite is also conceivable, namely that the expert opinions issued are of higher quality, since these now also serve to build up reputation of a scholar.

Promoting open peer review practices

To make open peer review an effective instrument against Predatory Open Access Journals, the various practices must be promoted along different lines. This could be done “top down”, for example, by drawing up whitelists or including open peer review criteria in existing Open Access directories such as the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). Another way would be to include Open Peer Review in institutional Open Access strategies. One way to promote open peer review “bottom up” would be the introduction of a badge system by individual journals. Journals would encourage their reviewers to agree to certain open-peer review practices (e.g. public but anonymous reviews). Authors who submit manuscripts can also choose the open peer review option during the submission process. If there is a “match” between open-minded authors and reviewers, the article is marked with a badge after publication and, for example, prominently placed and advertised in a special section of the journal’s website. For several years, such badge systems have been successfully tested for the publication of research data (Open Data) and additional materials (Open Materials).


The diffusion of Open Access has not only made science faster, more inclusive and more pluralistic, but has also led to the creation of Predatory Open Access Journals. These primarily profit-driven journals adorn themselves with the label “peer review”, but do not carry it out, or only in a superficial way. This damages the legitimacy of reputable Open Access journals. A strategic response by reputable Open Access journals may be to turn to Open Peer Review practices. Through the disclosure of reviewer identities and/or reviews – and institutionally supported by top-down or bottom-up measures – reputable journals can use the quality of their peer review to push out fake journals.

This blog post is a shortened and adapted version of an article by Leonhard Dobusch (University of Innsbruck) and Maximilian Heimstädt (Witten/Herdecke University). The original article was published in Synergie: Fachmagazin Für Digitalisierung in der Lehre.