Medical students vulnerable to predatory publishers

By Siobhan Calafiore

22 Jan 2024

Medical students are largely oblivious to the increasing threat of predatory publishers, with some admitting to citing unreliable journals in their own work, a review has found.

The UK researcher who conducted the review said predatory publishing was a relatively recent term used to describe groups and companies that proclaimed to be academic publishers but deviated from best editorial practice such as peer review and ethical approval.

The publishers often employed aggressive solicitation tactics and other deceptive practices such as fake impact factors, no retraction policies, unclear contact details, non-verifiable affiliations for editors and lack of transparency on publishing operations.

After conducting a rapid scoping review, the University of Exeter researcher identified five studies for inclusion, representing some 1338 medical students.

Students were based across five continents although none were in Europe.

Two predominant themes emerged: understanding and utilisation of predatory publishers.

The themes revealed that medical students were broadly unaware of predatory practices and that a small number would consider using their services.

One of the studies found that only 7.8– 9.1% of medical students were familiar with the term ‘predatory journal’, while the majority said they were ‘unsure’ about how to identify such a journal.

Only five out of the 263 students surveyed believed it was “easy” to differentiate predatory from legitimate open-access journals.

Experienced medical specialists generally had a relatively high awareness (> 70%) and ability to identify predatory publishers, although some recognition rates were  lower in some specialties such as oncology (48%) and dermatology (20%).

The survey also identified that a small proportion of students had already published in predatory journals as part of their studies, which included 26% of respondents from Saudi Arabia and 12.5% of respondents from New Zealand.

Another survey revealed that as many as one in five students read literature found online without confirming the reliability of the journal, while another study found a small proportion of students (7.1%) intended to submit to a predatory publisher.

Writing in BMC Medical Education [link here], the author said his study had revealed the paucity of research on medical students’ understanding of predatory publishing, which was concerning, but also conceded the concept was still new.

“The issue of how best to define (and thus identify, and understand) a predatory publisher has been a matter of debate, as no uniform definition exists,” he said.

“In addition to checklists, separate ‘whitelists’ and ‘blacklists’– lists of ‘validated’ or ‘illegitimate’ journals– have also been developed to aid in this decision-making process. However, analyses indicate there are some journals that exist on both sets of lists, and thus their true status as predatory or not, is unknown.

“This in turn creates the concept of an ambiguous ‘grey zone’ in publishing, whereby academics, clinicians and mentors must be aware, yet whereby academic librarians are also primely positioned to aid in this education regarding predatory publishing.”

He said future research and education should be based on informing medical students on the implications of engaging with predatory publishers and the threat they posed to both the world of academia as well as clinical decision-making.

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