Journal hijackers target science and open access

Hijacking of journal websites is a worrying side product of scholarly communication’s move online and a topic that Iran-based journalist and researcher Mehrdad Jalalian is particularly concerned about. We asked him about the problem and how researchers and others can address the issue

How do hijacked journals occur?

Academic researchers need to publish the results of their research in scientific journals to be able to graduate or to advance their careers. The first systematic misconduct and deviation from the generally-accepted good practices for publishing scientific journals began in the early 2000s when some commercial journals began to misuse the open-access movement by publishing unreviewed manuscripts in a ‘pay and get published’ model. 

Following this, around two years ago, a new line of misconduct in scientific publishing emerged in the world of academic publishing: hijacked journals. In this phenomenon, cyber criminals create counterfeit websites for legitimate journals, broadcast call-for-paper spams, and attack the reputation and scientific life of the researchers by publishing their unreviewed articles on fake journal websites and stealing their money.

What problems do they cause?

The huge problems caused by hijacked journals are not limited to stealing authors’ money. I have received many emails from authors who have published their work with fake websites. More than talking about their payments to cybercriminals, they share their anxiety and psychological stresses as they feel their academic reputations are ruined and they lose their motivation for their scientific research.

The legitimate journals that have been hijacked may also lose authors, readers, and reputation. When a researcher performs a literature review, articles published on fake websites of hijacked journals will appear in the search results. The unreviewed findings of articles in hijacked journals might be a basis for new hypotheses and research too, meaning that hijacked journals attack the reliability and validity of both published research and potential future research.

In addition, new articles that are published in peer-reviewed journals could cite articles that are published in fake websites of hijacked journals. Such citations would damage the credibility and usefulness of research metrics that are based on citations.

How you identify hijacked journals?

I began receiving reports from academic researchers by email or orally in workshops in early 2012 about some journals that had impact factors assigned by Thomson Reuters’ Journal Citation Report (JCR) but accepted all articles in any field of science if the authors paid them a publication fee of a few hundred dollars.

These reports suggested that something was wrong so I checked the content of the websites of the journals, examined the acceptance letters, and the journal templates. For one of the journals, Archives des Sciences, a museum-related journal from Switzerland, I found a second website that had been registered a few weeks before my investigation. Contacting the legitimate journal confirmed that this second website was an attack by cybercriminals who create counterfeit websites for scientific journals.

By identifying and reporting the first jornals to be hijacked, Archives des Sciences (whose genuine website is here), Wulfenia (an Austrian print-only journal), and Texas Journal of Science (a publication of the Texas Academy of Science), I unofficially introduced a new term to the academic world: “hijacked journal”.

I have since found many more hijacked journals with which to study the issue. My 2014 paper in Walailak Journal of Science and Technology describes how hijacked journals target their victims, their methods, and how to avoid them.

When I receive a report of a suspected hijacked journal, I ask the authors to provide me detailed information on how they were contacted by the journal (usually by broadcasting call-for-paper spams), and ask them to show me the content of the call-for-paper, the website address of the suspected journal, and the acceptance letter or invoice for the publication fee. I use that information as the basis of a screening investigation. I also check the layout of the web pages of the journal, perform a reverse image search for the logo of the journal, a comprehensive lookup on the technical information of the affected website (the date of creation, the email address of the website owner, the web hosting company, and a reverse search to find what other websites are registered by the same person.

In addition, I check the list of authors, the archive of the full-text articles, and the online payment portals they use to collect the subscription and publication fees. I examine the content of the web pages, the list of editors and their email addresses (as they usually use fake email addresses for their editorial members), and of course I search the internet and the routine indexing databases for the authentic website of the legitimate journal. I always contact the editors of the legitimate journals too.

What can authors, readers, publishers, and others do about hijacked journals?

At this moment, I have no recommendation for readers. Logistically, it is impossible to teach all readers about techniques for detecting hijacked journals and finding out whether the article they read is downloaded from a fake or authentic website. However, I have some short-term and long-term recommendations. The most applicable short-term recommendation is to warn the academics on the list of the hijacked journals; and that is what I spend much of my time doing.

I have also developed and published a ‘Hijacked Journal List’ on my website. The first edition was published in June 2014 and consisted of 19 hijacked journals. However, the number of hijacked journals is growing fast; I identified more than 20 new hijacked journals in July, which gives an idea of how serious the problem is.

A second short to mid-term measure could be organising workshops and seminars on how to detect and avoid hijacked journals and fake publishers. Indexing databases such as the products of Thomson Reuters, Scopus, Index Copernicus, and Pubmed/Medine should keep the information in their databases up-to-date, and provide a valid link to the authentic websites. 

Finally, my suggestion for a long-term measure is to design a qualitative method to assess the quality of research and publication rather than metric products.

Mehrdad Jalalian is an Iran-based researcher in publication ethics, journalism, and research methods. He is also a physician and editor in chief of the open-access medical journal Electronic Physician

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