Predatory publishers: avoid the ‘quick fix’

I received an email this morning from a student, sadly not my first (or last I suspect), asking me to help her work out if an offer she received from a publisher to publish her thesis was legit or not. As you may suspect, it was not. I receive these kinds of unsolicited emails all the time, to publish a paper I have written as a book, or to draw on my recent journal article in a keynote at a random conference about everything, or to turn a paper into a whole book. I delete them all. But, I have published enough (and have worked in academic publishing long enough) to smell a scam or predatory publisher/journal/conference when these emails arrive in my inbox.

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But what of less experienced authors? How are they supposed to know that they are potentially being conned into giving their hard work away to a publisher who has zero academic credibility, and may well charge them large amounts of money to publish their work? So many early career researchers are under huge amounts of pressure to publish, and this can make them feel a bit desperate. When I tell first-time authors they may have to wait up to a year to see their paper in print, they freak out a bit, especially because they don’t yet have a conveyor-belt of papers in various stages of development, or a position with status that gives them breathing room. When a seemingly legit email arrives then, promising peer review and publication within 4-6 weeks of receiving the manuscript, it can be mighty tempting to send the paper there instead.

In part, researchers fall into the traps presented by predatory publishers, then, because of this insane pressure to publish (or risk losing a postdoc position, or a chance at a teaching job, and so on). In part, though, I think they fall into the trap because they think that a year-long (or longer) wait between submission and publication is ridiculous. I have learned, from working with people who have yet to publish, or have not published very much, that few people really understand journal waiting times, and what goes into them. Thus, when they are offered a chance to publish really quickly, they may jump at it, believing that the process can actually happen, credibly and with due care, in 6 weeks.

Most credible journals will indicate that it takes a minimum of 16 weeks/4 months to receive a response if your paper has been sent out for peer review. If your paper is rejected, you should hear within 4-6 weeks of submission. Papers are generally reviewed/read by an initial editor or editors, who may then assign an associate editor, who is knowledgeable about the topic you are writing about, to manage your paper. This editor then has to choose peer reviewers, and find at least two people willing and able to review the paper within the stipulated time frame – anywhere from 30 to 60 days. Many reviewers submit reviews late, and this can slow the process. After peer review, the editor then has to look at the feedback and reach a decision on your paper, before sending it back to you with comments and a decision. If your paper is rejected, you will need to start again with a new journal, possibly having to make changes and revisions first. If the reviewers recommend revisions, these can take up to 3 months to effect. The paper may then only go back to the editors for re-review, or it may go back to one or more of the initial reviewers. This again takes a few weeks or more. Then the paper has to be copyedited, returned to you for author checking, and then typeset before it can be published, online or in print. Any journal that tells you it can do all of this in 6 weeks is lying to you, and is certainly predatory.

This journal, published by a large international publisher, gives you a one example of a typical publication process. Most journals of repute do work hard to process papers within 9-12 months of submission, but busier, higher profile journals do have higher rejection rates, and longer wait times because of the volume of research they have to process. Based on research into average wait times for peer review, revisions, possible rejection and resubmission to a different journal, and so on, Editage has useful advice for you on how to prepare your own publication schedule here. There will always be exceptions – sometimes you get lucky: the reviews are positive, the revisions are minor and there’s a gap in an upcoming issue, and you get published within 6 months of submission of your paper. But this is not, unfortunately, the norm.

To work in academia these days is to publish, and share your research with your community of peers and fellow researchers. It’s not just about climbing a totem pole at your university, or scoring the right kinds of ‘credits’ – although (for now anyway) this is part of the ‘game’. I prefer to think of publishing my work as taking advantage of opportunities to speak to my colleagues, here and further afield, about research I am interested in, and think is important. I write papers I would like to read, and papers I think will help or interest or even inspire the people I work with. This motivates me to write papers that credible, well-read, well-respected journals in my field will be interested in. If you are motivated to share your work with readers like you, you will look to the journals you read, find useful and enjoy as possible places to publish your work. And these won’t be predatory, low-impact, no credibility journals.

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Publishing in journals requires patience, fortitude, a thick skin, and a realistic plan.  When those seemingly too-good-to-be-true emails pop into your inbox, spend some time Googling the so-called journal before you jump at a ‘quick fix’. Publish your work where it will be seen, read, engage your readers, and make an impact on your field. The waiting will be worth it.

Paper writing: opening with a strong abstract, title and keywords

The first thing fellow researchers read when they find your paper are the title and the abstract. They find your paper, often, by typing keywords into a database or search engine that match words in your title, abstract or keyword list. It is thus really important to spend time crafting these aspects of your paper carefully, as time spent getting them right pays dividends in the visibility of your work in keyword searches within your field.

Titles and keywords

To begin with, your paper needs a clear, descriptive and relevant title. Usually you have about 15-20 words for a title (check with the author guidelines of the journal you have targeted), and about 4-6 key words.

A first, useful, rule of thumb is to use all of these words strategically: don’t repeat words you use in the title in the list of keywords, and avoid acronyms, even well-known ones. Use the keywords to highlight elements of your argument or paper not referenced in the title. So, you really have a maximum of about 25-30 words to play with.

To begin with the title, a good starting place is to look at the title of papers you are referencing, and have enjoyed reading. What about the title caught your attention? The better paper titles indicate both what the paper is about, and something of the contribution the paper is making to the field. They are, therefore, relatively descriptive. They should be, really, because titles that are obscure, or only obliquely connected to the content of the paper will put readers off. Further, titles that try to be too catchy or clever may not contain the kinds of words researchers will type into search engines, resulting in your work being too far down the list (be honest, how often do you search past page 4 of Google Scholar?). Your work will be missed, and that would be a great shame considering all the work that went into publishing it.

A useful tool for crafting a title that balances a bit of catchiness with relevance and contribution is the subtitle. For example: ‘When arts meets enterprise: Transdisciplinarity, student identities, and EAP’ or ‘Chloroform fumigation and the release of soil nitrogen: A rapid direct extraction method to measure microbial biomass nitrogen in soil’. The first title marries a bit of fun with a focus on what the paper is about; the second uses the subtitle to indicate a method that the researchers are using to explore the phenomenon mentioned before the colon. Subtitles can also be used to sharpen the focus of your title, to create a limit or boundary to your research, to add additional context, or to expand on the scope of your research (See this article, and this one, for useful advice on title creation).

Use your list of keywords to add to the title: mention, for example, a key methodological tool (e.g. action research, or regression analysis) that researchers might be interested on, or the theory you have used (e.g. constructivism, or social realism), or key thinkers you draw on (e.g. Karl Marx, or John Rawls), and finally on the parts of your field the paper references that the title doesn’t mention (e.g. disability studies, or political theory). This should ensure good visibility for your published paper.

The abstract

The abstract, after the title, is the first thing researchers read of your paper. Often, given the current system of paywalls and needing access to databases or your library’s holding to find the full paper, it is the only thing people can read to decide whether they want to pay for it, or search harder for the free version. So, it is really important to craft a clear, persuasive abstract that makes them want to read more.

Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson helpfully refer to the abstract as ‘the Tiny Text’: all of the relevant parts of your paper have to be in your abstract, in much abbreviated form, i.e. the focus of your paper, the argument it makes, the methodology, the main findings and the significance of those findings for your field. This is a tough ask when you often have only around 150-200 words for the average abstract.

A useful tool I learnt at a workshop from Lucia Thesen, and now use with postgraduate writers in my courses, is ‘the fairytale’. It goes like this, with you taking two sentences or so to complete each line.

  • Once upon a time people thought that…
  • But then I/we thought that…
  • So what I/we did was…
  • And what I/we found was…
  • This may change the way people think about…

This helps you create a gentle, narrative story about your paper, covering the main aspects of the abstract – the area of research you are locating your study within, the gap you have located, the way in which your research was conducted, your major findings, and what contribution your research could make to your field (related to the problem you are responding to).

Then you can recraft this into a more formal abstract, using Pat Thomson’s basic structure as a guide:

• ….. is now a significant issue (in/for).. because…. . ( Expand by up to one sentence if necessary)
• In this paper I focus on …..
• The paper draws on ( I draw on) findings from a study of… which used…… in order to show that….. (expand through additional sentences)
• The paper argues that….
• It concludes (I conclude) by suggesting that…

A useful thing to do is to read carefully the abstracts of the papers you are citing, and critique them against this basic guide: do you understand why this research has been done, and what it aims to achieve? Do you understand how it has been done and what the main findings are? Do you have a sense of what the research contributes to the field? It is interesting, and well-written? If any of these elements are missing, consider how the abstract could have been better written for you, as the reader/researcher. Then apply this reflection to your own abstract. Think about your readers carefully, and what they need to know to understand what your paper is arguing, where this argument fits into the field of research it is concerned with, how the research was conducted and what it found, and why the research matters. (See this article for useful advice on abstracts).

You should start your paper writing process with drafts of your title and abstract, to give you focus and a direction for the paper as a whole. But these drafts should be carefully revised again at the end, when your paper is finalised, to ensure that they are connected, and that the title, abstract and added keywords best reflect your research, and get it noticed, read, and hopefully cited.

Plotting a paper out of the PhD

I am currently trying to write a second paper based on my PhD research. This is presenting me with two challenges: the first is that I don’t really want to write anything more about the PhD research, and the other is working out how to successfully slice one paper out of such a massive piece of thinking and writing.

To start with challenge one: being, by now, a bit ‘over’ the PhD. I have written elsewhere on this blog about how unproductive last year – post-PhD year 1 – was in terms of writing and sending off papers developed out of my PhD research. In the midst of the year full of work, kids, work, life and more work there seemed to be space to think, and scribble, but no space for the kind of sustained and focused thinking, reading and writing required to produce a solid journal article, or two. That is, I didn’t make any space, largely because that space was constrained in so many ways, and I just didn’t have emotional or mental reserves to draw on after a very intense three-year PhD period. So, the unproductiveness was a time and space thing, for sure. But now that I have time, and space, I am finding that part of the unproductiveness is that writing papers that slice up my big PhD argument into smaller pieces is somewhat unappealing to me. I have already written about all of that, in the thesis. I want to write about new things now – newer insights that have continued to emerge from that research, post-PhD. My supervisor said to me last year that I think I have actually told everyone about my research and its value, but I have not really done so because I have not written it up and sent it to journals, and that work is worth doing as a starting point for writing and thinking about the newer ideas, insights, research, and applications of the theory in my work. She is right about this. But it doesn’t make writing these papers feel more valuable, or more engaging. Do I just plod on and write the damn things, or do I choose a different path here?

This brings me to my second challenge: if I decide to plod on and write the damn things, what do I write about? There are sub-sets of data within the larger set that I can think about focusing in on, to make smaller, simpler arguments that can be made in 6000 words. The theory is now clear enough to me that I can see how to reshape it into just what I need to make one or two separate arguments with smaller sub-sets of data. I can see, basically, at least one or two more papers that I could write. But, in writing the first paper, which I did earlier this year, I found that while it started with my PhD data and theoretical framework, the argument I made was not one I made explicitly in my PhD. The argument was one I made in my feedback to one of the departments I worked with to generate the data – a smaller argument made to illustrate the usefulness of my approach to researching teaching and learning in relation to their departmental (and the university’s) teaching and learning priorities and goals. Thus, the paper was kind of drawn out of the PhD and kind of new. So, while I can see theory, data and even literature I drew on in the PhD as being helpful to me in writing papers, I can’t actually see myself slicing up my PhD argument as successfully: what feels more authentic and less forced is using the theory, methodology, data and some of the relevant literature to make re-tooled and updated arguments that more usefully illustrate to a wider audience the potential value of my research. Therefore, I plod on, but not to just write something, anything, from the PhD. I want to use it as a springboard to make different kinds of arguments that I couldn’t necessarily make in the PhD because, perhaps, they were too small and too focused in, and not ‘big’ enough.

Maybe I am not going about this the ‘right’ way if there even is a right way to publish out of your PhD thesis, particularly the ‘big-book’ kind I wrote. But I am finding that the logics that underpin writing a thesis, and the logics that underpin writing a journal article are quite different, particularly in terms of what counts as making an argument and why you do it. When we publish, we do so to share our research with our peers, to build on research already out there in our field, to challenge that research perhaps, and to offer new ideas, perspectives, methodologies and so on. The arguments we make need to be smaller and tend to develop over time, through several papers and research projects that may well be aligned or cumulative. When we write a PhD thesis we are not doing so with sharing the whole thesis with a large audience in mind. We are, really, writing a very big exam paper because the PhD thesis is something we write to gain a qualification, a title, different status in the academy. We write it to prove that we are capable of doing the kind of research we will then go on to write about in all the papers, chapters, books, articles and so on that we will write over the course of a fairly typical academic career. The argument we make is not big, but there is no sense that we will be writing more than one thesis, so the larger argument tends to be broader in nature than all the smaller sub-arguments that can be implied or subsumed within it. I am finding that it is these sub-arguments – some made in the thesis but several left unmade but hinted at – that I am more able to write about coming out of the PhD. They fit the logic of writing for publication more easily, and these papers, while still a slog not least because I have to add more reading to the already long PhD reading list, feel more authentic, less forced, and more like valuable contributions to my field.