Peter Cherry, PhD, Medmeme’s vice president, information systems, explores how pharma can identify predatory journals and conferences

High volumes of clinical and drug research data are being generated across the world every day. While this information can bring critical insights to pharma companies; it can also lead them down a wrong and costly path if it turns out to be fake or unsubstantiated.

‘Fake data’ has become increasingly prevalent throughout modern academia, where it can be difficult to distinguish genuine publications from predatory ones and legitimate conferences from those that exist purely to make money from those keen to ‘publish or perish’.

On the issue of predatory journals, an article in Nature last year by Katarzyna Pisanski - a researcher in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK, and the Institute of Psychology at the University of Wrocław, Poland - and colleagues said: “Thousands of academic journals do not aspire to quality. They exist primarily to extract fees from authors.”

The Nature article added: “These 'predatory' journals exhibit questionable marketing schemes, follow lax or non-existent peer-review procedures and fail to provide scientific rigour or transparency. The open-access movement, although noble in its intent, has been an unwitting host to these parasitic publishers.”

With regards to conferences, an article in the Huffington Post, by Dr. Madhukar Pai, professor and director of global health, and Eduardo Franco, professor and chair of oncology, at McGill University, notes that invitations to talk at a conference can be important for academic reputations. When conferences are organised by legitimate professional societies, they are important in helping to disseminate information and catalyse scientific and medical progress.

However, they warn: “There is a lot of money to be made in the scholarly-conference organisation business in Asia these days. These are not conferences organised by scholarly societies. Instead, they are conferences organised by revenue-seeking companies that want to exploit researchers’ need to build their vitas with conference presentations and papers.”

Identifying predatory journals

Fortunately, there are tactics to help academics and pharma companies separate the legitimate journals from what Christine Laine and Margaret Winker from the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME) call ‘pseudo journals'. While the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) lists legitimate open access journals, Beall’s List, compiled by Professor Beall, an associate professor and academic librarian from the University of Colorado, identifies potentially predatory journals. Professor Beall later took down his site after problems with lawsuits; his work on this subject remains definitive, although not without its critics.

Beall’s criteria for a suspect journal helpfully identified important red flags; firstly, there is no specific individual listed as the journal’s editor or there is a lack of geographical diversity on the editorial board at journals that claim to be “international” in scope. Secondly, be wary of any publisher that is purely run for-profit as opposed to not-for-profit. Other red flags include the journal’s operations lack transparency and the journal’s name is incongruous with its stated mission.

The biggest red flag, however, is a promise to publish within a specific timeframe, particularly a short one such as a week or month.  As most researchers are well aware, the peer-review process takes as long as it takes to get it right.

Top tips for evaluating conferences
For companies looking to attend events, or use information published from them, context is key.

Supporting websites are a useful indication of authenticity. An unprofessional website that contains spelling and grammatical errors and has incomplete information and a lack of footer content with legal copyright notices, should always be viewed with suspicion.

Social media activity can also be assessed to help to verify an event. Gauge the quality and patterns of social media posts and see how far back they go — a recently created account can mean the event lacks legacy and legitimacy. Check to see whether other Key Opinion Leaders in the industry are interacting with those social pages too. And, keep in mind ‘speaker trolling’ - event organisers claiming that well-known or respected individuals will attend their event. If the speakers do not mention their participation in an event on their own social and online channels, they may not be planning to attend.

Most importantly, look at conference impact metrics. Until recently, there were no reliable metrics, equivalent to journal citation counts, for medical and scientific conferences. However, for a more sophisticated, enterprise-wide approach to avoiding predatory conferences, a company can evaluate each aspect of the event to provide context. A conference scoring high on impact metrics means that other data, speakers, institutions and authors involved are relevant, well-cited and well-established.


Predatory journals and conferences are on the rise as their publishers and organisers employ increasingly sophisticated tactics. Their actions threaten to disrupt the work of pharma companies that fail to recognise them. Consequently, pharma must take great care when publishing, presenting, gathering and analysing data, and when choosing which conferences to attend.

There are some hallmarks that researchers can use to understand if a journal is predatory or not, such as looking into the editor’s credentials. In the case of conferences, relying on quality curation and impact metrics is advised. By conducting these preliminary checks, pharma can help to guard against ‘fake data’, save time and money, and preserve scientific rigour in the long run.

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