To spot cloned journals, scientists need help

The rise of so-called clone journals has replaced standard predatory journals as the latest moral peril facing researchers desperate to have their research published.

Cloned – or “hijacked” – journals mimic details of legitimate journals, such as their International Standard Serial Number (ISSN), title and – as closely as possible – domain names. They charge authors a fee of up to $1,000 (£728) to publish, but do no peer review or editing.

In Pakistan alone, more than 150 research papers, submitted by around 400 researchers, are reported have been published in a cloned journal since 2019. That is 400 articles whose reputation is now tarnished by their association with fraud.

Last year, a German researcher discovered that nearly 400 articles from three pirated journals Featured in the World Health Organization’s Official Covid-19 Article Library, including 70 Indian articles.

Whose fault is it – other than the fraudsters? Many observers might be inclined to blame authors for not verifying the authenticity of the reviews they submit – perhaps suspecting them of deliberately turning a blind eye to their authenticity. But it’s not easy to tell a cloned journal from a real one, and the tools that exist to help people are far from perfect.

In Pakistan, the regulatory body Higher Education Commission (HEC) stipulates the policies regarding how and where scholars should publish. Its online database, the HEC Journal Recognition System (HJRS), lists all the journals recognized by the commission, organized by subject. Researchers in Pakistan regularly use it to find relevant journals to target for article submission.

The HJRS gives them details of the journal, such as its ISSN, publisher, and country of origin. But, above all, it does not give the URL of the log. It also states whether they are listed in Scopus and Web of Science, but even these international bibliographic databases do not always link to the journal’s home page, nor do they warn researchers to beware of a cloned journal. They may even inadvertently list the wrong URLs themselves.

In the absence of an authoritative source, searchers are reduced to using Google – but Google search results do not distinguish between real reviews and their clones, and sometimes their page rank is similar.

One solution might be to train researchers to determine if a journal is authentic. But it’s not that easy. Clones are called clones because they look very similar to the real journal, even though the members of the editorial board are the same.

A much better solution would be for the HEC itself to put the correct link to each journal at the bottom of its HJRS page. The HEC is said to be developing a new policy on the selection of journals and the publication of research studies; maybe the log url checking process could be written there.

However, adapting the HJRS to its purpose will be a big job, as it suffers from various flaws. For example, for some journals, it lists different countries of origin than those listed by Scopus and Web of Science. Many journals indexed by the HJRS do not appear on any of these databases. And in some cases, only one ISSN is listed; journals are supposed to have an ISSN for their print version and another for their electronic version. For young researchers like me, all of this is extremely confusing.

Such flaws in the HJRS generate skepticism and cynicism. Some scholars in Pakistan suggest that it is run by non-academics who know little about the journal landscape. Others speculate on more harmful practices. But whatever the reason, these flaws must be corrected as soon as possible. First and foremost, the HJRS must provide the legitimate homepage link of each journal, and it must begin a subject-by-subject list of cloned journals to monitor, identifying both original and fake websites.

Pakistani scholars can only be saved from the prey of cloned and bogus journals if they have the tools to distinguish them from reality.

Rameez Mahesar is a MPhil scholar in mass commonto Shah Abdul Latif University of Khairpur, Pakistan. He is a member of the editorial board of a Russian research journal, Bulletin of Science and Practice.