Digital forensics expose telltale signs of predatory journal network

Forensic open-data analysis shows how predatory journal giant OMICS churns out hundreds of online journals, potentially fooling hundreds of thousands of serious academics.

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After receiving an email from a colleague overseas about a science publication, Jamie Burr was startled. Burr, an exercise physiologist in Canada was asked by a colleague if he wrote a specific paper that stated his name as the author. The problem: He didn’t.

The journal operator used his name to appear legitimate and hoped Burr wouldn't notice. This is very common. The science community calls these ‘predatory journals’. Such journals also take money to publish papers without conducting the essential peer-review process that lends academic science its name and reputation today.

Because digital forensics allows us to analyse websites online PDFs as well as open data of authors and affiliations, it can be a powerful tool to expose predatory journals.

Researchers say that top telltale signs of predatory open-access journals are malpractices of posting information of false editorial boards, poor peer-review, and incorrectly indexed information. Often these plain errors are the smoking gun in the hunt for predatory journals.

Predatory journals defined by a group of researchers in the field of biomedicine (link)

At the very basic level, it warrants checking names, University affiliation, addresses and email domains. Most of the time, this could be already sufficient to expose them.

It’s a lot of work but can pay off, as the following example of this paper shows. It’s about the ‘Effect of pulse-based diet…’ but we zoom in on the metadata only.

The ‘University of Canadian province’ is stated as the research affiliation, a ridiculous claim, and obviously fictitious, as Kyle Siler knows. Siler is a Canadian and a research professor at the Université de Montréal who extensively researched the domain of predatory journals (he and his team have a paper coming out in the coming months).

He stumbled across the ‘the smoking gun’ like fake University affiliation while in the middle of cleaning a spreadsheet of about a million lines of data. This one detail stood out to him, partly because he knows Canadian Universities.

Siler and his team found the journal operators used a ‘synonym generating software programme’. They stole an article from a legitimate Elsevier journal and then ran it through this synonym generating software which then produced gobbledygook that was meant to convince someone who won’t question it on a deeper level or has no further background information.

It’s effective as the number of people shows who fell for predatory journal scams. They usually show up on Twitter or academic research forums where academics debate the damage these journals have. Sometimes, journals also hold papers to ransom and ask for money to not publish them.

Various red flags in the predatory journal paper with incorrect metadata. The address ‘Saskatoon SK S7N2z4’ in yellow, leads to the ‘The Canadian Centre for Health and Safety in Agriculture’ and the University campus of Saskatchewan, not to the entirely fictional ‘University of Canadian province’.

“You get this bizarre stuff like the ‘University of Canadian province’”, he says. Another paper referred to the University of South Dakota with Mount Rushmore State, another mistake that points to the synonym generator thesis.

Once you have a red flag like this fake university affiliation, it doesn’t take much to find other clues. Errors in author names are common among predatory journals. Sometimes they make them up.

In the example above, if you look closely at the author’s names, there is an ‘a’ or ‘b’ or ‘c’ after each name. These are supposed to be superscript, allowing the legitimate journal to refer to a known affiliation (such as the University of Saskatchewan). In this case, they didn’t bother to take them out, Siler says. If you search for the names, you find the original paper (below) with the correct spelling and the superscript (Tip: the reverse search with a, b, or c can find where academics’ names may have been misappropriated).

Fortunately, the stealing of legitimate papers makes these predatory journals prone to reverse image and metadata searches. If we just reverse search the fake university mentioned before, we find the PDF by the predatory journal operator pop up on Google Search.

OMICS and its subbrands

In the example of the stolen identity of Jamie Burr, in the screenshot below we see Burr’s name placed in the top left. His email, ‘burrjamie@nb.ca’, was wrong, for obvious reasons. We can verify this via a domain check: ‘nb.ca’ (via whois.domaintools.com) doesn't seem to exist.

His title and University affiliation seem correct. However that’s often a key telltale sign that’s something is off, one researcher tells me, especially among the sloppy kinds. They often use names of Universities that do not exist, Siler says.

The journal itself is called ‘Journal of Blood Disorder & Transfusion’ and is part of the Longdom Publishing brand. With a contact address in prestigious Brussels, Longdom’s appearance seems somewhat legitimate. But behind the facade is the powerful predatory networking brand OMICS.

Example of a predatory journal stealing the identity of a renowned researcher and associate professor and placing his name on their fake publication, a journal calling itself ‘Journal of Blood Disorder & Transfusion’. In red: the email is incorrect, the domain ‘nb.ca’ doesn't exist. The reviewal date, acceptance date and publishing date, very tightly organised. Also a possible error in the abbreviation.
Checking the author’s email domain name

“OMICS knows their brand is toxic, so they’ve spun off new brands, like Hilaris, imedpub and Longdom”, Siler says.

The Hilaris brand (http://e-hilaris.com) dates to 2011, publishing Mathematica Æterna & Physica Æterna (check the web archived version here). Later Biologia Moderna & Medicina Moderna, too. Website moved to https://hilarispublisher.com this year & Hilaris acquired OMICS journals, says Matt Hodgkinson, head of Editorial Policy and Ethics at Hindawi, a commercial publisher of scientific, technical, and medical literature.

OMICS gamble clearly paid off, it seems. After the sour reputation of its main OMICS brand made the rounds in 2018, it decided to buy up other brands including Longdom, which appears to have previously been a Spanish journal.

It’s a known strategy, Siler says. OMICS and others snap up publishers, like small publishing houses that have a legitimate reputation previously. What they then have is publishers or journals with the legitimate history, that they can build upon, experts say. This makes it much harder for academics to avoid getting fooled.

In 2019, OMICS Publishing Group launched a new brand of scholarly journals called SciTechnol (Twitter suspended the account), a brand that came with 53 new journals (all launched without content). The design of the website is much sleeker and has a neat London address. The phone line is dead. The address isn't connected to the business.

Also, if we go back in time, the website has a history of sudden alterations. After OMICS bought the brand, the appearance of the original site switched from a well-curated one to a sloppy and spelling error-prone one.

One blogger wrote: “This poorly-written mission statement is an indication of a shabby and unprofessional operation. The editorial board solicitation spam emails are also poorly-written”. We can verify this, too:

It’s just another trick they use, Siler says. After a journal is bought by OMICS, you’ll notice the quality suddenly changing, Siler says. Digital forensics makes extensive use of the web archive/Wayback Machine. Sudden shifts in the web presence is a good indication that something is up.

OMICS is one of the largest and among the most damaging predatory journal networks, insiders claim.

The damage by it was previously acknowledged by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which accused OMICS International, headquartered in India, to run hundreds of questionable scientific journals.

After filing a lawsuit against OMICS, iMedPub, Conference Series, and Srinubabu Gedela in 2016, the FTC won a $50m court case three years later against OMICS International and its owner. The allegations included OMICS to have made false claims about peer reviewing and listing editors who have not consented to be related to the journals — the latter practice we saw firsthand above.

Gedela’s online presence claims he studied in Standford for a post-doc. For years he boasted with it. But even that seems dodgy. The post of his postdoctoral study at Stanford was merely held for five months whereby the usual time is ‘up to a year in postdoctoral research carried out in the same dissertation lab/research group as doctoral work’, according to Standford University and fact-checking by Bloomberg News — who called the school to confirm he did hold the position, but saying it’s an “unusually short time” and in 2009, it was only “a year after starting OMICS”.

India’s government seems blind to the firm’s predatory business ethics and its damaging effects. On Linkedin, Gedela claims he was awarded the ‘Pride of the Nation Award’ by Shri Rajnath Singh, a minister for Defence to the government of India.

One reference by a business connection in 2015 reveals the size of the operation back then, which ballooned since then.

OMICS and its executives' big ambitions (in 2015).

Beallslist or Predatoryjournals, which may still contain some outdated listings (and which received a fair share of criticism despite being among the first and only open databases to draw attention to predatory journals), records a number of journals directly by OMICS:

There are hundreds more.

The building in Hyderabad OMICS shares with multinational tech giant IBM. In 2018, researchers said that Hyderabad is the ‘Indian hub of predatory journals featuring 300 companies operating 1,500 journals’.

Google reviews are often unreliable but they may still offer a glimpse into how the working environment felt to ex-employees at the site (location).

OMICS: Sharing an office building with IBM and other big international companies

We can gain further insight into the company’s business practices with a review of predatory journals (abstract of a 2019 study below).

Often academics raise first the alarm on social media when journals publish wrong information. In the example below, one researcher found inaccuracies only to be told by others who chime in that the journal publication in question is in fact part of OMICS. These interactions help to avoid others to fall prey to the sloppy and predatory practices OMICS is responsible for.

The example above also shows the presence on social media by these journals. Twitter reacted. The account for the Longdom/OMICS journal mentioned above, @glycobiology, has been ‘temporarily restricted’. Other journal accounts by Longdom have also been deactivated, we find.

Exposing networks

If we only pick one of Longdom’s journals, the above mentioned Glycobiology open access journal, we find a website with many papers and a curiously simple design with a “/glycobiology.html” in the URL. If we check another journal, for instance the ‘Journal-perioperative-medicine’, same appearance (blue header, similar features). It's just another HTML subdomain.

OMICS directly affiliated online journals work the same way. Categorised by researchers in 2019, we see 497 of ‘Omicsonline.org/’ related PHP subdomains (below a snapshot):

omicsonline.org/ subdomains — shady journals

The appearance, if also often sloppy (Longdom’s websites are non-responsive and have code errors), they do attract researchers. Previous analysis of predatory journals found that “a majority of open access journals use ‘enticing websites’ to attract researchers with a promise of pretentious peer-review and faster publishing process’.

If we type Longdom.org into whois.domaintools we see it was created in 2013, registered with GoDaddy, hosted by CloudFlare, Inc, and with a daily pageview count of 22, 968 and an Alexa Ranking of 41,855. In other words, the domain has traffic and clout.

We also get information about subdomains from web tools like Security Trails and Crt.sh, revealing the hosting providers.

Screenshot of webtool SecurityTrails

To understand the large network and the damage OMICS has on science, we need more metadata from predatory journal publications. Meta Information refers to the indexing in digital directories and scholarly associations in the papers. Some researchers have done the hard scraping work for us. Data on publishing on OMICS in 2019 found more than 70,000 papers and more than 203,000 unique authors — all possibly subjected to similar falsehoods and omitted peer-review. The 498 journals have their own online presence and often have their own social media accounts.

A Github repo by the ‘Computational Linguistics and Complex Social Networks Group at IIT Gandhinagar’ features metadata from OMICS and BioMedical Central (BMC), another predatory publishing operator in the biomedical sector.

link to data repo

Due to the challenges in identifying and blacklisting such publishers caused by a ‘highly volatile scholarly publishing ecosystem’, this data is highly useful (although now possibly slightly outdated).

The name of the journal can also be a red flag. “Journals often have very official-sounding names, such as the International Journal of engineering and so on. They do that on purpose to trick people. OMICS are among the worst [predatory journal operators]”, Siler says.

Journals that start with “The American Journal of” or “The British Journal of…” may also often be fake. ‘International’ is also often used (see below). Experts say prestigious journals usually don't need to express that they are from a certain region or area or are international.

After collating the data, researchers used it to expose how close predatory publishers resemble reputed publishing groups [and their websites and online presence]. They often copy-paste content as we have seen. Sometimes that’s true for websites and HTML/PHP code, too.

OMICS: 6.7 per cent of authors published in more than one journal (source)

Researchers also found that OMICS and other journal operators can be spotted by whether they are listed on online databases for legitimate journals such as Scimagojr.

There are also patterns relating to editor-ship. OMICS operates (at least in 2019) with a high journal count and low editorship count, researchers found. Another red flag is that authors in OMICS’s journals tend to only publish once (possibly, either because they are burned by it or because their names are entirely fictitious, as we have seen before).

Siler says people in the industry of studying these journals refer to predatory publishers like OMICS as a “hydra: you cut off one head and it’ll just grow to back”. What these techniques show is that tricks by OMICS are not foolproof and can be found out but quantity and updates matter to allow them keep growing.

If enough people know about the techniques, they can expose them. It may help fewer academics to fall for them. More professionalism among predatory journals make researchers like Siler worry, though.

“The predators are probably going to get smarter I’d say right now it is like a stupid criminal. They can be caught pretty easily. I guess if they want to make it less obvious that would entail extending resources, which I don’t think they’re interested in just now”, he adds.