More than 50 journals have been delisted by the Web of Science for failing to meet quality selection criteria. In a statement, Clarivate, the owner of Web of Science, said its selection process for journals had improved thanks to better technology, making it able to identify more journals of concern.

Clarivate will no longer index papers, count citations or bestow an impact factor on these journals. Scientific publisher Hindawi accounted for 19 of the delisted journals that span health, science and engineering. ‘The journals were doing something that made Clarivate think that they’re not on the up and up, and that they have reasons to question their standards,’ says Ivan Oransky at Retraction Watch. ‘What exactly that is, they don’t say.’

One journal delisted was the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH), a so-called mega-journal that published over 9500 papers in 2020 and 17,000 papers in 2022 and had an impact factor of 4.6. In a statement, its publisher MDPI acknowledged that it been informed by Clarivate that two journals had been delisted, due to content relevance criterion.

Clarivate declined to detail the problems it discovered in delisted journals. ‘Additional information and a detailed report of rejection has been requested but denied,’ said Stefan Tochev, head of marketing and communications for MDPI, who noted that it has formally appealed the IJERPH decision.

Wiley, which bought Hindawi in January 2021 for $298 million (£239 million), says last year it uncovered a paper mill problem at some Hindawi titles. Paper mills manufacture phony manuscripts based on made-up data for publication in journals with the purpose of selling authorship.

Specials at issue

Jay Flynn, executive vice president at Wiley, was first alerted to the problem of paper mills at Hindawi in August. Further investigation uncovered a large-scale problem with special issues where a topic expert invites contributions and manages the peer review process. Special issues often have an invited guest editor, and if this person falsifies their identify or impersonates another academic, then that special issue is open to abuse, he explains. ‘Bad actors found their way into our system through that process,’ says Flynn.

Wiley convened a meeting of publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, inviting Clarivate, and disclosed to them problems they themselves had, Flynn says. In addition to introducing additional AI-based screening, Flynn deployed 200 people from his editorial staff to conduct ‘a manual review of every single paper that we thought may have been compromised’. Wiley outlined the issues at Hindawi during an earnings call with investors, noting a revenue hit of $9 million due to ‘an unplanned publishing pause at Hindawi’ due to compromised articles. Wiley has outlined its actions to address the issue in an op-ed.

A recent post at The Scholarly Kitchen claimed that the guest editor model of Hindawi had been extensively exploited by paper mills. The problem is unlikely to be confined to one publisher. ‘Special issues seem to be particularly vulnerable for various reasons to either being hacked or being taken over by paper mills,’ says Oransky.

The Clarivate list includes not just newer open access publishers, but also more established publishers. A number of Elsevier and Springer Nature journals were also delisted.

Springer Nature was informed that its journal Applied Nanoscience would be delisted. ‘We are now looking carefully at the journal, utilising the Web of Science criteria as well as evaluating it more holistically, to ensure that it can be relisted at the earliest opportunity,’ noted Chris Graf, research integrity director at Springer Nature.

These sorts of problems have led Norway to set up a national registry of approved journals. ‘We invite the research community to comment on and share their private experiences when publishing in those journals,’ says Vidar Røeggen, a senior advisor on the National Board of Scholarly Publishing in Norway.

‘In the last two or three years our work burden has risen a lot, because there are so many reports of troublesome journals,’ says Røeggen. Some journals publish special issues ‘at such a tempo that we don’t understand how this could be possible’. He notes that many in the Norwegian research community advocate the removal of all MDPI and Hindawi journals, but ‘their arguments are mainly based on what they see in special issues [within those publishing houses]’.

Some publishers fall foul of Norway’s registry more often than others. ‘For us, it all started with the Chinese publisher MDPI,’ says Røeggen. ‘But we also have [journals] from Frontiers and Hindawi. Those three publishers have the most journals reported to us.’ Last year, Norway removed the MDPI’s mega-journal Sustainability from its green list, after reports from Norwegian researchers. This year, the journal is publishing a special issue almost daily.

‘The high number of [special issues] in Sustainability is due to the great interest in this field of research,’ noted Tochev at MDPI, adding that it is one of its largest journals. MDPI says special issues are nothing more than thematic collections of articles and go through the same editorial process.

But some view frequent special issues from various publishers in a negative light. ‘We can’t understand how every special issue can publish content that is properly peer reviewed at that tempo,’ Røeggen says. For Oransky, the question is whether a journal is doing what it says it is doing. ‘If they’re claiming to do rigorous peer review, show the peer review, make them available,’ he says.

Mills boon

It can be difficult for publishers to detect paper mills, with artificial intelligence spinning out ever more sophisticated frauds and sham manuscripts. ‘These are bad actors with an economic motive who are exploiting bad incentives at play in the academic reward system,’ says Flynn. They are ‘using deceitful and dishonest means to do that’, including fabricating or falsifying identities and content to monetise the desire of academics to be published, he adds.

MDPI says it has taken steps to safeguard against paper mills, and disagrees that special issues are vulnerable. ‘The suggestion that [special issues] are exploited by paper mills is speculative. Paper mills are an issue faced by all scientific publishers nowadays, and we have no evidence at this stage for direct correlation with special issues,’ noted Tochev. MDPI management complained that delisting IJERPH had a direct impact on the journal and on authors, with a lack of notification meaning that authors and readers could be misled.

Other industry insiders were critical of Clarivate’s actions for another reason. ‘When you issue a death penalty to a journal like they’ve done, you create a huge disincentive for publishers to be open and transparent where paper mills and retractions are concerned,’ said a senior insider at a major publisher who spoke on condition anonymity.