Identifying Legitimate Journals: A Guide for Scholars

Posted Wed, Feb, 04,2015

This is a summary of a paper I recently published in Learned Publishing, the journal of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers.  The full article is available to download here.

Until recently scholarly publishing had gone largely unchanged by the advent of the Internet.  However it is now being disrupted by open access, which has grown in popularity amongst readers and authors.  

In keeping with what frequently happens when a new industry is in a state of development, many new OA publishers have recently entered the industry, some of which are of lower quality than others.  In the long term it is likely that many of these newer players will either drop out of the industry or merge with other firms, but in the meantime scholars are faced with the new challenge of having to identify and avoid lower quality publishers, and to distinguish them from legitimate but inevitably imperfect publishers as well as those that are legitimate but pursuing innovative publishing models such as post-publication peer review. 

Here I offer a brief set of criteria to enable scholars to meet this challenge.  This list is intended to be short enough to be memorable and applicable to a large range of journals, and also to allow for legitimate variation amongst publishers.  

Point 1: who is the customer?

Legitimate scholarly publishers should demonstrate a focus on both authors and readers.  Does the publisher provide services that are not directed towards attracting submissions and therefore article publishing fees from authors?  Look for most or all of the following:

• New article notification services, including opted-in email services, RSS feeds, social media channels or other functions

• Article citation exporting functions

• Commenting and discussion functions

• A policy on the publication of corrections, expressions of concern, and retractions

• Use of digital object identifiers

• A clear statement on the copyright license in each article

• Pre-submission consultation and manuscript matching services

• Involvement in permanent article archiving services

• Multiple available communication channels including but not limited to email: phone, fax, postal address details, "live chat" and other channels 

Point 2: inclusion in databases and indexes

Many indexes such as Pubmed and DOAJ impose strict editorial evaluations as a condition of inclusion, and inclusion of journals in them is a good indication of a journal’s quality.  Newer journals and publishers may not be involved in prominent databases for good reasons: it can sometimes require a considerable period fo time for eligible journals to complete evaluation or a title may not be within the scope of the database.  

Point 3: awareness of ethical and legal issues

Legitimate publishers must take steps to ensure that authors meet ethical and legal obligation to maintain the integrity of the literature:

• The publisher must have a policy on how it guards against plagiarism which must involve plagiarism scanning

• Membership of bodies such as COPE and ICMJE that provide guidance on how to address common ethical problems

• Membership of industry bodies that require compliance with ethical standards such as OASPA

• Clear criteria on what constitutes authorship and contributorship and a section in each published paper containing a clear statement delinating types of contributions made by each author

• A policy on declaration of funding sources and potential competing interests.  This should also be included in published articles.

• A policy on ethical requirements around human and animal study participants

• Although difficult to validate, every named author should be asked to provide signed consent that the paper bearing his/her name is fully compliant with ethical and legal requirements

Point 4: awareness of open access conventions

The publisher or journal should have a clear statement on all applicable fees.  It is a commonly accepted principle of open access that publishers should provide a fee waiver and/or discount policy.  Authors should also be permitted to archive their work in external depositories under a commonly recognized Creative Commons license.  There should also be no access barriers to articles.  

Point 5: peer review and editorial procedures

The confidential nature of the peer review process can make it difficult to determine the integrity of the process being used.  Considerations such as an assessment of the quality of recently published papers or inclusion of the journal in databases resulting from expert assessment of published papers such as Pubmed or DOAJ can be indicative of the integrity of the process used.

The provision of information on the nature of the peer review process and conduct guidelines for reviewers are also good indicative factors.  Promises of very fast peer review should be treated with caution: 18-21 days is the minimum needed for reviewers to complete their work, and of course any guarantees of peer review outcome are clear indicators of illegitimacy.  

Tom Hill is the CEO of Libertas Academica

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