Answered By: Sarah Morehouse
Last Updated: Jun 15, 2016     Views: 18

UPDATE! As of May 2016, the Directory of Open Access Journals (which we have in our databases list, and which is searched in our OneSearch tool) removed approximately 3300 journals. Here is the list of removed journals. The ones they removed were the ones that never answered repeated requests for updated information, which they used as a proxy for journals that did not do other important journal things... like peer review. 

There are free-on-the-web journals that pose as scholarly journals but have low or no standards for the kinds of paper they accept, and either a low-quality peer review process or none at all. They just want to profit from the author fees. (It's not uncommon for authors to have to pay to publish scholarly articles, especially in Open Access journals.)

There are also free-on-the web journals that exist specifically to create a reputable-looking outlet for biased points of view. Some of them are funded by companies or organizations and primarily publish articles favorable to their interests. Others serve as a scholarly-looking vanity press for a group of people who share a school of thought. Many just exist as a way for people to get published so they can put their publication on their C.V., which is important for hiring, promotion and tenure. 

There are also journals that are not free - they require a subscription - that have the same problems. For example, Elsevier had a problem with publishing fake journals.

I want to make it clear that not all free-on-the-web (a.k.a. Open Access) journals are fake or low quality. Real Open Access journals operate on the principle that creating barriers to the reading and use of scholarly information is counterproductive, so they change the business model of scholarly publishing so that the money is paid by someone else. What they do not change is the emphasis on authoritative expertise and peer review! Real Open Access journals shouldn't have to share the field with con artists, and researchers shouldn't have to sift through a pile of junk to find the good stuff. 

But it still leaves us with the question: "If knowing it's peer reviewed isn't enough to tell me it's reliable, then how can I ever be sure it's reliable?"

Here are some tips:

  1. Here is a list of journals that are known to be low-quality, fake, or fraudulent
  2. Consider searching an article title (put it in quotes) in Google Scholar and look at its "Cited By" number - that tells you how much it's been quoted in later articles and can be a rough measure of it's importance. 
  3. Skim some chapter titles and see if the topics are related but not all exactly the same. If they're all on the exact same thing, or take the exact same perspective, that can be a warning sign. 
  4. Scan the authors to make sure that many different people are contributing and not just the same handful of authors over and over. It is normal to see a few names repeated many times, but there should also be many other names.
    • You can also look at the bibliographies of the articles. Are they all citing each other and not really citing anybody else? That's a problem.
  5. Read the article and look for warning signs like obvious bias and errors. 
  6. Ask your professor (or if you're an expert, ask your peers.) The only way to really know is to have very broad experience and be up to date in the field.

It's unpleasant to think about how profits and ideologies contaminate the ideals of academia, and it's a little frightening to live in a world where there is no way to be sure about the reliability of a source of information. But what this really points to is the importance of weighing multiple perspectives and judging the evidence for ourselves. 

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