Can you trust open-access journals?

Open Access developed quickly between 1993 and 2009. (Laakso M, Welling P, Bukvova H, Nyman L, Björk B-C, et al., PLOS ONE)

Just arrived in my email inbox:

Dear Dr. Jonathan Purtle, Greetings!!! We solicit your valuable contribution for the Journal Family Medicine & Medical Science Research … Dear Researcher, publish in the International Journal of Medical and Applied Sciences … Decision on your paper within 5 days.

Like many academics, I’m increasingly bombarded with emails that offer an opportunity to promptly publish my research in open-access journals, often for a fee.

Open-access journals have proliferated in recent years. As opposed to “traditional” publications that charge readers (often institutions) a hefty fee to access journal content, open-access journals provide their content for free on the web, and typically charge writers to publish their work. Open-access journals are a good thing because they make scientific information available to audiences beyond academics with library subscriptions. Problems arise, however, when the financial incentive for open-access journals to accept articles results in the publication of poor quality research that hasn’t undergone rigorous peer-review.

Some open-access journals, such as PLOS ONE, have solid peer-review policies and are highly reputable. Some others publish research of suspect integrity; they exist only to turn a quick buck. Threats to public health can arise when the pool of scientific knowledge is polluted with bunk.

How can you tell a trustworthy open-access journal from a bogus one? Jeffery Beall, a librarian and professor at the University of Colorado, launched Scholarly Open Access (aka “Beall’s List”) to answer this question. Beall’s List is a website dedicated flagging questionable open-access publishers and publications. Although Beall acknowledges that his list only reflects his opinion and is based on criteria that he developed, the site has come to be respected as a watchdog in the scientific community and has been profiled by the New York Times, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Nature (a traditional, top-flight journal).

Beall assesses journals on a range of criteria. Some red flags to consider:

-- When no one is identified as the journal’s editor, or when information regarding the academic affiliations of the editorial board isn’t provided;

-- When the name of the journal doesn’t reflect its geographic origin (e.g., the editorial office for the European Journal of Scientific Research is based in Seychelles;

-- When the journal isn’t indexed in standard library databases (i.e., PubMed if its content focuses on health—or even just on open-access journaling; and

-- When the journal has an overtly western name, but serves primarily as a “vanity press” for researchers in developing counties (e.g., the British Journal of Science—there doesn’t appear to be much “British” about the journal other than its publication fee, listed in British pounds).

Open-access journals provide an opportunity for more people to be consumers of research and make informed health decisions—but buyer (or, rather, “non-buyer”) beware.

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