Peer-Reviewed Journals: Distinguishing Prestigious from Predatory

Contributor: Laura Happe, PharmD, MPH
To learn more about Laura, click here.


I recently received an invitation that began “Dear Happe, LE.” The email claimed a paper I had recently authored had garnered attention and interest from scholars, and I was invited to join the editorial board of their journal. The invitation even referenced the title of my article. If the strange greeting didn’t raise my suspicion – the reference to my article did.  You see, the title of my article was “Announcing a New Article Series.” It was an announcement I had made in the journal that I edit, the Journal of Managed Care and Specialty Pharmacy (JMCP). I can assure you, this announcement did not garner attention from scholars.

I suspect many of you have received similar imitations to join editorial boards or submit papers. Both are professional distinctions and ways for experts to give something back to their respective professions.

But how can you know if a journal is prestigious, credible, or even legitimate? 

Reputable journals have a peer-review process.
Peer-review is the primary hallmark of academic publishing. Peer reviewers are experts in their respective fields who volunteer time to carefully review submitted manuscripts for suitability to publish. Although the mechanics may vary between journals, I’ll describe JMCP’s process for illustrative purposes.

First, journal staff does a preliminary review of each article to ensure the submission is complete and compliant with general article guidelines, such as word count. Next, articles are assigned to an assistant editor who conducts a preliminary review of the submission. At this stage, editors are scanning for relevancy to JMCP’s readership and a suitable level of quality of research and writing. Articles that pass this review are then sent to peer reviewers.

The assistant editor uses the JMCP database to identify 6-8 potential peer-reviewers with areas of expertise matching the subject of the article. Potential reviewers are contacted via email and asked to accept or decline. Once the target number (three) of reviewers has accepted, no additional reviewers can accept the invitation. Sometimes it is difficult to identify even 3 reviewers, particularly for esoteric subjects or during busy times of the year.

Peer-reviewers are asked to provide comments and a publication recommendation (publish, revise and resubmit, or do not publish) to the assistant editor within 2 weeks. Once all three reviews are returned, the assistant editor considers the feedback and makes a publication recommendation to the editor-in-chief. The editor-in-chief reviews all publication recommendations and levies the final publication decision.

In contrast, predatory journals often do not follow a rigorous peer-reviewed process. For example, they may promise unrealistically quick peer review in hopes of attracting authors, or they may not conduct peer-review at all.

Reputable journals have an editorial board.
As with most organizations, reputable journals assemble a board of experts in relevant areas to serve in an advisory capacity. For newer journals, board members are often responsible for conducting peer reviews and maybe even submitting papers. Board members for mature journals may focus more on scope, policies, and promotion of the journal within their spheres of influence. Other responsibilities may include solicitation of authors and peer reviewers, identification of topics for themed issues, and advising the editors. Board members are typically volunteers selected by the editor. Editors aim to construct a board that is diverse and matches the scope of the journal in terms of subject matter expertise and geography. 

Many predatory journals have editorial boards; yet they may consist of members outside the scope of the journal, residing outside the country in which the journal is published, or unknown to experts in the field. Predatory journals are known for aggressively soliciting editorial board members, as in the example I provide above, and occasionally “appoint” authors to their board without the person’s knowledge.

Reputable journals follow recognized publishing standards.
Just as there are clinical guidelines for the practice of medicine, there are publication guidelines for academic journals. These guidelines recommend best practices for topics ranging from determining authorship, to journal management, to handling allegations of misconduct. The two most widely used in the U.S. are the Committee on Publication Ethics and the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. Reputable journals will use these, or similar sources, to guide their practices. Some predatory journals may claim to follow these guidelines, but instead intentionally misrepresent their own practices.

Reputable journals are transparent and fair about levied fees.
Charging authors a processing fee is one way to generate revenue to cover journal expenses. This practice has become more common as a result of declining pharmaceutical advertising in print journals, the switch to web-based publishing, and a push for open access to reduce disparities in access to published research. Processing fees can be tricky business. Predatory journals may require a fee just to submit the article, which creates a conflict of interest.

 An author should not assume that any journal that requires a fee is predatory, as many reputable journals do so today. However, authors should expect the journal is transparent about their fees and has no surprise charges. Further, fees should only be levied after the editorial decision has been made to avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest. 

Reputable journals are indexed.
Practitioners and researchers alike use databases such as PubMed and Web of Science to search the peer-reviewed literature. Journals indexed in these databases have passed a selection process just to be included – so users can generally trust them to be reputable. To be indexed in PubMed at the National Library of Medicine, a journal must meet extensive evaluation criteria, detailed here. Similarly, to be included in Web of Science, a team of editors reviews each journal against 28 criteria evaluating editorial rigor and best practices. In short, practitioners and researchers can continue to use these databases and be confident their searches will not yield articles published in predatory journals.

According to a joint statement from prominent medical writing societies, predatory journals pose a serious threat to the peer-reviewed medical literature. Authors and readers must learn how to distinguish these publications from trusted, reputable journals. Although peer-reviewed publishing must evolve to keep pace with the rapid growth of data and analytics in medicine, the field can never compromise on ethical and rigorous publishing practices. The public’s health depends on it. 


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