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It seems like a very difficult problem to discern whether a "peer-reviewed" journal is reputable. When a journal claims to be peer-reviewed, is there a commonly-agreed-on definition of what this means? Is there a publicly verifiable process to verify whether a journal is peer-reviewed?

This question mentions "vanity press" as a whole class of disreputable journals, and this question mentions Pubmed and Scopus as authorities on what constitutes legitimacy, but I can't find their standards anywhere. Scopus says they vet articles with an "independent review board," but I'm really looking for an answer about what they verify a journal does.

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    Anecdotally, there are plenty of publications indexed by PubMed that I would give approximately zero credit to. – Bryan Krause Nov 13 at 2:56
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    Pubmed listing is necessary but not sufficient. Some pubmed listed journals are bad. But no unlisted journals are good. – Ian Sudbery Nov 13 at 12:08
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    @IanSudbery Pubmed is absolutely not necessary. It is a search engine for databases mostly in life/medical sciences, and very reputable journals in other fields are not (or poorly) indexed. – fqq Nov 13 at 12:32
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    Sorry, I shold have made that clear - this obviously only applies in the field for which the database is relevant. I was following up on @BryanKrause's comment. – Ian Sudbery Nov 13 at 12:36
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    @IanSudbery I felt it was worth pointing it out, as it is obvious to us, but might not be to the OP. – fqq Nov 14 at 9:25
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No, there isn't. Different journals/publishers will have different guidelines.

Here're some examples of publicly-published reviewer guidelines:

To illustrate the differences, Wiley's guidelines say "What is the main question addressed by the research? Is it relevant and interesting?" (emphasis mine). Meanwhile PLOS One doesn't care about "interesting". To quote a testimonial: "I published with PLOS ONE because I love the idea that acceptance is based on quality of the work, not whether it's trendy or important in the eyes of a few editors."

  • These links give a good perspective of what common expectations are for reviewers. – Charlie Nov 13 at 19:42
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    novel does not equal trendy or important. I do not know how novelty can be excluded, either implicitly or explicitly. – ZeroTheHero Nov 16 at 2:19
  • @ZeroTheHero Replication studies could be argued to have minimal novelty, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not important to publish. – nick012000 Nov 16 at 4:50
  • @nick012000 the novelty there is often the replication itself by another team, up to changes in sample sizes, controls etc. PLOS One does not (or at least very rarely) publish the result of the 75th replication experiment unless there is something very novel in those results. – ZeroTheHero Nov 16 at 12:37
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If there were a strict definition and satisfying it became important, then the disreputable journals would find a way to game that.

It's straightforward to determine whether a journal is reputable: ask the experts (the word reputable, after all, refers to reputation). Experts here means, for instance, faculty working in the relevant field at reputable universities. I think the average person has a good idea of what reputable universities are.

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is there a commonly-agreed-on definition of what this means?

Generally, good peer-review means that experts in your field carefully read your work and evaluate its merit. The definitions of "experts" and "carefully" vary widely across disciplines. Some fields require several rounds of meticulous back-and-forth between author and journal; others are less stringent.

Is there a publicly verifiable process to verify whether a journal is peer-reviewed?

There are several journal rankings, but I think your best bet is to look at the editorial boards/published works. Are they reputable researchers who are considered `pillars' of their respective fields? Are the papers that were published in that journal of general good quality, and relevant to your prospective submission?

Some red flags to look out for when deciding whether a journal has good practices:

  • Journal is publicly listed on some blacklist (such as Bealle's list)
  • Journal charges exorbitant fees for publication, and promises a fast turnaround time on publications.
  • Journal emails you: good, reputable journals don't need to spam researchers for articles. That said, sometimes this is valid (say, you published in a CS conference that has a direct-to-journal track for fast publication turnaround, that is ok).
  • Editors are relatively unknown people from non-research oriented universities
  • The papers submitted there are garbage (not 'unclear' but absolutely unreadable/weird)

In general, research publications are about disseminating your ideas to a certain community. It's important to see where your community publishes, and go for these venues.

  • This doesn't answer the question and has several major errors. – Anonymous Physicist Nov 13 at 6:04
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    Seems like a lot of other answers echo what I wrote, care to elaborate? – Spark Nov 13 at 11:22
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    @AnonymousPhysicist defining these “errors” would help all of us... – Solar Mike Nov 13 at 11:28
  • Unless one defines “exorbitant” and “fast” this is rather vague. Indeed many predatory journals charge less than top journals and have 2-week turnarounds. Compare New Journal of Physics (iopscience.iop.org/journal/1367-2630), a well-respected first quartile physics journal. – ZeroTheHero Nov 16 at 2:27
  • I think that there aren’t hard and fast criteria for prefatory. If there were, predatory journals would game them. I’m listing red flags, not absolute criteria – Spark Nov 16 at 2:46
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There is no accepted standard for peer review. This is a good thing. Different kinds of research need different kinds of review.

  • different kind of rigor rather as review? You know of Sokal affair? I doubt the review procedure is technically very different in STEM vs. humanities and this explains why the reproducibility rate is varying so much among disciplines as the scientific rigor of the applied methodology is varying very much among them. I can only upvote your answer if it is a wish for the future ;-D – user48953094 Nov 16 at 2:03
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    @user48953094 The Sokal affair is irrelevant as the journal advertised that it was not peer reviewed. – Anonymous Physicist Nov 16 at 6:35

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