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I am working towards my PhD in a quite specialized area of engineering, at the overlap of two technologies. Because of this, there are not as many publications available in my field compared to other topics. Furthermore, there is no journal specializing in my area of work, and articles are published in a wide range of journals, some of them not the most reputable ones, to put it gently.

I nevertheless have used such references from journals perceived by some as disreputable, just because there are not that many in total to choose from. But often also because the articles aren't of bad quality, in fact, some of the articles in "shady" journals can be of better quality (IMHO) than articles in more reputable publications.

On the other hand, a lot of academics seem to find the idea to publish in a "low quality" journal abhorrent and claim they would never do so, indicating that these journals represent second-class science.

So my question is: is it bad practice to reference journals of low or no reputation or is it OK to do so if

  • there is a limited overall number of references to chose from?
  • the quality of the article is high enough? (This would beg the question if I, a lowly PhD student would be able to determine quality in a publication...)
  • any other reason

I am curious what your opinion on this is.

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    A citation is not an endorsement, it is simply a record of where you came across an idea. May 5, 2021 at 9:33
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    While you are technically right @Ian Sudbery, I am not sure if ir really is perceived that way. For example, in my institute, there is a research score calculated not only by the number of theses, publications, but also by the number of citations the publications receive. And e.g. for SCOPUS indexing, the number of citatons is also important. May 5, 2021 at 9:38
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    Citations are used to measure the quality/impact of a paper, no argument there. But that doesn't mean that this the purpose of citations. If you got an idea from a paper, but didn't cite it because of where it was published, then you would be guilty of plagiarism. May 5, 2021 at 11:30
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    See also academia.stackexchange.com/q/86584/4484 ... Cite the paper even if the author was a member of the Nazi Party.
    – GEdgar
    May 5, 2021 at 14:32
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    @Sursula: Following this thread I get the impression that it would be good to be more precise about what you mean by "disreputable". Is it just journals that do nothing wrong except not having a high impact factor, or is it journals that are accused of some kind of misconduct, particularly regularly accepting low quality papers for dodgy reasons (such as taking the fee from the authors)? In general you have to assess the paper quality yourself; journal "reputation" is by no means a reliable indicator of paper quality, see my answer. May 5, 2021 at 16:34

4 Answers 4

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To answer the question: No, it's not considered bad practice. You are meant to cite work that is closely related or even had an impact on your work, regardless of in what journals this is published. There is no problem with this.

Generally you should not blindly trust published work and make up your own mind about whether it makes sense, regardless of the reputation of the journal.

Something more general about journal reputation. Impact factors and the like, as well as the subjective opinions of people about journals, are not a very reliable quality indicator for the work that appears in the journals. Some journals achieve high impact by publishing headline-grabbing cutting edge stuff fast, sometimes sacrificing quality. High impact journals get loads of submitted papers these days and can easily reject papers after having an Associate Editor looking at the paper for three minutes. The authors may then be forced to publish in a lower reputed journal even if their work is actually fine. The same may happen with work that editors of highly reputed journals don't find "of general enough interest". I have even occasionally experienced better qualified reviewing at lower rated more specialist journals because these would nominate specialist reviewers whereas high impact journals are sometimes more interested in appealing to a more general audience and use reviewers that are, while mostly good, specialised in areas somewhat further away.

I'm not saying that high reputation or impact journals are in fact worse; surely the best people send their best stuff there, which means that many top papers appear in top journals. However there are a number of reasons why top papers may end up in not so highly regarded journals, many of which are in fact OK (some exceptions may exist). Particularly, any journal organising a standard peer review without putting pressure on reviewers and editors to accept papers (which may happen in "author pays for publication" journals or also if the main editor presses for speed too much) should normally publish OK quality stuff; responsible competent reviewers wouldn't accept anything wrong. As a reviewer, I will basically write the same stuff in my report about a paper regardless of the level of the journal, however I may recommend "accept" for a lower level journals and "reject" for a top level one if I think that the work is OK but with only rather small and/or predictable new results that don't require much genius even if these results make sense and are for sure fine to cite in related work. High level journals may have a somewhat easier job to convince the best people to review, but this doesn't mean that all reviewers of top journals are super-competent and those of lower level journals are ignorants. From my personal experience as author, the quality/level of compentence of reviews isn't very clearly correlated to the journal reputation. They just reject more at a higher level. The differentiation between the top and the not-so-top journals often is more according to how original and difficult the material is, and how "hot" the topic.

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If you use insights from a publication, you must cite that publication, no matter how low the regard in which you or others hold the venue.

If you're nervous that there's a high risk the insights will be wrong, there are things you can do to reduce that risk:

  • seek out an independent corroborating source for the same insight (and cite it in addition to the "low quality" source);
  • check the chain of logic from evidence to conclusions in the "low quality" source step-by-step for yourself (and still cite the source);
  • if it can be done ethically and affordably, repeat a few of the experiments (if any) reported in the "low quality" source to see if the results are reproducible (and still cite the source).
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    I'd actaully go as far as to say that including low quality sources is beneficial if they are well critiqued. As an examiner I am looking for evidence that the student is able to critically assess the science in a field and not just reword the latest review. Citing a paper and then carefully and critically disusing its strengths and weaknesses is a good way of doing this (publication venue is not in itself a weakness, but may be an indication there are weaknesses to be found). May 5, 2021 at 9:36
  • I agree with @IanSudbery but sadly, in my experience journals in my area discourage this practice. May 5, 2021 at 9:42
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    @Sursula You can't unsee something you've read, once a thing is "in the air", if its relevant to what you are doing, you can't stop it influencing what you are doing. Better to take a conscious approach to that, rather than a subconscious one. You have to decide yourself whether the insight in a paper is reliable, independently of the journal it came from. May 5, 2021 at 14:19
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    @Sursula If the insight you need to make your case is in a poorly-regarded source, then you've really got no option but to use an insight from a poorly-regarded source; but see the risk-management tips in my bullet points. (As Ian hints above, a real scholarship purist would say one should follow those risk management tips even if the journal is one with a really illustrious reputation.) May 5, 2021 at 15:39
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    @RBarryYoung When the experiment involves potential harm to human or animal subjects. May 5, 2021 at 18:32
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If you get an insight (or are referencing an idea/discovery), you need to cite where it comes from. Good/bad journal. Even trade journals, websites, personal communications, etc.

In addition, if you are surveying the literature (or semi-surveying at the intro to a paper), than you should list all the papers that would be useful for readers. I would use some judgment (this is a favor you are doing for the reader). List the most useful papers (good ones, mini-reviews, etc.). You should not feel the need to show everything (impossible in active fields, e.g. electronic thin films). But give the reader the best ones--after that he is on his own to get "cites from the cites" or to do his own ad hoc lit search.

In the event that citations are limited, I would probably lean more towards inclusion (of junkier stuff). Conversely, if there's a lot out there...show the best stuff and skip the "this is a paper about an individual film, not a set of them" type dross.

At the end of the day, this is not a Euclidean proof, but a thoughtful help to the reader. And some element of selection/exclusion is what you are delivering to them (and they will appreciate it...after all they can do their own search in addition). It can't be done perfectly since it is always up for debate. But it can be done thoughtfully and helpfully. Just like most practical problems in business, government, etc.

I definitely wouldn't be tentative about junky journals if you know the papers are good or if that's all there is. If anyone contests it, just say (truthfully hopefully) "I have spent years reading and working in this area and am one of the world's experts in it" (as an older grad student, this is actually a reasonable position...you are the expert in your thesis.)

All that said, I have found that junky journals are usually worse. But you will develop your own intuitions here, within your field. I know that in physics and chemistry, the APS and ACS specialty journals still are quite good. Even some of the Elsevier and the like competition. And Nature/Science (while very prestigious and many good papers) do tend to have more of a problem with headline-seekers and fraud. Since it is a big deal to get papers there and since they see themselves as more than just science journals, but somewhat news-y. Non-US national societies (especially excepting France, Germany, UK) tend to be worse. TEND. But I would look with a wary eye at Japanese Applied Films or the like. And I definitely wouldn't bother ever skimming the table of contents of such a magazine--only coming to their papers as parts of lit searches or "cite from cite" tracing.

But of course, look at the specific papers. You should develop enough perspective (and be enough of a critical thinker) to recognize some of the attention-seeker crappiness in Nature and/or find a diamond in the rough in Japanese Applied Films. And then obviously put the better stuff forward. Don't be a mouse.

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As a PhD student in engineering myself I personally got the feeling that not many scholars care about the journal reputation in our field of research. I do not know how it is perceived in other areas, but, if the articles you cite are of quality although they are published in a „low reputation“ journal, you should absolutely cite them.


Edit: I expressed myself very poorly in my original answer (hence, I deleted the paragraph!). My original answer could be (and was) understood in such a way that I recommended you to not cite papers from predatory journals. What I originally wanted to imply was that you should proceed with caution when using results from such papers if they were published in predatory journals. However, if you use them, you definitely have to cite them, also!

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    This is incorrect. If you use information from a predatory journal, you must cite it. If you do not, it is academic misconduct. May 5, 2021 at 9:41
  • Dangerous advice. "You should avoid citing articles from it" is promoting academic misconduct. Perhaps you meant "You should avoid reading articles from it lest you be tempted to use their ideas and having to cite them", which however would still be questionable in terms of scientific integrity. If a crackpot has an important scientific idea, will you work around it, just to not give that person credit? May 5, 2021 at 9:52
  • @CaptainEmacs My original statement was phrased as ill worded as possible! I must sincerely apologize as I expressed myself extremely poorly! I have edited my answer accordingly, as I do not wish to promote academic misconduct in any way.
    – pbaer
    May 5, 2021 at 10:47
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    @pbaer Thank you for this fix! I have removed my downvote. May 5, 2021 at 12:13
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    @pbaer, I never misunderstood what you said as "don't cite a reference even if you use it". In fact, my question was never if it is ok not to cite a paper you use in your article, but rather if you should not have used the insights from papers from disreputable sources in the first place. In contrast to other, upvoted answerers, you understood what I meant with my question. May 5, 2021 at 12:51

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