What exactly is the definition of a scientific publication or journal?

What fueled this question in particular is the current rise of predatory publishers. Jeffrey Beall had a list published online of suspected predatory publishers, but his blog has very recently been discontinued (cached copy, 11 Jan 2017). Speculations of this disappearance include threats and political motivations.

Anyway, predatory publishers are characterized by any or all of the following:

  • They appear suddenly and generate a host of new journals that cover a wide range of topics;
  • They are open access and charge high fees;
  • They have rudimentary, faked, or even no review process at all;
  • They spam about every researcher with a publication record asking them to publish in their journals;
  • They spam researchers to join their board of editors or become a reviewer.

For more backgrounds on predatory publishers see the wiki page.

Now still these predatory publishers profile themselves as being scientific publishers, e.g., Scientific Research and Austin Publishing Group.
Access these links at your own risk. I would not call this class of journals scientific, as pretty much any author willing to pay a few grand can make it in there.

So what makes a scientific journal scientific? How exactly is this defined? I long thought a peer review process guarantees scientificness, but it can be faked or even absent, yet publishers claim to be scientific.

Where this question becomes particularly relevant is in the role of teaching - when I tell students only to use 'scientific literature' then what is it exactly? Would it be more a matter of what it is not?

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    Scientific and predatory seem to me like orthogonal attributes. A journal can be scientific and predatory. If the question is based upon a different assumption, maybe that assumption should be outlined first. – O. R. Mapper Jan 18 '17 at 11:27
  • @O.R.Mapper I added the line: I would not call this class of journals scientific, as pretty much any author willing to pay a few grand can make it in there. It was an implicit statement, thanks. – AliceD Jan 18 '17 at 11:30
  • The idea of this question (what exactly makes a journal scientific), is great, but I would refrain from "pointing fingers" at specific publishers before we even have a definition. – Robert Columbia Jan 26 '17 at 0:06
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    There is no clear line between scientific and unscientific, so a binary categorization is not very useful. For example, peer review comes in various quality levels, from very high to so low that it might as well not be there. No significant gaps in this quality continuum exist where one could draw the line. A better question is how to determine the quality level of a journal. There are various journal rankings, some of which use a recursive definition similar to Google's PageRank: the high quality journals are those cited by high quality journals. Then solve for all qualities simultaneously. – Sander Heinsalu Jan 26 '17 at 6:41
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    "Scientific" is not a helpful term here. Much of academia is not science, and it would be confusing to complain that, say, the "American Historical Review" is not 'scientific'... – Andrew Jan 29 '17 at 14:00

There is no general definition for scientific journal. The Wikipedia definition is as vague as reality is. This is because there is no clear definition of scientific. It is a case-by-case distinction - not only for journals, but also for individual articles in a journal or one method described in an article. Additionally, scientific and predatory are not mutually exclusive.

Your instruction to your students to only use scientific literature is the key to the answer to your question: What is scientific and what is not depends on the concrete content of an article or the applied method. To distinguish between these two is the first step towards scientific thinking.

An answer on a list of predatory publishers can be found in this question here.


Science (in the broad term) differentiates itself from - say - astrology or black magic by the holistic and transparent way it passes judgment on its own content. By definition, and unlike secret societies, there is no oath of secrecy and people are actually expected and encouraged to openly share the basis for their knowledge.

By extension, a scientific journal will be one where the evaluation process will be transparent (even if the evaluators may remain anonymous):

  1. the submission will be handled by a known and reputable editor (or delegate), who functions as guarantors for the legitimacy and competence of the referees whose opinion is sought,
  2. the guidelines to referees will be known to all,
  3. referees will be given a reasonable of time to form a fair and unbiased opinion of the originality and correctness of the submission, and also assess its value to the community.
  4. There will be transparent rules to appeal a decision if the authors disagree with the judgment if the editor.
  5. For their part the authors agree to submit all relevant data for examination, not withholding information that could mislead the referees.

The key is transparency.

  • Appeal rules are not widespread among scientific journals. – Anonymous Physicist Dec 16 '20 at 7:29

A scientific journal is one that publishes articles on some scientific subject.

Beyond that, the entire question seems to have arisen because the asker incorrectly conflates "reputable" and "scientific". It's perfectly possible to have a journal devoted to history or literary criticism that uses peer review, doesn't spam and so on. Such a journal would be reputable, but not scientific.

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    What then is a scientific subject? – AliceD Jan 29 '17 at 15:00
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    Come on. Defining science is too broad a question for Stack Exchange. – David Richerby Jan 29 '17 at 15:39
  • The question may be too broad, but this answer is too narrow for the question. – Anonymous Physicist Dec 16 '20 at 7:31
  • Good point. Some universities, for example, may reward publication in "scholarly journals", a classification that is broader than "scientific journals". – GEdgar Dec 16 '20 at 21:38

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