As many readers know, this week is Peer Review Week, the annual opportunity for those involved in scholarly communication and research to celebrate and learn about all aspects of peer review. As part of this conversation, Simon Linacre reflects on this year’s theme of ‘Trust in Peer Review’ in terms of the important role of peer review in the validation of scholarship, and dangers of predatory behaviour in its absence.
I was asked to deliver a webinar recently to a community of scholars in Eastern Europe and, as always with webinars, I was very worried about the Q&A section at the end. When you deliver a talk in person, you can tell by looking at the crowd what is likely to happen at the end of the presentation and can prepare yourself. A quiet group of people means you may have to ask yourself some pretty tough questions, as no one will put their hand up at the end to ask you anything; a rowdy crowd is likely to throw anything and everything at you. With a webinar, there are no cues, and as such, it can be particularly nerve-shredding.
With the webinar in question, I waited a while for a question and was starting to prepare my quiet crowd response, when a single question popped up in the chat box:
How do you know you can trust a journal?
As with all the best questions, this floored me for a while. How do you know? The usual things flashed across my mind: reputation, whether it’s published known scholars in its field, whether it is indexed by Cabells or other databases, etc. But suddenly the word trust felt a lot more personal than simply a tick box exercise to confirm a journal’s standing. That may confirm it is trustworthy but is that the same as the feeling an individual has when they really trust something or someone?
The issue of trust is often the unsaid part of the global debates that are raging currently, whether it is responses to the coronavirus epidemic, climate change or democracy. Politicians, as always, want the people to trust them; but increasingly their actions seem to be making that trust harder and harder. As I write, the UK put its two top scientists in front of the cameras to give a grave warning about COVID-19 and a second wave of cases. The fact there was no senior politician to join them was highly symbolic.
It is with this background that the choice of the theme Trust in Peer Review is an appropriate one for Peer Review Week (full disclosure: I have recently joined one of the PRW committees to support the initiative). There is a huge groundswell of support by publishers, editors and academics to support both the effectiveness of peer review and the unsung heroes who do the job for little recognition or reward. The absence of which would have profound implications for research and society as a whole.
Which brings me to the answer to the question posed above, which is to ask the opposite: how do you know when you cannot trust a journal? This is easier to answer as you can point to all those characteristics and behaviours that you would want in a journal. We see on a daily basis with our work on Predatory Reports how the absence of crucial aspects of a journal’s workings can cause huge problems for authors. No listed editor, a fake editorial board, a borrowed ISSN, a hijacked journal identity, a made-up impact factor, and – above all – false promises of a robust peer review process. Trust in peer review may require some research on the part of the author in terms of checking the background of the journal, its publisher and its editors, and it may require you to contact the editor, editorial board members or published authors to get personal advice on publishing in that journal. But doing that work in the first place and receiving personal recommendations will build trust in peer review for any authors who have doubts – and collectively for all members of the academic community.