How do you know you can trust a journal?

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.

Still without peer?

Next week the annual celebration of peer review takes place, which despite being centuries old is still an integral part of scholarly communications. To show Cabells’ support of #PeerReviewWeek, Simon Linacre looks at why peer review deserves its week in the calendar and to survive for many years to come.


I was recently asked by Cabells’ partners Editage to upload a video to YouTube explaining how the general public benefited from peer review. This is a good question, because I very much doubt the general public is aware at all of what peer review is and how it impacts their day-to-day lives. But if you reflect for just a moment, it is clear it impacts almost everything, much of which is taken for granted on a day-to-day basis.

Take making a trip to the shops. A car is the result of thousands of experiments and validated peer review research over a century to come up with the safest and most efficient means of driving people and things from one place to another; each supermarket product has been health and safety tested; each purchase uses digital technology such as the barcode that has advanced through the years to enable fast and accurate purchasing; even the license plate recognition software that gives us a ticket when we stay too long in the car park will be a result of some peer reviewed research (although most people may struggle to describe that as a ‘benefit’).

So, we do all benefit from peer review, even if we do not appreciate it all the time. Does that prove the value of peer review? For some, it is still an inefficient system for scholarly communications, and over the years a number of platforms have sought to disrupt it. For example, PLoS has been hugely successful as a publishing platform where a ‘light touch peer review’ has taken place to enable large-scale, quick turnaround publishing. More recently, F1000 has developed a post-publication peer review platform where all reviews are visible and take place on almost all articles that are submitted. While these platforms have undoubtedly offered variety and author choice to scientific publishing processes, they have yet to change the game, particularly in social sciences where more in-depth peer review is required.

Perhaps real disruption will be seen to accommodate peer review rather than change it. This week’s announcement at the ALPSP Conference by Cactus Communications – part of the same organization as Editage – of an AI-powered platform that can allow authors to submit articles to be viewed by multiple journal editors may just change the way peer review works. Instead of the multiple submit-review-reject cycles authors have to endure, they can submit their article to a system that can check for hygiene factor quality characteristics and relevance to journals’ coverage, and match them with potentially interested editors who can offer the opportunity for the article to then be peer reviewed.

If it works across a good number of journals, one can see that from the perspective of authors, editors and publishers, it would be a much more satisfactory process than the traditional one that still endures. And a much quicker one to boot, which means that the general public should see the benefits of peer review all the more speedily.