Credible Journals

“Would you give me a list of acceptable journals for doing my research?”

It seems like a reasonable question to ask, but the nature of scholarly information makes it easy to answer in an unexpected way: No. It’s a problem I face every time a department goes through accreditation and asks me to provide a list of subject journals. There is simply too much overlap among disciplines anymore, especially in ones as broad as business or public health. No list could possibly be comprehensive enough to cover every journal a researcher would want to consider.

“Would you give me a list of journals?”


I’ve seen faculty members create lists of recommended journals, but the majority of journals with highly relevant articles that can appear in article search results won’t appear on those lists. The most popular titles are easy to include, but then the list effectively ties users to titles the author happened to think of or managed to find. And what if students are doing research in an international context? It’s happening more and more. Journals in the US are incredibly Ameri-centric and sometimes simply won’t do. Education topics might be well served by education journals, but that could itself be a lengthy and incomplete list of its own that would only serve some students. There are still the sub-topics of policy, cultural behavior, family issues, etc., all of which could be well-served by journals in other disciplines.

Let’s pause for a moment to limit the list a little and consider the top journals in a given subject discipline. A pervasive problem that top journals have had to address is how to cover all that’s being written that’s really high quality and worth sharing. Some have simply started publishing their top journal with sub-titled names so they can benefit from the name recognition of the original. PLOS, anyone? The list of credible journals could include manifold more titles and just keep growing.

Be careful what you ask for. You might get it.

Developing information seekers often have wishes that they don’t realize are actually short-sighted. In my earlier days as a library student, I asked for exactly the same thing, a finite list. Only over time have I learned that what I really needed all along is what experienced seekers have only developed over time—the ability to evaluate the journal in front of them.

There’s an “easy” solution. The primary one is for developing researchers only to do searching in subscription article databases like the ones an academic institution provides through its library. Academic article database providers have their own criteria for evaluating and including journals that might not be perfect, but go a long way toward avoiding predatory, open-source titles (the majority which aren’t predatory, though) and avoiding others that haven’t risen to the point of the kind of higher credibility that we academics often want to see. Consider again, though, that cut-offs are arbitrary and still might ignore titles that could serve info-seekers well—again, e.g., international titles.

Academic article database providers have their own criteria for evaluating and including journals… The problem with [them] is that they generally don’t prioritize search results the way developing info-seekers expect…

The problem with article databases is that they generally don’t prioritize search results the way developing info-seekers expect, e.g., by relevance. Most generate search results based on recency—which means that seekers may miss older, seminal articles or recent, high quality articles because they’re not on the first few pages of results. So I always recommend complementary searching in both Google Scholar and Google, which do return results based on relevance (however the search algorithms determine it). (In fact, I always recommend searching in Google first, but that’s a separate conversation.) In this case, then, developing info-seekers have to go to the extra step of searching for journal titles in article database lists to see if they’re credible. That’s an equal hassle with looking up titles in a list that some faculty member might provide and is still prone to being inconclusive.

So the simplest solution is having students search only in institutional subscription databases, acknowledging the inherent weaknesses—and advantages—of doing so. The next solution is helping them to develop credibility-confirmation skills, something that just takes time and experience (Sorry students.). (Actually, by grad school many people already have reasonably sophisticated, intuitive criteria for determining credibility.)

Unabashed self-endorsement: Ask a librarian.

Academic librarians are trained to help consider this variety of issues. When people don’t understand the nature of all that a subject discipline knows—in this case information (library) science—it behooves its professional staff to become exponents. That’s one of the things academic librarians do to get invited to conduct presentations in subject discipline courses and help developing researchers hone their credibility-confirmation skills.

One thought on “Credible Journals

  1. Ah, time and experience! But who has the time for experience? 😉 Great post! Thank you!

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