In the past, a journal title that was unfamiliar to a researcher would be an automatic red-flag for journal quality - if I haven't heard of it, it must not be very good. As the number of journal titles increases exponentially (Larsen and von Ins, 2010), scholars have turned to a wide variety of tools to help separate quality publications from the rest. Journal metrics like the impact factor (Garfield, 2006) and a journal's h-index have been used (and mis-used) extensively. And in recent years, librarian Jeffery Beall has put together a list of the worst journals of all, so-called "predatory publishers."
But the term "predatory" can be misleading. It implies evil intent, and Beall ascribes evil intent to publishers who charge high author processing fees, do little work with regards to peer review or copyediting, and make lots of money. In this case, the authors are the prey and are being duped into forking over large amounts of money to be published. I worry that Beall is making a stronger connection than necessary between predatory practices and open access.
Let's look at another, more traditional scenario. Let's say a publisher wants to make money. The publisher asks authors to submit their content for free, and even makes the authors sign away all rights to the work prior to publication. The publisher may provide some services like coordinating peer review and type setting a final document (although the quality of these can vary widely). They then turn around and sell that publication for exorbitant fees, making healthy (or more than healthy) profits. In this case, I might argue that authors AND subscribers are the "prey" as the publisher exploits the system of academic tenure and promotion to make a profit.
The big difference between "honest" commercial publishers (whose goal is to make money) and the "predatory" open access publishers on Beall's list (whose goal is also to make money) is the quality of the product they are producing.
I can't deny that some of the publishers on Beall's list are seeking out author contributions (and author fees) by being purposefully vague about their journal quality. But each time my library gets a bill from one of the big publishing companies with a 6% price increase, I feel a bit like a gazelle being eyed by a hungry lion and I have nowhere to run.
It can be very hard to determine if a journal is predatory or not: that term is dependent on the publishers motives. Sometimes journals just aren't very good, but they are trying. Sometimes journal quality is great, but they are squeezing the life out of the organizations that subscribe to their journals (just ask most any librarian what has happened to their book budget). Evaluating overall quality (independent of publisher motives) can be much easier and more relevant for authors looking for a publication venue.
If you are considering publishing your work in a journal you've never heard of before, here are just a few of the many things consider:
- Have any of your colleagues read, reviewed, or published in that journal?
- Where is the journal indexed? Can you find it via the databases you usually use to find information?
- Is it associated with a scholarly society you (or your colleagues) have heard of?
- Are there any reliable metrics associated with the journal (traditional or alternative)?
- Who is the editor? Who is on the editorial board? Have you heard of them? Can you find out more about them?
- Does the journal come with the regular trappings of a serial publication? ISSNs, DOIs, etc.
You may also check out Beall's (somewhat controversial) list of predatory publishers, and his criteria for determining which publishers are predatory.
Naturally - and I know you've already thought of this - these are great questions to ask your local librarian, especially since you have data to analyze or an experiment to set up or papers to grade. It will be a welcome change from the scores of reference questions from first year students about the proper placement of commas in APA style citations.
Garfield, E. (2006). The history and meaning of the journal impact factor. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association, 295(1), 90–3. doi:10.1001/jama.295.1.90
Larsen, P. O., & von Ins, M. (2010). The rate of growth in scientific publication and the decline in coverage provided by Science Citation Index. Scientometrics, 84(3), 575–603. doi:10.1007/s11192-010-0202-z