We have all been there: a friend comes up with a random crazy fact and you think to yourself “I don’t think that’s true”. Sometimes you see, hear or read something and doubt the message or what it wants to say. Something about it seems off to you. If you are a scientist, you may have been reading a scientific article and thought the same thing. Something about the article just doesn’t seem right. How do I know if this scientific article is credible? Can I trust scientific articles from this journal?
Let’s take a look at ways to tell if the information in an article is trustworthy.
If you want more information about types of scientific publishing, you can read more here. In short, there are three types: traditional, open-access, and hybrid publishing. For right now, what we need to know is that it costs money to publish articles.
Some journals, called predatory journals, try to take advantage of this. In open-access journals, the authors pay “article-publishing costs” (APCs) so that readers can access the information for free. The less reputable journals take advantage of this system. Rather than using the money as it should be (for the review process and for covering costs), these journals target authors with lower prices. They also guarantee that your article will be published (no matter what) and pocket the money directly. They just want the APC money. Obviously, you cannot trust scientific articles published in this journal.
Sometimes it can be difficult to identify whether a journal is a predatory one or not. Some institutions maintain lists (e.g. Beall’s List, OpenAccessJournal’s list of predatory journals) but they don’t always have the journal you are looking for. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a predatory journal though. How do you figure out if it is predatory on your own?
Checking the journal
Since predatory journals are only in it for the money, the quality of their publications is usually lower than other journals. There are no review processes, so often the following happen:
1) Articles often have basic language mistakes. Since the article does not go through review and editing processes, basic language mistakes are often not corrected before publish.
2) “Insufficient” or “questionable” science (or just completely wrong) – anyone can publish anything for the right price, even if it is wrong.
3) Short “processing” time in comparison with non-predatory journals – depending on what you are publishing, it can take months. Predatory journals publish as quickly as possible, so an article can appear as quickly as a few days after submission.
4) They will publish anything and everything they receive, even if it is not in the scope of the journal. For example, the journal may be for geology but it will accept articles outside of this field because it just wants money.
5) “Submission fee” is usually predatory. For reliable open-access journals, APCs are paid when the article is accepted. For predatory journals that accept many articles, they
6) Fees/policies should be listed clearly on their website. Predatory journals often have nice websites to lure scientists in but it can be difficult to find concrete information about their processes.
7) Most have low impact factors since the quality of the science is not very good. As a result, people do not site these articles very often, so they impact factor remains very low. However there are cases where some journals have struck “strike gold”, especially in an emerging field. They happen to publish the “right” article that is cited, making the journal look better than it actually is.
Checking The authors
The next thing we should check in any article is the authors. How do we know we can trust the person or people doing this science?
The first thing is that the authors should be knowledgeable about the field they publish in. Where and what did they study? Do they work at an institution affiliated with the field in which they publish? Do they work in the field they publish in? If they have any previous publications, are they related to the one you are evaluating?
If the answers to some of these questions seem different that what you would expect, maybe they are not credible. Would you trust a psychologist making claims about black holes? Hint: you shouldn’t.
“But what about multidisciplinary studies” I hear you ask. You can’t be an expert in everything. That is absolutely true but in this case, there should be an expert for each discipline that the article mentions. This is often an area where mathematicians, computer scientists and modellers have problems with – they try to interpret their model without having an expert as one of the authors and end up making mistakes. This is one of the top reasons why their papers may be rejected.
Checking the article
Relating to the journal, checking the article is just as important. It also has many of the same points. Does the article look professional? Is it good linguistically (spelling, grammar, Scientific English, etc.?
Do the experiments make sense for the question/hypothesis? For example, if the authors are observing black holes, why are the researchers decapitating mice?
Are the results they found reproducible? Has this been verified yet by another team? Are the references they used relevant to what they are talking about? Are the references of good quality or are those articles untrustworthy?
So can I Trust this scientific article?
If you are able to look at the journal, author, and article and it all checks out, it is highly likely that you can trust the scientific article. Usually, if you look at one aspect and realise that it may be untrustworthy, other areas also confirm that. It is unlikely that a good journal would knowingly publish bad scientific research. It reflects badly on their reputation, so reputable publications vet the submissions. To do that, they check the things discussed above as well as others as needed.
Want to learn more about Scientific English? You can find some more articles here.