The avalanche of information that has occurred since the emergence of the World Wide Web has resulted in an amazing, almost unlimited access to realms previously unimagined! In addition to amazing benefits, there are also hazards that are still emerging in a context that might be best labeled the ‘World Wild Web”! Anyone with an inclination to develop a web “presence” can do so with just a minimum of know-how and little to no cost. This is a fact that attests to the vision that Tim Berners-Lee proclaimed as the web was under development – the democratization of knowledge . As a result people who have unrestricted access to the Web now have access to online literature in the form of virtual journals, books, and blogs, as well as websites that make it possible to interact and contribute our ideas. Some online content, including. journals and books, is credible and dependable, some is borderline, and some is downright misleading or false. Anyone who is reading this blog post is a “consumer” or “user” of information on the Web. You may also be a contributor, or perhaps you are aspiring to be a contributor to journals, books or content on the web. In any case, you are faced with the challenge of sorting out what is credible and trustworthy, from that which is not. You do not want to get caught in the trap of dishonest, deceptive sources. So how do you tell the difference?
The old adage “consumer beware” has never been more apt than in this context. The bottom line is that each individual user must be responsible to sift through the piles of information, and determine what is trustworthy and what is not. Many of us have been socialized to expect some “expert” to tell us what is fact, truth or dependable. But the time has now come that even discerning whether or not an “expert” is really an “expert” is a challenge, leaving each person with the burden being one’s own “expert.” Fortunately, in most instances this is not a formidable task. If, after using the guidelines below, you are still uncertain, the people to turn to includes a librarian (if you do not have access to a librarian, find a friend who does!), and groups of professional colleagues who share an interest in assuring reliability and quality in professional communication.
Below are four general guidelines that are the foundation in the sifting process of discernment. Once you have the information related to these four areas, you can dig in to the details that will give you the basis for making an informed, sound judgement using the detailed guidelines in the resources listed below.
Who are the people involved? Reputable publications will give you easy-to-find information about all of the individual people who are key to the process of producing the journal, book, or website. If you do not readily find this information, you have encountered a dubious publication. For journals, books and websites, the key people will have “standing” in the field – people who have established reputations for their knowledge and expertise related to the publication. For journals, this key person is the Editor, plus any associate or section editors (see “What Do Editors Do?”). For books, the author(s) and book editor(s) are the key people involved. Websites should also provide information about the key people who are producing the material. The website “Lucinda’s House” is an example of a website developed by an individual – Dr. Lucinda Canty – who is a nurse midwife, researcher and educator; the purpose of the website is to share resources for childbearing women and families. Lucinda’s “About” page gives detailed information about the purposes of the site itself, as well as information about Lucinda’s background and qualifications to provide the information contained on the site. Note that we have a “People” page on Nursology.net . We insist on naming our contributors, and we provide brief biographical information that provides evidence of the contributor’s expertise related to what they have written.
Who is the publisher, association, or sponsor that underwrites (finances) the site? What is their mission or purpose? Publishing information or content in any form requires a cost of some kind – be in it money, time, or skill. This can be a formal group, or an individual who has a particular purpose. Books and journals are typically published by a publishing house or an association, and the reputation of the publisher contributes significantly to the credibility of their published works. (See What do Publishers Do?) If the website belongs to an organization, the individuals involved may not be identified, but the reputation of the organization can be a “stand-in” for the actual authors of the web contet; these people are representing the organization and have organizational oversight of what they contribute. Publishers have their own websites, the purpose of which is to inform the public about the books and journals they produce. Professional and community associations and clubs have websites that serve the purpose of informing the public about their activities, including access to participate in local or online events. When you examine information about the publisher, association or sponsor, look for any information about the organization that can give you a clue as to their credibility. If the publisher only gives you a post office box number, and no other information about their location/headquarters, you have found a red flag that raises questions about who they really are.
How is the information vetted for quality and trustworthiness? Reputable journals, books and websites will all have a process that assures that the information they publish is reliable and trustworthy. Journals use some form of peer review, a process that provides feedback to the author, the editor and the publisher, assessing the quality of the work submitted for publication (See “Responding to Peer Review). Book publishers seek reviews from experts who are familiar with the book content, providing feedback about the quality and the worth of the book manuscript before it is published. Websites typically rely on “post publication” public review; people who visit a website should be able to find a way to contact the creator of the website to provide feedback. Public response is also estimated by a kind of “shoe leather” analysis of how many people are actually visiting, using, citing or otherwise noticing what is published. Dubious publishers are now savvy to the fact that people look for evidence of peer review, so they typically mention this in some way. However, when you dig a little deeper, or get into the process, you may find that they are taking serious shortcuts that essentially make a sham out the claim. One major red flag is a promise of “speedy” peer review. All publishers want to complete peer review in the most efficient way possible, but “speedy” is an overreach. Bottom line: quality peer review takes time; usually up to but no more than about 6-8 weeks.
Are the processes used to produce the publication transparent? Is adequate information provided for authors, and for readers/users? If you are a reader or an author and wonder about the trustworthiness of a journal you find online, visit the journal’s website and examine the information they provide. Are you able to easily find information that may influence your engagement with the journal, book or website? If there is a cost for you as a reader to use the group’s publications, or the services offered. You should be able to readily determine what that cost would be, and what the cost will cover. Open access publishing that is credible will have transparent costs posted on the website – typically charged to the author. But beware that deceptive publishers have used article processing charges (APCs) merely to make profit and they do not deliver credible products in return. If you have questions about a journal that requires an article processing charge, check with a librarian or experienced authors in your field to help determine if this is a credible journal/publisher. If you are considering submitting your work for publication, the submission process will be described in detail, and the person you need to contact in the process will be identified. For journals, the journal website will have a detailed “information for Authors” guide (see the Nursing Inquiry guidelines as an example). Book publishers also have general guidelines, often refined for each individual book proposal to provide details related to the specific project (see Elsevier’s guidelines for book authors). Websites that invite contributors have guidelines that help to guide the development of the work you are interested in contributing (see Nursology.net’s guidelines).
Finally, you are not alone in the challenge of figuring this out! Any person who browses the web is faced with this challenge! Find your friends and colleagues who are already experienced in sorting through the information jungle and engage them in taking a look at sources you are puzzled by. Consult with a librarian – they are the most valuable source of information – in fact this is exactly what they are concerned with every single day!
Think, Check, Submit – resources and guidelines developed by a coalition from across scholarly communications in response to discussions about deceptive publishing.
Think. Check.WRITE.Submit. by Leslie Nicoll
Caught in the Trap: The Allure of Deceptive Publishers by Peggy Chinn and Leslie Nicoll
Nurse Author and Editor – an international publication, dedicated to publishing high-quality, current, and informative articles on scholarly writing and publishing in the nursing literature.