Building a contextual alternative to scholarly journal un/safelists

This is the first in a series of posts about each of the teams that will be attending SCI 2022 and their projects. This one was submitted by Matt Ruen.

orange sheets of paper lie on a green school board and form a chat bubble with three crumpled papers.

Concerns about “predatory” or questionable journals have led many academics to seek out simple checklists of safe or unsafe journals, which reflect a real need among researchers to quickly make sense of an ever-increasing range of publication options. But the “safe/unsafe” approach obscures the contextual and constructed nature of authority in information, instead valuing the prestige of a small group of commercial entities. Existing lists tend to hold open access journals to different standards than subscription based journals, and view new or smaller publications more critically than large commercial publishers. In turn, these lists and discussions often overlook exploitative or problematic aspects of traditional subscription publishing. They also replicate biases against certain forms of research, such as those from non-anglophone countries who have been historically and intentionally excluded from the prestige economy of scholarly conversation. We want to reckon with these issues through a transparent evaluation process that seeks to address both the labor of evaluation and the bias inherent in the existing system.

Our group came together to try to address this problem with Reviews: the Journal of Journal Reviews (RJJR), a scholarly publication that will invite peer-reviewed evaluations of journals, both open and paywalled, from across the world. Our vision is to create a place for authors to find and share useful information about unfamiliar journals in a format that emphasizes the subjective, nuanced nature of this challenge. Our goal is to not create another set of “safe” or “unsafe” journals, but to provide authors with enough information in an easily digestible format to allow them to make their own decisions based on their needs. As RJJR publishes reviews, authors interested in a potential journal could look to RJJR for evaluations already completed. Even when a particular journal has not been reviewed, the collection of reviews can demonstrate ways to carry out a thoughtful, nuanced, subjective analysis. We conceive of this as an iterative process which allows for open feedback and updates. At the same time, it gives librarians and others who regularly perform this often unseen work a peer-reviewed means of recognition of their labor and creates efficiencies for other librarians who need to investigate the same journal.

Biases are not eliminated in this style of review, but instead we ask each reviewer to provide justifications and context for their judgments. We anticipate that there will be room for a conversation, an evolution of journal practices, and the reporting of those practices as they are critically evaluated in a transparent way. Academic publishing is not a stagnant activity, nor should our evaluation mechanisms be.

RJJR rests on a rubric or a model of processes and tools for authors to use when evaluating a journal. A rubric offers a method of evaluation, rather than a checklist of binaries or a simple watchlist of outlets to avoid, and we are providing careful guidance to point at critical questions, rather than expected answers. In line with some of the facets of an ethics of care, we want evaluations to be relational and situated, and to reflect a sense of collective responsibility for our scholarly landscape. The rubric is supported by our values, including: taking a critical approach to prestige, supporting labor not traditionally seen as scholarly work, ensuring an environment inclusive of diverse voices, being transparent about the process, acknowledging nuance in journal evaluation, and accepting that change happens. RJJR represents a much-needed reckoning: with the above values, with the longstanding problem of good/bad lists in scholarly journal evaluation, and with the uncredited intellectual labor of scholarly communication professionals.


During Triangle SCI, we aim to refine and finalize the core processes and documentation for RJJR.

We anticipate the following specific outcomes:

  • a finalized rubric and guide for authors to submit reviews to RJJR
  • instructions for peer evaluation of submitted reviews
  • finalized editorial and publication workflows
  • learn from and collaborate with the institute’s other participants to improve equity across the project

Our stretch goals include:

  • a ready-for-submissions RJJR journal site
  • a process for targeted recruitment of potential peer evaluators and contributors
  • strategies to diversify representation in our team/process

Our team

Joshua Neds-Fox is Coordinator for Digital Publishing at the Wayne State University Libraries in Detroit, Michigan. Joshua’s work at Wayne State over the past 15 years has encompassed digital open access publishing, copyright and scholarly communications, and consultation with the Wayne State community on the very questions that RJJR seeks to address. He serves on the editorial board of the Library Publishing Curriculum and is leading the team developing a revision of the Library Publishing Coalition’s Ethical Framework for Library Publishing. His deep background with open access publishing gives him a familiar perspective on debates about actual and alleged “predatory” publishing and the mechanisms for evaluating appropriate outlets for scholarship. Joshua identifies as a white cisgendered man.

Matt Ruen is the Scholarly Communications Outreach Coordinator for the Grand Valley State University Libraries. As a scholarly communication librarian, his responsibilities include advocacy and education on open access publishing as well as evaluating journals for the library’s open access publishing fund. Matt supports this project with his advocacy experience as well as a strong drive to understand the context of problems. He has long been irritated (and intrigued) by the way scholarly conversations about journal watchlists and “predatory publishing” omit or ignore the way that quality – authority – is constructed and contextual. This frustration, in the form of a Twitter thread, kicked off the group’s collaboration on Reviews: the Journal of Journal Reviews. Matt identifies as a white cisgendered man.

Teresa Schultz is the Social Sciences Librarian at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she leads scholarly communications efforts. This includes educating faculty and students about the complexities of scholarly journals and deciding where to publish, experience which she brings to her role in the project. She is researching how science journalists view and think about the concept of “predatory” publishers. She identifies as a white cisgendered woman.

Brianne Selman is the Scholarly Communications and Copyright Librarian at the University of Winnipeg, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, where she leads Research Support for faculty and students interested in publishing. She also does frequent scholarly journal landscape evaluations, and advises faculty on the intricacies of the scholarly publishing ecosystem, as well as author’s rights in copyright and other arenas. She does research on research, particularly looking at the cultural economics behind concentration in ogopolistic markets, and public infrastructure projects that look for transparent alternatives based in communities of care. The research she does on scholarly publishing and the profit motives behind it, as well as her practical experience in conducting thoughtful, needs-based scholarly journal evaluations, will help to shape the parameters of this project. Brianne is a white settler-Canadian, and is cisgender.

Leila Sterman is an Associate Professor and Scholarly Communication project lead at Montana State University where she runs an institutional repository, hosts multiple journals on OJS, and advises authors at her institution on journal selection. Her previous work on prestige in publishing and communication across disciplines inform her practical work developing this platform and her desire to create a journal that encourages the critical evaluation of resources. She identifies as a white cisgendered woman.

Stephanie Towery is the Copyright Officer at the University Libraries at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. She adds expertise on copyright, plagiarism, and related topics to this team. Stephanie also teaches Legal Information Resources at the Graduate School of Information at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas. Stephanie has a BFA in Acting, a JD, and an MLIS all from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a member of the State Bar of Texas but is not currently practicing. Stephanie identifies as a white cisgendered woman.

[ Featured image by Volodymyr Hryshchenko used under Unsplash Free License ]

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