How to find scientific journal articles and avoid predatory or biased publications

posted in: Education, General science | 0


Old Popular Science cover used in the article on how to find scientific journal articles.
Figure 1: The cover art used in the February 1921 issue of Popular Science magazine. (Public Domain, because it’s old.)

This is a straightforward post on how to find scientific journal articles and avoid some similar-looking bullshit.  It is meant as a follow-up companion to a previous post on why reading these articles is important.

Where to find journal articles:

Open access journals:

Scientific advances benefit, and belong to, everyone.  This basic principal is what spawned the open-access journal movement.

On a bit of a side note, open access journals do have some of their own issues.  And they are a bit contentious.  After all, just because science belongs to us all doesn’t mean that it should be given freely to us all.  We all pay for other books and magazines, plus all our other stuff, without expecting them to be given freely.  Worse, open access publication often comes at the expense of the scientists themselves.

Anyhow, the first place to use for finding open access journals is the Directory of Open Access Journals.  Oxford University’s Oxford Open is another good choice.  And the “advanced search” option at Science Direct has a handy “open access only” option.

Additionally, a lot of publicly-funded research is freely available.  (Despite the fact that the public funding doesn’t help pay for the review, editing, publication, or delivery of the research.)  For example, NASA, the GSA, and NOAA all provide a huge amount of research and raw data to the public.

Here’s a short list, with links, of some good (generally high impact) journals that are all open access:

  • The Public Library of Science (PLOS) has many good publications (PLOS ONE for general science)
  • Nature Communications provides great articles on pretty much all aspects of natural science
  • Royal Society Open Science provides articles on all aspects of science, mathematics and engineering
  • Scientific Reports is high quality and covers all science disciplines
  • The Geological Society of America’s GSA Today provides great Earth science articles.

Other options for finding journals:

When you’re looking for information, if “Google is your friend,” Google Scholar is your smart, well-educated friend that doesn’t buy special juice blenders because some charismatic charlatan convinced them their chakras were misaligned.  You can often find open access articles from traditionally subscription-based publications.  (This means the authors payed the journal to provide it to you for free, which highlights how abjectly stupid arguments of “greedy scientists” are.)

Additionally, if you come across an article that’s behind a paywall, try searching for the title on “regular” Google.  Often a pre-publication version is offered by one of the research institutions associated with the article.

You can also contact the corresponding author of an article and ask for a copy.  They are typically happy to share and this doesn’t violate any copyright or ownership agreements with most journals.  (However, they are busy, so keep that in mind when writing your request and awaiting its fulfilment.)

Another route is a good old library.  Some university libraries are open to the public.  And these libraries spend many, many thousands of dollars on subscriptions to scientific journals.  Sadly, plenty of the undergraduate students don’t use these subscriptions, so you might as well.

Finally, if you’re really desperate, you could always purchase an article or a subscription to a journal.

Where not to find journal articles:

Predatory journals:

One major drawback that has gained traction thanks to the open access movement is the phenomenon of predatory journals.  These journals quack like ducks but sink like stones.  They hop like frogs but their butts aren’t watertight.

Predatory journals are predatory to authors.  They operate by posing as legitimate journals and soliciting publications from researchers.  But, since they are open access, the authors are required to pay to have their work (hard work) published.  Worst of all, these predators are only incentivised by earnings, so they regularly publish spurious garbage to make a buck.

Once they’ve captured the rights to a publication, these predatory journals don’t do much else.  So, the vital editing, peer-reviewing, and publishing never happens.  Authors, and scientists are basically tricked into paying a company to make their work disappear into a pit of obsoleteness.  As a reader, you should beware of these journals so that you don’t encourage such behaviour.  This will also ensure that you avoid giving credence to work that has not been subjected to arduous peer review.  (Furthermore, as mentioned above, you really can’t be sure what you’re getting; it could be stupid; it could be really stupid.)

The best way to be sure that you’re not about to read a predatory journal is by googling that journal’s background information.  Google it’s impact factor.  If it’s less than 1 it’s certainly suspect.  Look up the journal in Wikipedia.  This will often have suspicions on predatory practices right up front.  Another option is to look it up on Beall’s list, which is a compilation of suspected predatory journals.  However, Beall’s list is in discontinuous operation, may be biased, and is definitely controversial, so caution and a grain of salt should be taken.

Biased journals:

Even worse are biased journals, or pseudojournals (as in fake journals).  These are publications that only exist to support their own preconceived agenda.  Maybe the best example of this is Answers Research Journal.  Right up front, their own description of their goal is explained as a presentation of articles “from the perspective of the recent Creation and the global Flood within a biblical framework.”

To explain how back-asswards this is, we need to remember that science is not a compilation of facts.  It is a system for testing nature—for testing truth.  Or, as Steven Novella put it:

“There’s nothing magical about science.  It is simply a systematic way for carefully and thoroughly observing nature and using consistent logic to evaluate results.”

Given the systematic nature of science and its goal of truth finding, Answers Research Journal cannot be scientific.  You can’t start with an assumption, and set out only to find evidence in support of that assumption, and still call yourself scientific.  And, more importantly, you are no longer in the pursuit of truth.  There is no science “from a certain perspective.”  And science restricted to a specific “framework” is just a wolf in sheep’s clothing—or, in this case, a preacher in a lab coat (relax your knees, it’s apt).

Scientists don’t have the luxury of keeping to a specific comfort zone.  So, if you see a journal that does this, it’s not a scientific journal.  It’s just an opinion rag that’s posing as science to either pathetically reinforce their own fragile notions or maliciously manipulate your opinions of reality.

However, you often need to be able to assess you own biases to identify these biased journals.  (Unless the journal is upfront with their bias, like Answers Research Journal.)  For example, if you think global warming is a liberal hoax, you may erroneously think that reputable scientific journals are biased because they don’t publish articles that fit your bias.  But really, they don’t publish articles that fit your bias because your bias doesn’t happen to comport with reality.  So critical thinking skills should be employed (as always).


There are many ways to find scientific journal articles.  So, you really have no excuse for not reading them.

Jared Peters

Jared Peters

Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.
Jared Peters
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Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.