As a public service, I am slowly building a Literary Contest Guidelines Link list; I'm doing this because paying entrants ought to be well-informed about what a contest offers, in terms of entry costs, transparency, fairness, and awards.
The first place to start: Foetry's archive, where you'll find accounts of literary magazine contest misbehavior and cronyism. If these accounts don't cause you to run in the other direction, then look at the guidelines themselves. If something about the guidelines isn't clear, then you should e-mail the people in charge of the contest. If they don't answer via e-mail, forget 'em. If you are considering plunking down $20-$30 to enter a contest, you should not have to jump through the SASE hoop.
If the answers are less than satisfactory, that in itself offers important information, and you might consider moving on.
In my opinion, fee-based literary contests should offer the following information (along with the usual deadlines, $ amount of prizes, proper size of envelope, etc.):
1. Name of judges, including their institution affiliations (current and past) and credentials.
2. Explanation of the screening process; for example, how many of the manuscripts do the "big name" judges actually read? Many entrants enter contests because of a certain judge, but if the judge only reads 5% of the manuscripts, then you will have probably wasted your money. Your manuscript is likely to be screened by graduate students, faculty, and staff.
3. A judging time line and when entrants may expect to hear the results.
4. How the contest is funded (e.g., contest fee or grant driven, either private or government). Fee-driven contests can be dicey, especially if the number of entrants doesn't meet the magazine's financial expectations.
5. If a university or college contest, whether students, faculty, and/or staff from the sponsoring institution are eligible (if they are, you might want to consider looking elsewhere).
6. If, for your fee, you will receive something tangible in return, such as a book or subscription. Beware of intangible services, such as Tupelo's promise to comment on every poetry manuscript submitted to the contest. I recommend that you avoid contests that don't offer something tangible in return, other than just a reading fee.
7. If the selection of winners will be guaranteed. Only freebie contests should have the "We reserve the right not to award prizes" disclaimer.
Team members, if I have forgotten something, let me know.
Until literary contests begin policing themselves, it will be up to YOU to do your research, and when you see less than stellar guidelines, hold onto your checkbook, AND let us know about slippery guidelines (along with a link). We WILL take them to task.
Best to all,