Predatory publishing an academic scourge
Predatory publishing is a form of academic phishing — except that the victims and the institutions they represent also benefit somewhat from the scam. Does it sound like a winwin situation?
In fact, it is quite the contrary. The phenomenon, which involves an everevolving series of sham online journals publishing academic articles for a fee, is undermining the quality of academic research and, says Professor Adèle Thomas of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) College of Business and Economics, should be stopped.
While predatory publishing is a global problem, a recent paper written by Johann Mouton and Astrid Valentine and published by Stellenbosch University’s Centre of Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) highlighted its prevalence in SA. Mouton and Valentine revealed 4, 246 papers that qualified for Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) subsidies between 2005 and 2014 were published in 48 journals classified as either “probably or possibly predatory”.
The greatest increase in predatory publishing has occurred since 2011 and, says Thomas, it’s getting worse.
“Every day, I get several solicitations from predatory journals asking me to submit publications,” she says. “It’s a case of exploiting the openaccess model (which makes it easier and cheaper for journals to publish articles that incur page fees). Often counterfeit publishers use (or closely emulate) the names of reputable journals and then prey on researchers, offering to publish their papers. All predatory publishers need to open for business is a website.”
Moreover, these operators are willing sellers in a sea of willing buyers. With academics under pressure to publish as many papers as possible and universities benefiting from DHET grants for the output (introduced in 2003), authors and their institutions are arguably not as discerning about where they publish as they should be.
“Although some insist it is largely unsuspecting young academics who fall prey to predatory journals, it’s not that simple,” says Thomas. “There is huge pressure on academics to publish and, while universities say staff are evaluated on teaching, administration, service to the community and research output, the unspoken rule is that academics are primarily evaluated on publication numbers. The proliferation of fake journals combined with the need for academics to publish extensively is a ringed formula for predatory publishing.”
Part of the challenge is identifying predatory publishers and policing them. Because, like most scammers, they come and go, and reinvent themselves overnight, it’s difficult to warn academics against specific names. And some are more convincing than others. In fact, most of the journals classified predatory by the CREST paper appeared on the DHET’s list for funding purposes, which means academics were within their rights to apply for subsidies for their submissions.
The trouble, says Thomas, is the quality is “quite appalling”; predatory publishers are unethical; offer little, dubious or no peer reviews (some invite authors to recommend their own reviewers); and have no credibility.
“The attraction for academics is that predatory journals make getting articles published quick and easy, and the turnaround time is quick, which is not the case with credible publishers,” she says.
“For example, I have an article that has been accepted by the South African Journal of Business Management, which is internationally accredited. It was accepted in March this year, and it may still be a year and a half before it is published. Predatory journals will publish work within four months — following receipt of payment, of course.”
Thomas believes the solution is threefold: increase regulations and control; offer appropriate rewards; and provide awareness, mentorship and guidance about the value of publishing only with quality journals.
While awareness about predatory publishing in increasing and authorities have begun taking steps to alleviate it, Thomas believes more needs to done. The DHET, she says, needs to be more circumspect about the subsidy. Where academics are shown to have published research in predatory journals, the department should demand subsidies are paid back. “This will encourage universities to apply greater control,” she says. “I don’t think that the institutions are always unaware that their staff are getting articles published in predatory journals. There are invariably clues. For example, it’s not possible for an academic to publish 40 quality articles a year. The subsidies are attractive, but the quality of the work is brought to question. If universities were obliged to pay back the money, they’d put controls in place.”
Correlating subsidies and quality publications will, says Thomas, further encourage academics to focus on quality, rather than proliferation and ease of publication. “If academics only publish one article a year, but it appears in a quality journal with high impact, that should be rewarded accordingly.”
Importantly, the value of publishing only with legitimate and transparent scholarly journals with editorial procedures and boards that properly oversee the process of peer review needs to be explained and instilled in all academics. “Young academics in particular need to be mentored and guided to help prevent them falling prey to predatory publishers, who, let’s face it, aren’t likely to disappear soon,” she says.
THE ATTRACTION FOR ACADEMICS IS THAT PREDATORY JOURNALS MAKE GETTING ARTICLES PUBLISHED QUICK AND EASY