Saturday, December 31, 2016

Academic publishing is the name of the game

For over three decades I have subscribed to an academic journal which has unfailingly maintained appalling quality. A grab bag of unreadable articles printed on awful-looking stationery – a very good combination, I must say – with a drivelling editorial in laboured sentences adding to the effect, the journal, in its four-decade-long history, has never made an attempt to rise above subpar editing. If I still subscribe to the journal, it is because the association of teachers that publishes the journal is doing good work in promoting the teaching of English in this country. Besides, when journals which are poorer in quality charge a fee for processing submissions, this one doesn’t. That the journal has repeatedly invited me to contribute articles is another factor that has often dissuaded from saying anything bad about it.

What broke this resolve was what I saw on the cover page of the current issue of the journal last evening. Crowning the unaesthetically-designed cover was the logo of an impact factor (IF) company with the metric assigned by the company prominently printed in black on a light blue background in the centre. The title page was also dominated by the IF: it carried not only the logo of the IF company but also a photocopy of the certificate of IF obtained from the company. Apparently, the journal was proud of its new acquisition.

Why shouldn’t it be? A journal being indexed among scholarly journals of the world and its value calculated in scientific terms and announced in the form of a certificate is a major landmark in the growing reputation and credibility of the journal. And if the journal proudly displays the metric assigned as well as the logo of the IF company which assigned the value, what’s wrong?

Oh nothing. Except that the IF seemed a fake metric and the company an impostor. I wanted to be doubly sure, so I wrote to Jeffrey Beall, Librarian, Auraria Library, at the University of Colorado, Denver, USA, who is an authority on the subject; Beall's List of potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers is well-known in scholarly circles. Within two hours, Jeffrey sent me a reply confirming that the IF company was an impostor. The impact factor, he said in the mail, ‘is a completely fake metric... Don’t be fooled. Xxxx is an imposter. If you use the xxxx impact factor, you will be telling all researchers that yours is a fake journal.’

 As a reviewing editor of a few reputable international journals for over a decade, I have had opportunities to witness some of the disturbing trends in the field of academic research in general and academic publishing in particular. Five of them, which have grown to alarming proportions, thanks to overt support and encouragement from third-rate researchers and academics, pose a serious threat to academic publishing:

  1. Predatory open-access publishing (accepting submissions, including hoax and nonsensical papers, as a matter of course, and publishing them on payment of a fee with no peer review [though peer reviewing is duly mentioned on the websites] and without even editing)
  2. Selling and buying authorship of papers – an extension of the widespread practice of ghostwriting theses for money
  3. Hijacking journals (counterfeiting scholarly journals and then spamming academics, especially researchers who are desperately in need of publications in impact-factor journals – a case in point is the hijacking of Revista CEPAL [CEPAL Review], a scholarly journal sponsored by ECLAC, a UN agency)
  4. “Organizing” fake conferences
  5. Assigning fake impact factors

It’s the last that I’m talking about here.

This is what Wikipedia says about IF:

In any given year, the impact factor of a journal is the number of citations received by articles published in that journal during the two preceding years, divided by the total number of articles published in that journal during the two preceding years. For example, if a journal has an impact factor of 3 in 2008, then its papers published in 2006 and 2007 received 3 citations each on average in 2008.

Fake impact factors are produced by companies not affiliated with Thomson Reuters (TR). These are often used by predatory publishers. Consulting TR's master journal list can confirm if a publication is indexed by TR, which is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for obtaining an IF.

And Jeffrey has confirmed that the IF company in question is not affiliated with TR.

Aren’t the publishers and the editors of the journal aware that the company whose services they have used for obtaining an IF is an impostor?

For all I know, they are. You see, academic publishing is by and large – I repeat, by and large; in sequestered pockets, brilliant research is going on generating exceptional papers – a con game. According to an estimate by Jeffrey Beall (https://scholarlyoa.com/2014/01/02/list-of-predatory-publishers-2014/#more-2846), there were 477 predatory open-access journals in 2014; it was a huge leap from 225 in 2013. Assuming that they maintain that rate, there must be over 1500 such journals now. And if you include what Jeffrey calls standalone journals without the platform of a publisher, the number may be 5000; it may be 10,000 if you add genuine but trashy journals carrying useless stuff. In the case of pay-and-use journals, once you pay the submission fee (some journals even collect an editing fee from authors and then publish their papers within a couple of hours!), your paper is published – within twenty-four hours! Thus, you have a publication in a “peer-reviewed” journal which has a fake impact factor for good measure. But who cares if it is fake or genuine? Trashy journals also need the IF status because they cannot hope to gain reputation by virtue of the quality of their articles. Together, all these categories of people – publishers of journals, fake IF companies, and third-rate researchers and academics – play a con game pulling the wool over the eyes of a gullible system which can’t read but can only count.





18 comments:

  1. Greetings Sir, As you mentioned research publishing has become a messy affair.We need watchdog institutions for academic publishing too, I guess, to curb this trend.

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  2. Not just messy; inimical -- the trends I've listed, I mean. Very good research is certainly going on, and it gets published in reputable journals. As for what you call watchdog institutions, isn't the impact-factor system meant for that purpose? The system is helpless because impostors have emerged to short-circuit the process and gain a commercial advantage.

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  3. Dear Sir,
    I am highly appreciated your effort. you mean that Researchers may also lack the commercial skills and experience.

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    1. Isn't the reverse of it the case, Ahdi Hassan?

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  4. Good evening, Sir! The article mirrors the present scenario. It's really a frightening situation for the scholars who want to publish their papers in reputable journals. For instance, I receive a couple of mails daily from so called peer reviewed journals with impact factor demanding more money for quick publication. And many people will fall prey to such kind of publishers. I hope this article will help research scholars to think for a while before they send their papers for publication. Thank you, Sir!

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    1. The idea you are trying to give -- that of the unsuspecting researcher falling victim to the machinations of deceitful publishers -- grossly overstates the case. In a vast majority of cases, the researcher is an accomplice. But for the huge demand from third-rate researchers (with poor research skills and writing abilities) who are ready to pay in order to get published, predatory open-access publishing would not have grown to such alarming proportions. When a so-called research scholar is willing to pay to get his paper published, he is aware that his paper is not fit to be published; he pays in order to get the nonsense published. And the published nonsense with a fake impact factor is accepted by the system in which he is working. It is a vicious circle. That’s the point of the concluding statement of my post: ‘Together, all these categories of people – publishers of journals, fake IF companies, and third-rate researchers and academics – play a con game pulling the wool over the eyes of a gullible system which can’t read but can only count.’

      Some of the current trends in higher education are disturbing. People who shouldn't be teaching at all are holding faculty positions in colleges and universities. Responding to the pressure from their systems to do research and publish papers in order to sustain or further their career, these people, who are not even fit to teach, make forays into research and publishing for which they have neither the aptitude nor the skills. In the process, they cause irreparable damage to academic publishing. In many private engineering colleges, increments are linked to research degrees: if you fail to earn a PhD degree within 5 or 7 years of your appointment, you won't get any more increments. But for this and the incentives that accompany research degrees, most teachers wouldn’t think of research at all. When I started my teaching career over three decades ago, there were just three PhD-holders in a college with 100-strong faculty. The scramble over the slippery slope of research by teachers who couldn’t even walk steadily let alone climb started only when the UGC announced incentives for research degrees.

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  5. Dear sir, Greetings! Your article is an eye opener to many research scholars and teachers. As you rightly pointed out, a few trends in our higher education are perturbing. Yielding to the pressure mounted on them, the scholars and the teachers publish papers to sustain their career despite knowing the fact that their papers are not worthy of publication. Moreover, the recruiters of late, are also bothered about the number of publications a candidate has- unmindful of their credibility.

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  6. Dear sir,

    Your writing about unworthy paper publications and misleading publishers reminded me of a large number of fake publications in the society. One of it would be with regard to my friend who wrote a paper and brought it for the proof reading, the article was found to have been similar to the ideas and also to the writing of some other research publication.Nevertheless, that article was pubished by the same journal.

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    1. I wouldn't be surprised to know that the journal that published that plagiarised stuff is a peer-reviewed one.

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  7. Dear Sir, Greetings of the day!
    As rightly pointed by Dr Vijaya Lakshmi that your paper is an eye opener to many research scholars and teachers.
    True sir, it seems that, these days, some of the publishers are for the authors not for the readers. This has been the current problem. It’s also like these (some) publishers need authors more than authors need publishers. Recently, I got a call from some unknown publisher asking me to publish a book. When I told him that I was on the way writing my experiences, he provoked me to write a lengthy note on it so that he would make it a book. I got excited and agreed with him. Later he told me the sum and substance of the process. He told me to pay 18,000 initially so that he would hire a few ghost writers who could help me write, edit and so on. I fell uncertain and pressed the red button, the call ended.
    One of my friends suggested me to write blogs than going for publications in some of the journals who charge ranging from 1000 to 2500 rupees for a publication. Some say instant publication, some, publication in twenty four hours and so on. Sir, could you please suggest me weather writing blogs can replace publications.
    Thank You sir.

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    1. No, a blog is only a blog, and you cannot expect it to be recognized as publications by academia. But, our system doesn't insist that your publications should be in indexed journals with an IF; papers published in any academic journal with an ISSN number is accepted, even if the journal has only an online presence without any publisher's platform.

      Most publishers charge a fee. And you know what the fee is for. It is for publishing whatever you submit, however nonsensical it may be. And if one can't write even nonsense, one can pay more and get it written and then get it published. The same service provider can do both!

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  8. Hello, sir. A very interesting and critical read!

    I feel that the UGC also stands accused of destroying the fabric of serious academic publishing with its policies that encourage researchers to publish as many papers as possible at the cost of quality. I remember reading one of the policies published on the website of a central university. This policy, among other, should have apparently been framed by the UGC. It states that elevation to the next rank in a teacher’s career will be proportional to number of papers published. What’s more, I also heard that when someone applies for a faculty position in a university, those with a publishing record will be given a higher consideration. Well, neither the UGC nor the appointing university seems to be bothered about the quality of publications that a faculty has to his/her “credit.” Numbers seem to matter!

    Though I sound as if I am accusing the UGC and the prevailing system of spoiling the face of academic publishing, I do not want to discount researchers’ and teachers’ willingness to be a part of the publishing mess.

    Secondly, you mentioned about “organizing” fake conferences. Well, sir, I would like to say that conference organizers do not stop with accepting and letting subpar papers being presented, they also take a step forward and publish them in the form of a book with an ISBN. After all, getting an ISBN does not seem to be a strenuous exercise: anyone who applies for it, gets it. Well, sir, in a conference brochure, the line – “Accepted papers will be published with an ISBN” – is bait. Well, many take the bait, and what’s more, papers flood in.

    Everyone is part of this game, not to mention a single name or blame a single system. With the kind of policies and systems we have in place I doubt if we will ever be able to have a clean publishing system.

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    1. Thank you, Kalyan, for dealing with different aspects of the matter in your comment.

      Publications in indexed journals with an impact factor (IF) is a good criterion, and the UGC cannot be faulted on that score. But the UGC must go beyond it and insist that papers published in journals with fake IFs should not be accepted. And the only authentic IF, as far as I know, is the one supplied by Thomson Reuters / Clarivate Analytics.

      Yes, currently, only numbers seem to matter to universities. That’s why I concluded my post with the statement that the system ‘can’t read but can only count.’

      Yes, ISBN is no big deal. Last year, one of our English-teaching fraternity who is no longer on our staff now proudly showed me an impressive-looking book with an ISBN number in which his seminar paper had been published. I opened the book and read the preface. It was little more than a piece of nonsense in unreadable English. And the papers were a perfect match for the preface. During the past decade or so, I have seen quite a lot of this kind of decorated trash. But the problem is that this trash is accepted as publication, and academics who produce a huge amount of trash of this kind even manage to get into universities as professors. My idea of a paper is different, and I have shared it with you several times on different occasions.

      Academic fraud has different faces. Do you know that it’s possible to buy even Twitter followers? A British celebrity did this a couple of years ago. Do you know how? By spending a few hundred pounds/dollars. She had money and she used it to buy 20,000 followers to boost her profile! This was exposed by the Sunday Times.

      That reminds me of something else. We organized a State-level workshop on TBLT. Two faculty members of an engineering college in some other town (Bhimavaram?) who were nowhere near Gudlavalleru that day managed to get certificates of participation in the workshop (signed by me and our Principal). I came to know of it much later. The certificates are fake certificates because the teachers never attended the workshop. And I was tricked (by one or more of our own departmental colleagues) into issuing those fake certificates. Isn’t it ironical that a person who issued a fake certificate should be cautioning people against fake Ifs, fake journals, and fake conferences?


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    3. Sir, I would like to add another point: I think academic fraud has yet another face, i.e., publishing so-called research papers in the form of a book. These days, we receive a good number of mails requesting us to send our papers for publication in a book. These books carry, say, fifteen to twenty papers. Of course, it goes without saying; these books do have an ISBN, and even carry the name of a publishing house.

      If a person would like to publish a book with his name as editor (well, no editing takes place at all), he sends mails to several people requesting them to send their papers. He also states, in the mail, that the book will be published by a “reputed” (perhaps, the only place where this word is appropriately used) publisher. Well, apparently, no publishing house would have commissioned him to bring out a book. It is his decision. He even collects, for example, Rs 2000 to 2500 plus shipment charges to publish a paper. Well, a lot of money gets into his wallet. That’s not all, a lot of credit to his name. Books seem to carry more value than just papers published in journals!

      I am really surprised to hear that people can also buy followers on Twitter, sir. Nothing seems to be impossible these days.

      Well, sir, you did not issue a fake certificate. In fact, we only came to know of it much later, may be, after a month or two, if I am right. As you said, you were only tricked into issuing a certificate. The whole act, I think, speaks of how slick some people are in getting the certificates signed and sending them to those who were nowhere near the workshop.

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  10. Another shocking thing is the Plagiarism check, Sir. Recently I started receiving requests from some friends to "Rewrite" some sentences in their papers and theses. One recent person made the request and sent me the document of her HOD in which some lines are highlighted (detected to have been copied, I believe). She was asked to "rewrite" them "without using the internet" and she asked for my help. I don't know what her HOD meant by "without using the internet". (He did and hence the problem?). Almost the whole document is full of colours!

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  11. Involved here are a whole lot of ethical issues, Prasangi. I don't know why every teacher in higher education must do research and write papers for publication. Teachers who have no aptitude for research do research and produce copy-and-paste versions of papers for the sake of incentives. Pay-and-use predatory journals won't have any difficulty publishing them, but copyright violation may land them in trouble. Hence this drama of returning papers where the copyright software has detected violations, and English teachers being requested to replace those sentences. But, this is a minor issue.

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