Reckless driving often leads to accidents, as the driver loses control over the accelerator and it’s too late to press the brakes. Sometimes, the brakes fail as well.

In academia, the fanaticism to publish fast and earn quick brownie points is turning the pitch slippery and accident prone. The accelerator here are the ‘predatory journals.’

Years ago, Jeffrey Beall of University of Colorado observed that there are publishers who lure authors and researchers to quickly publish their articles and then they charge money for the fast publishing. There are no quality checks, or a true and robust editorial board to test the academic sanctity. Beall called this breed of publications ‘predatory journals’ and later went on to create a directory of such journals called the ‘Beall’s List.’

Genuine research shows that in 2015, the market for predatory journals was around 100 million USD. There is no doubt that in recent years, the number has gone up. The emergence and the fast pace of growth of the predatory journal market is no less than a global threat, slow poisoning and paralysing human capital, that too in an irreversible manner.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that in the long run, the effect would be many times deadlier than the one caused by the twin atomic explosions in Japan. In that case, the damage was limited to a country or a few generations. Here, the damage is global and for generations ever after.

Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

Scopus index and better research practices

Realising the potential threat, perhaps, India’s University Grants Commission (UGC) recently published a document titled ‘Guidance Document Good Academic Research Practices’. Indeed, this is a good initiative to promote genuine research in Indian universities.

There are few issues that need to be highlighted at this point, if at all the UGC’s efforts are to be really effective. The UGC alone can’t be held responsible to cure or take preventive measures to reduce the pace of degradation in the domain of higher education.

In recent times, most universities have been keen on ‘scopus’ indexed publications. ‘Scopus’ is an abstract and citation database launched in 2004 by Elsevier, a Netherlands-based information and analytics company specialising in scientific, technical, and medical content. It covers nearly 40,000 titles from approximately 12,000 publishers across the globe. Any publication covered by scopus is considered to be of high quality and publishing in scopus indexed journals is considered to be prestigious.

Also read ‘The Road To Internationalising Higher Education in India Begins at Home

The flip side of this is the fact that in this race to publish, many land up in publishing in predatory journals that have got the ‘scopus’ status. Many of them eventually get delisted, but then they come back with a new name. Beall’s List provides greater clarity on this.

It is hard to believe that India’s UGC or National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) is unaware of these facts. A valid question, thus, arises at this juncture – should scopus be the only parameter for potential research?

This typical mandate has actually given rise to a market of predatory journals, and research is being compromised. Most institutes of higher learning that are within the endless race of ranking in some form or the other, have actually fallen prey to this corruption. In other words, they have become potential customers – knowingly or otherwise.

Perils of ‘Publish or Perish’

One has to understand that some faculties are good at teaching, some are good at research and few are good in both. But the whole mantra of ‘publish or perish’ (P-o-P) that has plagued higher education for long has actually done more bad than good.

Interestingly, this is another example of blindly following the typical American higher education model. The over-emphasis on publishing research papers has actually demeaned the intrinsic value of the resulting scholarship for many. This is simply because scholars, in a haste, publish whatever they can manage. Ideally, they should have invested substantial time to develop a significant research agenda.

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The pressure to P-o-P also eats up substantial time and focus that could have otherwise been used to teach undergraduate and postgraduate courses with utmost care and passion. Further, nowhere can one see that the rewards for published research papers is much higher than exceptional teaching. Therefore, faculties favour the former whenever there is a choice.

In most cases, the focus of faculties remains on research publications. This single-minded focus on the professor-as-researcher may cause faculty to neglect or be unable to perform some other responsibilities.

Predatory publications

The modus operandi of predatory journals entails a typical business model wherein they lure unwary researchers and professors who, driven by the aforementioned globalised ethos of American higher education, always look out for publication channels for their research. These journals promote themselves to potential authors through bulk or SPAM emails.

They set up fictitious editorial boards along with an article publication fee. They do this by hijacking some legitimate journals and creating fraudulent websites impersonating the legitimate journal in order to attract submissions and fraudulently collect article publication charges. 

The whole game has been further propelled by the emergence of ranking agencies – both government and private. Ranking can be seen as a potential signal device to outsiders regarding the quality of education in these institutes. Herein, the number of Scopus indexed journals are counted.

To increase the ranking, the faculties end up publishing in these predatory journals, which often get delisted within few years. However, the institute gets the brownie points for the years these journals were in the Scopus list. The broader question is how at all do these predatory journals get entry in the prestigious platform? 

Towards a more ethical academia

Interestingly, the rise of predatory publishing happened during the transition from physical publishing to digital. The intention was good, but the way the transition was practiced was erroneous, and finally the digital databases essentially became a lucrative revenue stream for both commercial and university journal publishers.

In this, the paradigm shift happened with the advent of the ‘open access’ publishing movement. This new model actually argued for a structural change in the subscription and licensing model of journal economics.

No doubt, predatory journals and their publishers have degraded the quality of research. They have also hindered the growth of scholarly acumen. But can we blame just the publisher? Not really.

The authors and the institutes who have blindly followed the path of ‘publish or perish’ are equally responsible for this. The survival of the fittest model was perhaps wrongly conceived by these authors and their host institutions. Just for the sake of promotion (at individual level) and ranking (at the institute level), the number of papers have increased.

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The institutes may think of referring to citations rather than merely the number of publications. UGC alone can’t do much unless the institutes of higher learning also take proactive steps. They should ensure that the journal published should be able get a minimum number of citations within a stipulated and rational period of time. They may also think of coming up with awards based based on the quality of the journals and papers in each field. In summary, what is important is to become innovative. 

Survival is important, but should we really survive just for the sake of survival? Examples are there where the authorities have realised this hard fact and refrained from mass publishing and promoted quality publishing, becoming became the changemakers from the positive side. Unless we innovate and harness the human capital, no matter whatever we do, the education system will gradually move towards mediocrity and finally stagnancy. 

Else, the ranking process based on these parameters will soon lose relevance. Borrowing from the famous poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, it is fair to say for now – ranking ranking everywhere, not a single rank to trust!

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Featured image (representational) by Kiyun Lee on Unsplash.