16 January 2021

There has been an exponential increase in publications by the South African higher education sector since the implementation of the revised funding framework in 2005. While the quantity of research output has increased significantly, there are concerns over the quality of university publication output. From 2005 to 2017, the number of publications has more than doubled, with an increase in journal articles, books, book chapters, and conference proceedings. The high rate of increase across all publication output types can also be attributed to the increase in the number of accredited journals as well as the subsidy amount.

Against this background, in March 2017, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) commissioned the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) at Stellenbosch University, to investigate the quality of research outputs in South Africa and make recommendations about how the current system can be changed and strengthened to ensure that only the best and highest quality South African publications are subsidised. The report was recently approved for distribution by the Minister of DHET.

Concerns about publication output quality

In order to meet the requirements of performance appraisals, rating systems and so on, the “demand” to publish continues to place huge pressure on academics to publish as many papers as they can. This raises the question whether this demand to publish at any cost has not compromised the quality of the publications.

The advent of predatory journals (and predatory publishers) as well as other questionable publication practices is further cause for concern. Another concern is the practice of some institutions to submit claims for subsidies by scholars and scientists who do not have a formal or official affiliation with the university concerned to access subsidy funding. These examples of unethical and dubious publication practices reflect the growing tension between maintaining a high standard of quality and ethics amid the demand for quantity and growth in output.

The report consists both of extensive findings of an analysis of the most recent trends in the quality and integrity of research publications funded under the DHET research output framework. It also contains a number of recommendations to improve the current system.

➜ Download The Quality of South Africa’s Research Publications

Professor Johann Mouton is the director of CREST at Stellenbosch University.  His CREST team members included Herman Redelinghuys (database specialist), Johann Spies (database manager), Dr Jaco Blanckenberg (postdoctoral fellow), Lynn Lorenzen (information officer), Kyle Ford (database assistant), Annemarie Visagie (senior research assistant) and Marthie van Niekerk (Centre manager).