25 August 2021

This article by Ameera Haq-Williams is republished from University World News Africa Edition.

The phenomenon of predatory publishing remains prevalent, as not a week goes by without academics being solicited by these publications to submit journal articles, says Johann Mouton, director of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence for Scientometrics and STI Policy and professor in the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) at Stellenbosch University (SU), South Africa.

Speaking at a webinar hosted by the SU’s research development division on 18 August about research publication practices, he reminded the audience that predatory journals exist for the sole purpose of profit.

“These predators generate profits by charging [excessive] author fees, also known as article processing charges,” while they solicit manuscripts by spamming researchers and use Yahoo and Gmail e-mail addresses.

They dupe unsuspecting researchers into submitting journal articles to them, while there tends to be no peer review.

Mouton explained that such journals pursue profit over contribution to the scientific body of knowledge; while they misrepresent abstracting, indexing and metrics.

Furthermore, they tend to be aggressive in advertising and the solicitation of articles and use flattery. They have inappropriate journal titles and scope, while there is a lack of transparency in governance, editorial and publication practices.

He referred to librarian Jeffrey Beall who, a few years ago, produced two lists: one of standalone predatory journal titles and the other a list of predatory publishers.

The first list contained individual journals which, according to Beall, are predatory journals. For some of these, he provided additional information in support of his judgment.

Beall later shut down his website as he faced threats.

Mouton referred to the Ottawa Declaration, which he co-authored with other academics that indicates: “Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritise self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterised by false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial and publication practices, a lack of transparency, and-or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices.”

Millions are paid by academics to these journals as they are desperate to get their articles published. Mouton cautioned: “They make false claims about indexes and metrics. They list fake journal impact factors. There is no such thing as a Global Index Impact factor. Index Copernicus is a fake index.” Genuine journals are indexed in the Web of Science and Scopus.

He explained that top journals do not approach academics to publish. “None will ever promise to publish an article in three to six weeks. It is not how the science system works.”

However, academics are under pressure to publish and things get complicated when they submit journal articles to recognised journals and it takes up to 18 months to be published. This results in some of them turning to predatory journals.

A spinoff from predatory publishers is the emergence of fake conferences and fake book publishers, said Mouton.

Detrimental to academia

In terms of dubious editorial practices of predatory publishers, Joseph Stromberg in 2014 already refers to a journal article filled with the profane language, “Get me off your fucking mailing list,” authored by computer scientists David Mazières and Eddie Kohler.

The article was a response to unwanted conference invitations. It was submitted by computer scientist Peter Vamplew to the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology, in response to spam from the journal.

Stromberg indicates that the journal automatically accepted the paper — with an anonymous reviewer rating it as “excellent” — and requested a fee of US$150. He argues that this journal claims it conducts peer review, but nobody had actually checked it before it was accepted. The fee was not paid, and the article was not published

To further prove how far reaching the dubious editorial practices of predatory journals are, Australian public health expert, Mike Daube, cooked up a ridiculous CV for his Staffordshire terrier, Ollie.

Under the name Ollie Doll, he put her name forward to predatory journals. The dog sat on the boards of a few academic journals, and one listed her as an associate editor. Daube wanted to prove that scam artists were sending the hard work of scholars to a dog to review.

In South Africa, scientific publishing is linked to subsidies from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

Mouton and his team at CREST undertook a study commissioned by the Academy of Science of South Africa in 2015 that assessed the state of scholarly publishing in the country. “In the course of this study, we became aware of a fairly substantive number of papers that seemed to meet Beall’s criteria related to predatory publishing,” he said.

Subsequently, the DHET indicated to universities that it would not subsidise research that was published in predatory journals. A declining trend in the number of papers published by South African authors in predatory journals ensued, according to Mouton.

study by academics Andrew Kerr and Phillip de Jager argues that the South African government subsidising publication output at universities means those universities not involved in predatory publishing are losing out to those churning out large numbers of low-quality papers that do qualify for a subsidy but that are published in Beall’s list.

In another study in 2017, De Jager, Francois de Kock and Pieter van der Spuy point out that researchers who publish in predatory journals could become research supervisors, or reviewers for journals and since they are accustomed to low research standards, they could spread this.

For Tove Faber Frandsen, in some countries, publishing in deceptive journals can lead to academic or administrative positions achieved without the qualifications and a so-called “zombie professorship”, according to a paper by Mulubrhan Balehegn in 2017.

This has detrimental implications for a society as a whole.

Reputational damage

Other scholars indicate that publishing in predatory journals could damage the reputation of an academic and could result in junk science which could be cited by unsuspecting researchers, thereby legitimising work that has not been peer-reviewed.

Mouton advises that researchers who realise that they have submitted articles to a predatory journal should withdraw them and remove the titles from their CV. Thereafter, they should send the article to a recognised journal, indicating the truth. After this, they could then put the title of the journal article back onto their CV.

Should they suspect that they have been approached by a predatory journal, they should approach the university’s research office or a librarian.

For Mouton, the seriousness of these ‘attacks’ on the publication system in the country has been recognised by the DHET, which is involved in the development of a Research Quality Framework.

This framework is “customised to counteract and sanction persistent cases of unethical, questionable and fraudulent publication practices. This framework will focus on ensuring that the current policy framework is strengthened by closing loopholes as well as introducing new measures to enforce compliance also by universities who are not applying the required controls and validation checks on submissions.”

The second initiative is the development of a (still to be approved) national collaborative programme under the auspices of the University Capacity Development Programme, and in partnership with the universities and other role-players to implement the framework.

This will support the ongoing monitoring, evaluation and analysis of the funding system to ensure optimal and early interventions to strengthen the integrity of publication practices across the system.

However, academics and students have to recognise that they have a responsibility to ensure that their own research and publication practices comply with the highest standards of quality and integrity in scientific research. This responsibility does not lie solely on government and agencies.

“The initial appearance and subsequent proliferation of multiple forms of questionable and unethical practices in South Africa is not unlike the spread of the COVID virus and its different mutations.

“These practices attack the very nature and fabric of the science system. If allowed to continue to spread and flourish unabatedly and without the necessary sanctions, public trust in science will inevitably decline. The consequence for public funding of science in the country could be devastating,” said Mouton.