Bogus journals weighing down research in India

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By
Apr 04, 2017 11:45 AM IST

Academic research in India is plagued by predatory publishing. Reseachers are increasingly opting for these journals, which are run without any peer-review procedures.

While India takes pride in its ISRO satellite launches, academic research in the country is being hollowed out by practices like predatory publishing.

Experts read an academic journal at a library.(HT File)
Experts read an academic journal at a library.(HT File)

The results of a global sting operation by Polish researchers published in March revealed that 48 so-called scientific journals were happy to have a fictitious scientist – Anna O Szust – on their editorial board. Interestingly, Oszust is Polish for fraud.

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“Thousands of academic journals do not aspire to quality. They exist primarily to extract fees from authors,” the Polish researchers said in their paper. “These ‘predatory’ journals exhibit questionable marketing schemes, follow lax or non-existent peer-review procedures, and fail to provide scientific rigour or transparency.”

G Mahesh, head of the International Standard Serial Number International Centre (ISSN) in India, has come across hundreds of such applications with bizarre journal titles, fake addresses and non-existent editorial board members in the last three years.

An example is the Springer Group of Journals, an MP-based outfit that sounds similar to Springer Nature -- a reputed publishing group.

The website of a publishing company called Springer. (Screengrab)
The website of a publishing company called Springer. (Screengrab)

Feeding this frenzy of publishing low-quality journals is the UGC’s method of calculating academic performance indicators (APIs). The API system was introduced in 2010 to decide recruitments and promotions. Experts, however, decry the manner in which it rewards quantity instead of quality.

These dubious journals are run as businesses with no regard for academic rigour. When the UGC announced the API system, it granted points for papers published in journals with ISSNs. Since then, India’s ISSN centre has been flooded with applications from publishers who seek the legitimacy of an ISSN number.

However, the ISSN number is a unique numerical code that identifies publications – not a character certificate.

Predatory publishing is an unintended consequence of the open access movement, launched two decades ago to make research easily accessible to the public. When big names in publishing dominated the global market in the past, they could act as gatekeepers for good research. The internet changed all that.

In the current scenario, setting up a publication is as easy as creating a website. These so-called academic journals lure researchers with the promise of quick publication time and names that sound legitimate. As publishing in international journals fetches more points in the API, many bogus Indian publishers prefix their titles with ‘international’ or ‘world’. Or, as seen in the case of Springer Group of Journals, they simply “borrow” the titles of renowned international players.

A big stumbling block to checking this phenomenon is the absence of a universally accepted definition of a predatory journal. Though Jeffrey Beall, an associate professor and librarian at the University of Colorado Denver, decided to make a list of predatory publications in 2008, pressure from publishers brought it down earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Indian researchers are increasingly finding predatory outfits an attractive medium of publication. Almost 35% of the papers published in “cash-seeking, pay-to-publish journals” reportedly come from India.

This figure far exceeds India’s overall share of the world’s scholarly output (4.4% in 2016). The UGC chose to turn a blind eye to the problem until January. After academics cried foul, it came out with a list of 38,000 journals where academics would have to publish for the researcher to earn points in the API system.

However, questions have been raised about the UGC list of journals, considering that several among them figured in Beall’s blacklist.

“We have identified 75 journals that are predatory,” said Vasantha Raju N, an expert.

There is also the matter of cost. Indian authors have used 488 open access journals who charge anywhere between 500 and 3.24 lakh in a period of five years to publish about 15,400 papers. India could be spending as much as US$2.4 million annually on author processing charges, another paper in Current Science found.

This is a problem for a country that spends around 1% of its GDP on research.

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    Malavika Vyawahare tells science and environment stories using words, photos and multimedia. She studied environmental journalism at Columbia University and is based in Delhi.

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