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African academics are being caught in the predatory journal trap

There are sharks in the research water – predatory journals are becoming more common in Africa. Shutterstock

African academics are being caught in the predatory journal trap

Academic journal articles are the lifeblood of many researchers. These articles bring exposure, prestige, and money for individual academics and their institutions.

In South Africa, the Department of Higher Education and Training paid almost R3 billion in remittances to universities in the 2014/15 financial year. This was for conference proceedings, books and book chapters, as well as for students who graduated with masters and doctoral degrees. The lion’s share of the money was for academic journal articles.

Where there is a great deal of money involved, there’s a risk of opportunists trying to muscle in on the market. That’s what has happened in the journal industry with the appearance of predatory journals and publishers.

African academics and universities have been caught in the predatory journal web. It is imperative that the continent’s universities start taking this threat to their integrity seriously.

Accreditation and rewards

South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training issues a list each year of local journals accredited for subsidy purposes. Such journals are deemed to support the department’s policy of rewarding original, quality research output that promotes the dissemination of new knowledge in all academic fields.

Journals that appear on the Thomson Reuters Web of Science and on the International Bibliography of the Social Sciences also qualify for subsidy purposes.

Universities are keen to increase this source of revenue. They reward academics for publishing in accredited journals, often by sharing the resulting subsidy between the institution and the individual academic. Often, social rewards accompany the financial ones. Recognition, “top researcher” awards and promotions are usually predicated on the quantity of research output. Research quality, unfortunately, often takes a back seat.

The predators have pounced

It did not take long for opportunists to see the market gap. In the past few years there has been an insidious rise in predatory journals and publishers. Jeff Beall, an academic librarian at the University of Denver in Colorado, describes predatory journals as ones that exploit the page fee model for self-gain.

The paying of page fees is an historically acceptable academic practice: when an article is accepted, an author or their institution pays the publisher a fee for the work involved in producing that article. Now, though, it’s been transformed into a money-making business.

Predatory journals transgress all the rules of research integrity. They typically have no clear focus area. They produce huge volumes of articles – sometimes up to 200 each month while the average number for a sound, accredited journal would be ten to 15 over a two-month period.

There are other clues: the method of scientific processes followed is badly written or non-existent, meaning no other researcher can replicate these studies. Authors cite themselves almost exclusively, rather than drawing on other researchers’ work. These journals’ editorial boards comprise mainly of people from unknown universities. They promise short review periods and, upon acceptance of manuscripts, an equally short time period for publication.

Unfortunately, these journals often appear on the International Bibliography of Social Sciences or Web of Science lists. This means they attract government subsidies. It usually takes time before these predators are discovered and struck off the lists.

African examples

Africa is not immune to these journals. In 2012 the African Journal of Business Management, headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, had about 100 journal titles in its stable. In 2011 alone, this journal published more than 1200 articles. Individual authors or their institutions paid page fees of around R5000 per article to a New York bank account. That’s an estimated income of R6 million per year.

It took a professor from the University of Melbourne and other academics to sound the alarm with Thomson Reuters, which runs the Web of Science. It was deregistered as a Web of Science journal – and many of its previous contributors switched their allegiance to the Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences.

In the 18 months between January 2013 and the end of June 2014, 1731 articles appeared in this journal, garnering an estimated income of almost R4 million for its publisher. It was at the centre of a scandal involving several academics from the University of South Africa. Beall added it to his list of predatory journals in 2015.

So what can be done?

These predatory journals are often only exposed when they’re been operating for a long time. It’s imperative that, when university authorities find a journal they fear may be predatory, they report it immediately to the Department of Higher Education and Training. The journal should then be reviewed for subsidy qualification and, if it fails, the department must contact the Web of Science and the International Bibliography of Social Sciences.

There’s an ethical dilemma here. From a “legal” point of view, if a predatory journal appears on the department’s list and so qualifies for subsidy, why shouldn’t that subsidy be claimed? Universities can lose out on a great deal of money by being honest.

For example, I studied the contributions by one specific academic in the Mediterranean Journal of Social Science over an 18-month period. There were 46 articles, which generated R120,000 each in subsidy for his university. That’s more than R5.5 million.

The bigger question to ask is whether it is ethical to claim subsidy for articles that appear in such academically dubious sources. It is here that universities must apply moral conscience in line with academic and research ethics.

If there is cause for concern, universities should audit journals in which academics publish. Some would argue that interfering with an academic’s choice of journal in which to publish transgresses academic freedom. This doesn’t hold water: the page fees are almost always paid or subsidised by the university or an academic’s faculty or department. They have a right to ensure this money, some of which comes from the tax purse, is properly spent.

Universities also need to consider their scholarly reputations. Publishing in junk or predatory journals makes both academics and their employers look bad.

Long-term costs

There are long term, less visible costs to ignoring predatory journals. Brands and reputations can be destroyed, costing universities the chance to collaborate internationally with well regarded institutions.

If the fundamental values of academic research are constantly transgressed in the scramble to publish, Africa’s academy will suffer in the long run. Young academics will learn bad habits from their established colleagues who write for such journals. And, by default, those academics who strive to publish in journals known for their high impact and rigorous quality are being placed at a disadvantage.

As long as quantity trumps quality, these academics will miss out on promotional opportunities and financial rewards.