Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Predatory publishing — in which bogus journals publish academic research for a fee — threatens to undermine science in SA.

This is the warning from academics at Stellenbosch University‚ who say Blade Nzimande’s Department of Higher Education and Training has wasted up to R300m on research grants to scientists whose work ended up in sham journals.

Johann Mouton and Astrid Valentine say between 2005 and 2014, more than a quarter of the research output at three universities ended up in bogus journals. They are Mangosuthu University of Technology in Durban; the University of Fort Hare in Alice; and Walter Sisulu University in Mthatha.

The two academics‚ from the Centre for Research on Evaluation‚ Science and Technology‚ say urgent action is needed from the Department of Higher Education and Training‚ the Council on Higher Education and the National Research Foundation.

"[Predatory publishing] poses a serious challenge to science‚" they say in the South African Journal of Science. "If it continues to increase at the rate of growth seen in the last five years‚ [it] may well become accepted practice in some disciplines and at some universities. Not only will it affect the very fabric of the science system (our confidence in the peer-review system)‚ but it will also undermine the trust and confidence of the general public in science and its products."

In the decade they analysed‚ Mouton and Valentine found 3‚906 South African papers in journals they classified as probably or possibly predatory. Many of their authors had received Department of Higher Education and Training grants averaging R100,000 to complete their work. "Young and inexperienced scholars are often advised by senior academics to publish in such journals without knowing that this may compromise their academic career‚" they say.

The 47 journals they identify as predatory appeared on a list recognised by the Department of Higher Education and Training for funding purposes. "This means that academics were within their right to submit these papers for subsidy purposes‚ and no ‘rule’ of the funding framework was violated. But ... most of these journals do violate the basic rules of ethical publishing and research integrity and should therefore be avoided."

The National Research Foundation warned against predatory publishing in March‚ saying it would decline funding applications linked to "unethical and unscholarly practices".

Narend Baijnath‚ CEO of the Council on Higher Education‚ said he shared their concern. "Predatory publishing ... causes irreparable harm to the peer-driven knowledge production and dissemination system‚" he told TimesLIVE. "[It] is driven primarily by the profit motive."

The council had been awaiting the outcome of the investigation by Mouton and Valentine and supported their call for a national indaba to discuss the problem, saying, "[This] will be constrained only by the council’s lack of resources in the current financial year."

Baijnath said the Department of Higher Education and Training funding system "has to be brought under review to ensure any perceived weaknesses that are being exploited are remedied‚ and that the journals accredited for subsidy are regularly updated to remove predatory [publishers]".

The council was also introducing a new system of reviewing universities‚ "to ensure [they] give systematic attention to the scourge of predatory publishing‚ and have in place internal processes of review and scrutiny that pick up dubious journals, long before an article is published".

The Department of Higher Education and Training did not respond to questions.

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