Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The Department of Higher Education and Training paid R100m-R300m in academic subsidies for articles published in predatory journals for more than a decade, new research shows.

Academics across the world are concerned about a spike in predatory journals, which are a scam aimed at making money out of researchers.

At best, South African academics, like those in many other countries, have fallen victim to this form of publishing. At worst, they knowingly published in shoddy journals to access the department’s publishing subsidies.

The government pays a university about R100,000 for a qualifying academic article, which has to be published in a journal accredited by the Department of Higher Education. Some universities pool this money in a kitty to fund all research; others allow academics to pocket a percentage.

An analysis by Stellenbosch University researchers found that from 2005 to 2014, South African academics published more than 4,200 papers in 47 journals that were either "probably or possibly predatory".

Subsidies of R100m were paid for publishing in journals that were "probably" predatory; and R200m for "possibly" predatory journals.

The researchers at the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (Crest) and the Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy did not include an estimate of how much institutions had paid for articles to be published in predatory journals.

US librarian Jeffrey Beall coined the term, and in 2012 provided a description in the prestigious scientific journal Nature: "Then came predatory publishers, which publish counterfeit journals to exploit the open-access model in which the author pays.

"They aim to dupe researchers, especially those inexperienced in scholarly communication. They set up websites that closely resemble those of legitimate online publishers, and publish journals of questionable and downright low quality.

"Many purported to be headquartered in the US, UK, Canada or Australia, but really hailed from Pakistan, India or Nigeria," Beall wrote.

The predatory journals identified by the researchers were all on the Department of Higher Education and Training’s list of accredited journals.

The researchers highlighted certain practices that make a journal more likely to be predatory: they have "bizarrely" broad titles, rapid article-turnaround times (making it unlikely that proper peer-review, a fundamental aspect of academic publishing, has been done on the article), incorrect editorial information and publish a high number of articles a year.

An example is the African Journal of Business Management, which published 413 South African academic articles from 2010 to 2013.

Another is the Journal of Human Ecology, where Kenneth Kennedy is listed as an editorial member although he died in 2014. Richard Brown, who is listed as an editorial member of the Journal of Social Science, died in 2003.

Many of the journals still appear on the Department of Higher Education and Training’s journal list, says Johann Mouton, director of Crest and co-author of the study, which was published in the South African Journal of Science. "Not a single one of the authors did something legally wrong."

Academics at all SA’s universities have published in the 47 journals identified, but there was a preponderance of papers from previously disadvantaged institutions — and predatory publications represent a substantial percentage of their publishing output. At Mangosuthu University of Technology, 26% of  its total paper output was published in journals that the Stellenbosch University researchers classified as "possibly" or "probably" predatory.

Academics across the world are concerned about a spike in predatory journals, which are a scam aimed at making money out of researchers

 University of Fort Hare academics published 25% of their academic papers in these journals. The universities had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.

Most of the publishing in journals identified as "probably predatory" were in social sciences and humanities (53%), followed by economic and management sciences (32%).

Senior academics should have known better. "A senior scientist knows the top six or seven journals in his or her field — the well-known, credible journals," says Mouton.

"When you start publishing repeatedly in one of these marginal, fraudulent journals, you know these are invariably not the top journals in the field."

But the reality is that the subsidy system incentivises academics to publish as often as possible. The significant leap in SA’s academic output is largely due to these subsidies.

However, scrapping the incentive system would be a mistake, says Mouton.

"This system by the Department of Higher Education and Training [paid] out about R1.8bn to the universities [in 2016]. We produced about 15,000-16,000 publication units," he says.

"People say that because of these [quality] problems, scratch the system. But you have to be careful. If you have a complex problem, you look for a complex solution, not a simple one."

As universities are already struggling with resources, this is a major form of revenue for many institutions, Mouton says.

The Department of Higher Education and Training says it is aware of the problem of predatory journals. "This article mentions that approximately R300m could have been paid for articles in predatory journals," it says. "This amount represents only 1.6% of the total subsidy paid to universities during this period.

"The department deeply condemns such practices as they are not only unethical but also tarnish the integrity of the research as well as the institutions," it says.

Not only will it affect the 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
Johann Mouton

The issue of predatory publishing is also a major headache for the National Research Foundation (NRF), the government organisation that funds most academic research in SA.

The foundation said in March that it had picked up on "a number of instances where applications for research grants, scholarships and NRF rating include publications in predatory journals or cite invitations by deceptive publishers to serve on editorial boards of journals.

"In order to protect the integrity of the NRF’s processes and reputation from these unethical and unscholarly practices, the NRF reserves the right to not consider applications where this practice is evident."

Mouton says that Crest had been contracted by the government to review the quality of SA’s scholarship, with a report expected in 2018.

Predatory publishing poses a serious challenge to science, the researchers write in the article. "If it continues to increase at the rate of growth seen in the past five years, predatory publishing may well become an accepted practice in some disciplines and at some universities.

"Not only will it affect the 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," Mouton says.

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