Wits University. Picture: SUPPLIED
Wits University. Picture: SUPPLIED

A group of unscrupulous academics at local universities have joined the long list of unsavoury people adept at identifying weaknesses in government rules in order to game the system and tap into public funds.

Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (Crest) estimates the education department paid out R300m in subsidies over the 10 years to 2014 to reward academics for being published in dodgy “predatory” journals that prize quantity over quality. And as fast as government moved to raise awareness, academics figured other ways to bilk the state.

The subsidies are generous — about R100,000 per publication — and universities are at liberty to decide whether to keep the money for general expenses, direct a portion to the author’s research budget or allocate the entire lot to the researcher to supplement their salary.

Publishers of predatory journals use an open access model that turns the traditional business model on its head: instead of charging hefty subscription fees, open access journals ask researchers to pay to submit their work, and then provide free access after publication.

While this might seem like an appealing proposition, particularly for researchers from low and middle- income countries who cannot afford the hefty fees charged by the likes of Elsevier and Springer, the growth of open access publications has enabled the rise of unscrupulous journals that bypass many of the traditional checks and balances that ensure research papers are methodologically sound and contribute to the generation of new knowledge.

Predatory journals generally eschew the rigours of peer review, and publish work in a suspiciously short time. 

The “publish or perish” culture that permeates universities, combined with a blunt subsidy scheme that rewards research output on a per publication basis has created a system ripe for exploitation.

Into this breach have stepped researchers who either unwittingly get duped or know full well that they are getting their work rubber-stamped by scam journals and willingly participate in a racket to climb the academic ladder.

Even the most nimble law makers will always be a few steps behind those who stand to benefit from loopholes in the system.

The most recent work by Crest exposes how local researchers are publishing questionably large volumes of papers in journals on which they play an editorial role and are scamming the government for suspiciously large numbers of conference proceedings. The most egregious example identified by Crest involved a researcher who had his name on 117 conference proceedings in the space of a year.

The eagerness with which a small but nevertheless significant minority of South African researchers have embraced these unethical practices has implications that reach beyond government finances. Their actions erode the credibility of South African science, undermine public confidence in their institutions, and fuel the spread of quack science. What doctors read in medical journals influences patient care, and dubious publications can do much harm.

It’s time for the department of higher education and training to take swift and decisive action. It publishes a list of approved journals and has previously said it will claw back subsidies that are found to have been allocated to publications outside this group.

Whether it has actually done so remains an open question, as it has not made any public pronouncements on the issue. However the task of imposing consequences for unethical research publications is not theirs alone.

The universities that have enabled this culture to flourish need to impose sanctions on staff who have been promoted on the back of these dubious practices. Tough as it may be, they need to clean up their act if the public is to retain faith in their research output.