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Editorial

April 2019

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The publish-and-perish epidemic – Counting the costs

Damtew Teferra is Professor of Higher Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and Founding Director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. He is Founding Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. Teferra steers the Higher Education Cluster of the Africa Union’s Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA). He may be reached at teferra@ukzn.ac.za and teferra@bc.edu

 

The good old mantra of ‘publish or perish’ is no more. More and more academics anticipate or face demotion rather than promotion, and condemnation rather than commendation, on account of the publications they produce, either knowingly or otherwise, through dubious journals. What are the economic and financial, academic and social costs of this scourge?

In 2017, a study published by Professor Johann Mouton and his colleagues at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, found that more than 4,240 journal articles were published between 2005 and 2014 in unscrupulous journals – what they describe as “probably or possibly predatory” – costing the government about half-a-billion Rand (US$35 million) in subsidies to the institutions that accounted for them. The analysis shows that these articles were published in 48 such journals.

South Africa is unique in subsidising research productivity by directly channelling resources based on prescribed outcomes, making it easier to put a monetary figure to this activity. While this provides a good indication of the direct financial cost to the government – and the nation – the implications do not end there. Presumably, those who published articles in these suspect journals subsequently secured promotion at their institutions (and beyond), with associated remuneration and benefits, escalating the cost of this transgression.

The literature is awash with accounts of the dismal state of research in Africa, particularly due to the chronic shortage of funding. Indeed, African research has depended heavily on external funding as the continent offers little support for research. Based on publications, its institutions have the lowest research output. As illustrated above, an increasing portion of this meagre production of knowledge is being squandered by unscrupulous knowledge creators and vendors, with huge economic costs to nations, institutions and academia as a whole.

Intellectual costs

The proliferation of fraudulent providers and attendant practices have had an extremely negative impact on the intellectual arena and have resulted in a ‘dumbing down’ of intellectual engagement.

Some 20 years ago, in an article I published on the impact of widespread malpractices in higher education institutions, I argued that instances of academic dishonesty were tantamount to the unleashing of incompetent, inferior and corrupt professionals on a set of small but important senior government, business and other leadership positions, with devastating effect.

I went on to argue that, until recently, most graduates in Africa ended up working in high-profile, important positions. Many challenges arise if incompetent individuals occupy these positions. They could hamper the flow of competent and capable students into higher education institutions by taking up their places; they could hold positions that should have been occupied by competent professionals; and it is also fair to assume that they could aggressively guard their turf against emerging competent and outstanding individuals.

I further noted that it might not be inconceivable that some of these incompetent individuals – many of whom are products of devious practices – may resort to establishing a covert and subversive web to protect their selfish interests.

As blatant and flagrant or as subtle and obscure as this may be, a conspiracy to undermine the emergence of promising professionals and a community of competent scholars is not entirely out of the question. Such developments undermine the advancement of countries that are yearning for qualified and competent personnel.

At the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) alumni conference “Young Scholars in Africa – Challenges and Opportunities” held from 1 to 3 March 2019 in Nairobi, Kenya, the topic of scholarly publishing was covered with great interest from the participants.

One of the moderators from DAAD, Dr Christoph Hansert, robustly warned of a “tipping point” at which those with questionable credentials could gain a majority in academia with serious consequences for the sector – and by extension, society as a whole. This was precisely my prediction 20 years earlier.

Personal costs

I have had the privilege of sitting on the competitive grant proposal review committees of numerous funding organisations which support research and capacity development in Africa. During the course of these engagements, I have reviewed the curriculum vitae of a number of academics to gauge their calibre and their competence to lead and participate in their proposed projects.

In a good number of cases, we noted there were individuals whose publications appeared repeatedly in the same journals, many of which were suspect. This triggered further scrutiny of these individuals’ academic standing, with unfavourable outcomes, especially in the case of principal investigators. Such occurrences erode the competitive edge and reputation of an academic, an institution and ultimately a nation.

Just recently, I was invited to review a resumé of an applicant under consideration for full professorship at one of the East African universities. I was struck by the fact that more than 80% of the candidate’s publications had been published in ‘predatory’ journals.

Remarkably, the applicant had even managed to publish more than one article in a single issue and had been publishing for a number of years in the same journals. On one count, 13 articles featured in one journal appearing every year. Regrettably, the applicant’s doctoral students were already jointly publishing with the candidate in the fraudulent outlets, in effect perpetuating the act of fraud and probably without being aware of it.

The fraudsters often bank on naïve and ignorant victims. They have perfected the art of cheating to the point that it is difficult for even seasoned academics to detect them. They declare that they are peer-reviewed, accredited and enjoy high impact. They clone well-established journals or call them deceptively similar names to established ones.

Frustrated by these developments as well as negative responses from bona fide publishing outlets, there has been a tendency for academics to launch their own periodicals. At the conference mentioned earlier, a group of Africans shared their newly established journal for “easy publishing” which was robustly criticised as self-defeating.

While bona fide as well as pretentious grievances cause academics to leap into the business of establishing new journals, the result is a mass of journal carcasses that are victims of the ‘Volume 1, No 1 syndrome’.

Lessons from experience

South Africa has a systematic way of identifying, recognising and accrediting academic publications. Every year the Department of Higher Education and Training publishes on its website an extensive list of journals (national, continental and international) that it recognises as bona fide.

Institutions also make efforts to ensure that the list is disseminated to academics and students. While this practice is not without some limitations, it plays an important role in navigating the increasingly complex maze that is the publishing exercise, and in dealing with the ‘publish-and-perish’ epidemic.

Other institutions in Africa could use this list while also adding their own local and continental journals as one means of thwarting the scourge of predatory journals and assisting young and emerging academics. However, this suggestion may not suit non-English speaking countries.

In regard to developing and nurturing new African journals, it is important that this is a deliberative process with considerable buy-in from a community of scholars in the discipline, at home and beyond.

One of the former executive secretaries of the National Universities Commission (NUC) in Nigeria once relayed to me the firm approach they adopted to deter the practice of academics starting new journals, getting promoted as a result of publication, and then doing away with said journal. He said the NUC strongly discourages and discredits the ‘Volume 1, No 1’ publications for the promotion of academics.

The citadels of academia are under attack on multiple fronts. Among other factors, unprecedented developments in communication technology make it possible for fraudulent publishers, bogus journals, and phony accreditors (of impact factors) to openly roam institutions, with massive costs to the sector and beyond.

The cost of the publish-and-perish epidemic is starkly evident and calls for a systematic and relentless campaign, also on multiple fronts – from sustained and rigorous training and awareness-raising at all levels to prosecuting fraudsters and their operations. Given its severe impact on excellence, quality and merit, not just for academia but society at large, this phenomenon cannot be ignored.

This story first appeared on University World News 30 March 2019

 

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