Every day academics wade through emails riddled with spelling errors promising almost immediate publication of their research. These publications assure the reader that they can skip the tough realities of rejections and revisions. Just a simple click of the submission button, they promise, and within a month – or even just a few days – the article will be published.
No need to worry about rigorous peer review (or indeed any form of review): these journals are willing to publish absolutely anything in exchange for handsome sums of money.
These are predatory publications, and they’re rife. They’re different from mainstream journals because they charge exorbitant fees to publish the articles they solicit, and they don’t follow any of the quality assurance processes expected in an academic publication.
Academics in the developing world have become a favourite target for these journals, and many seem to be falling into the trap. We need to ask why.
The main reason for this is that there’s a systemic problem – academic publication is too often linked to performance targets or the accrual of incentive funding. For as long as this is the case, academics will take shortcuts.
This is certainly the case in South Africa, where academics are often encouraged to publish because this will increase the subsidy the institution receives from the state rather than because it is a university’s task to contribute to knowledge creation.
Pressure to publish
There’s every reason for African countries to focus on increasing academics’ publishing outputs to ensure dissemination of their research. Africa contributes very little to international knowledge creation. This is because the most common means of disseminating such knowledge is through academic publication and countries in Africa have not focused on developing this capacity. Developing such capacity will need to move beyond initiatives designed to support individual academics to take on the requisite research and academic writing practices.
It will also require consideration of the extent to which the institutional culture is focused on knowledge dissemination as part of a university’s public good responsibility.
African academics also continue to face multiple obstacles, such as the biases inherent in the publishing industry.
To overcome these problems South Africa has adopted an approach that involves the department of higher education and training encouraging publication output through a national funding formula. It follows various approaches to ensure that only quality contributions are funded in this way. But the process is not failsafe.
Universities need the money generated by publication output. They use three mechanisms to ensure that all academics publish. First, they reward academic publication explicitly in probation and promotion requirements. Secondly, some universities have imported the notion of key performance indicators from industry: research productivity is measured and the regular generation of research publications is required.
And thirdly, many universities provide financial incentives to the individual author in the form of funding into a research account. In a few cases, this funding even takes the form of bonuses in the academic’s salary.
The department of higher education and training has repeatedly cautioned against the use of incentives and the “perverse consequences” they bring. But they continue to be widely used. These institutional mechanisms have created a problematic culture in some universities where “getting published” becomes the end goal. Quantity edges out quality. From here it is practically inevitable that some academics will fall for the promises of predatory publications.
Not all universities fall into predatory traps. Research indicates that over a ten-year period, research-intensive universities had less than 1% of their publications in journals that showed strong evidence of being predatory. In the same period, five other universities – which are less research-intensive in focus – had more than 10% of their publications in such journals.
This suggests that having a strong research culture is key. If there is a general sense that academic publication is about knowledge dissemination rather than meeting performance targets or accruing incentive funding, academics and universities become less vulnerable to these vultures.
Making meaningful contributions
Institutional cultures are difficult to shift. But the South African higher education sector needs to consider how it speaks about – and rewards – publications. Universities should be very wary of introducing systems that focus on counts rather than contributions.
More intensive measures are also needed to support academics in making meaningful contributions. Many novice academics and postgraduate scholars ask me for suggestions about where they can “get published”. They either want to know what journals are most likely to accept their contributions or which will ‘count’ when it comes to promotion. In both cases, I ask them one simple question: “Where is the conversation happening?”
When an academic publishes their work they are making a contribution to the boundaries of a field. So there needs to be a sense of where the boundaries of a field are. Whose work are we drawing from? Whose positions are we challenging? Academics should be publishing wherever the conversation to which they are contributing is happening. Selecting a journal on the basis of where our knowledge contribution is most likely to be read provides us as academics with a strong immunisation against predatory publications.
The good news is that a great many journals take the stewarding of an academic article for publication very seriously. Among them are a growing number of high-quality open access journals which ensure that contributions are widely available to all – and not only to the universities which have access to expensive databases.
And more quality open access journals are being published in the Global South – Africa, South America, and elsewhere – than ever before. Academics can make sure their contributions are disseminated through legitimate publications that follow the kinds of quality measures necessary for credible academic contributions.
Sioux McKenna is the Director of PG Studies & Higher Education Studies PhD Co-ordinator, Rhodes University