The ethical hole at the centre of ‘publish or perish’

Peer-review is the gold standard for scholarly publishing, and scholarly publishing is often one of the important performance indicators of scientific work. This indicator puts pressure on scientists and has led to a situation where any paper can be printed in a journal that claims to be peer-reviewed.

In some cases, the hunt for performance indicators (and a higher impact factor) has become the main priority at the expense of the actual scientific work. The need to survive, the need to achieve good performance indicators and the need to receive funding sometimes result in unacceptable publishing behaviour. Excessive personal ambition can contribute to this behaviour, too.

Have you heard of 'predatory' publishers or journals? Such publishers or journals charge authors for publishing articles without having been peer-reviewed. Their number is growing. A list of potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers and journals can be found at Scholarly Open Access.

What does the scholarly community think of these? The replies to a short article on predatory publishers written by Julius Kravjar show that some are aware of them, but some have never heard of them. Others are aware, but make comments such as “fortunately among our colleagues, this plague only appears sporadically so far” or “the monsters of the ‘Publish or Perish’ era have various incarnations...”

Some of the comments received included:
  • • “Unfortunately, this is a serious problem because several people are deceived every year by journals that claim to have an impact factor, etc. In my opinion their success is partly facilitated by the extremely slow publication process of the big journals. Publishing a blacklist and informing the scientific community is a good approach in the fight against ‘predatory publishers’.”

  • • “This is a real problem. The problem is that a person must have a certain amount of publications to gain a higher degree. If there is a demand, there will be supply and that creates a market."

  • • “There is so much corruption and deception.”

  • • “I honestly do not understand why we are using technology and processes which originated in the 17th century to publish our research in the 21st century. Predatory publishers are taking over what remains of journal publishing.”
Standards being bypassed

Predatory publishing threatens the scholarly community because it is immoral and unethical. For scholars, it is a way to publish their results by bypassing scholarly publishing standards. For publicly-funded institutions that are subsidised depending on their publishing activities, it means taxpayers are paying twice over.

Deborah Weber-Wulff, professor of media and computing at HTW Berlin, a university of applied sciences, says: "It does indeed present a grave danger – and it is getting harder to tell the difference between predatory publishers and traditional publishers."

However, predatory publishing is only one aspect of the problem. There are other ways that standards are being bypassed. Failure in the peer-review system is not unusual, for instance. Peer-reviewing in some 'good' journals is lapsing into clientelism, cronyism, camaraderie, false collegiality etc. The quality guarantors of 'good' journals used to be second-class scientists who became 'editors' who often placed more emphasis on form than content.

This situation is getting worse. Where is scholarly publishing heading? Perhaps the scholarly community should be able to assess the quality of scholarly work without any publisher acting as intermediary. If they cannot, surely there is a problem somewhere.

Is there any panacea on the horizon? 'Publish or perish' together with market demand and supply in the absence of morals and ethics have a 'carcinogenic' effect and they infest and infect the scholarly community. The key to combatting them is through an appeal to ethics. While it is normal for there to be some anomalies within any system, it looks today as though the anomalies have taken over. Is this cause for alarm?

Ideas not products

What do we need then? The current system of publishing scholarly papers needs a new paradigm.

According to Ivan Klinec, an economist and futurist at the Slovak Academy of Sciences, “The global crisis has created demand for new solutions based on economic theories developed on the basis of a new paradigm, a paradigm that allows us to perceive the economy as a whole, undivided, as a subsystem of higher systems of nature and of the universe, as well as the return of ethics to economic systems at all levels.”

What can we do in the meantime? Scholars and scholarly publishing needs to be immune to the pressure to produce mountains of papers. Scholars should rigorously apply self-control concerning the quality of their research and publications.

And institutions that employ scholars need to resist the temptation to contribute to this pressure and instead should highlight the impact this has and lobby the trustees of public finances (governments, ministries, etc) to achieve the redistribution of public resources on the basis of quality and not quantity.

Perhaps a primary argument could be that science does not produce products so much as create ideas – ideas that directly affect the development of civilisation.

Even the best system loses value if it doesn’t act ethically. It seems that we will need to 'brush up' our ethical code on the path to a new system of disseminating research.

Julius Kravjar is project manager at the Slovak Centre of Scientific and Technical Information in Slovakia. Marek Hladík is an associated scientist at the Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.