Commission moves to block use of predatory publishers

In order to improve the quality of published research and to crack down on so-called ‘predatory’ academic publishers – who charge fees to authors but fail to provide adequate quality control, or make misleading claims about their quality – India’s University Grants Commission, or UGC, has this month published lists of approved journals for publishing research papers.

The UGC, a statutory body that oversees university education in India, has now linked academic promotions and recruitment to its Academic Performance Indicators or API system, which will only recognise papers published in journals that are on the approved lists issued on 10 January.

Previously universities decided independently which journals would count towards promotions.

In all, the UGC names 38,653 journals, split into five lists of peer-reviewed publications drawn up by committees of subject experts, with a promise that they would be reviewed from time to time.

It is also believed to be part of a move towards ranking India’s higher education institutions based on research publications using a home-grown list rather than relying on lists used by international rankings organisations.

“This a very welcome step by the UGC,” says Amitabha Bandyopadhyay, an associate professor, department of biological sciences and bioengineering at the Indian Institute of Technology or IIT Kanpur. “Ideally there should be a single list of approved journals that every institution, including those outside the UGC system like the IITs, can follow.”

Other top research institutions that are not under the UGC include the laboratories under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Indian Institutes of Scientific Education and Research and the National Institutes of Technology where researchers have the freedom to choose where to publish their papers.

Mushrooming predatory publishing

Bandyopadhyay said the predatory publishing industry has mushroomed in India because of pressure from researchers and teachers who need to show published work even if it is in predatory journals, which may not be peer-reviewed or indexed and even go to the extent of manufacturing data. “It’s a lucrative business.”

A study covering the period 2010-14 published last year in BMC Medicine, an open access medical journal, showed 27% of the world’s predatory publishers operated from India and that a third of papers published in such journals were linked to Indian institutions.

The term predatory publishing is a loose one, but most unapproved predatory publishers charge academics for publication or use unethical practices. In particular, however, they are seen as a repository for substandard research. Nonetheless, some second-tier journals, regional academic journals and bilingual academic journals have sometimes been unfairly regarded as ‘predatory’.

Not all second-rung journals can be described as predatory, Bandyopadhyay, notes. “There are a number of examples of important papers being published in such journals with the authors gaining acclamation and even claiming the Nobel Prize.”

“Predatory journals thrive thanks to the grant money that a researcher may use to pay for publishing his paper,” says Vijay Shankar, a former biosciences researcher from India, currently based in Germany. “The business model of predatory journals is to milk money to publish poor quality research.”

According to Bandyopadhyay, the root cause for the proliferation of predatory publications is a lack of capacity to monitor or evaluate submissions. “That job is too often outsourced to proxies with doubtful credentials.”

A study on India’s predatory publishing industry that appeared in the December 2016 issue of Current Science, which is published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, concluded in similar vein that “India is lacking in monitoring the research being conducted at different higher educational and research institutes.”

The consequences are clear — India ranks a low 166 for average citation per paper published despite ranking 10th globally in the output of scientific papers.

The tendency to value numbers of publications rather than citations or quality has also led to a situation where many weak papers in predatory journals are from academics at top research institutions.

‘Rotten apples’

The term ‘predatory open access publishing’ is a term coined by Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, with a list of ‘potential, possible or probable’ predatory publishers published on his blogsite, "Scholarly Open Access", from 2008 till January this year.

Though sometimes controversial, his list was widely regarded as one of the few lists academics could turn to in trying to spot potential rogue publishers in the absence of national or other international lists.

“The aim of work done by people like Jeffrey Beall is to see rotten apples as rotten apples,” Shankar said. “Researchers who don't view predatory journals as a threat to science are, in my opinion, a threat to science.”

Bandyopadhyay, however, sees hurdles ahead. “The predatory publishing lobby is powerful. There was a list of them brought out by Beall, but that has now disappeared.”

Attempts to contact Beall on the fate of his blogsite failed. An email response to queries said: “I am no longer working in this area. My blog is now unpublished. I decline to comment.”