Predatory journals in the firing line

South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) has begun clamping down on academics publishing in predatory journals, withholding at least ZAR62 million (US$4.2 million) in subsidies during the 2016-17 academic year, with further action on the cards once a study is completed, according to Mahlubi 'Chief' Mabizela, a senior department official.

“Predatory publishing is a threat to the credibility of academic publishing worldwide. We withheld 574.86 units and the Rand value for 2016-17 was ZAR108,693 (574.86 units x ZAR108,693 = ZAR62,483,257). However, as much as this is the total amount withheld, it is immediately put in the same budget of the funding distributed to institutions, making the Rand value slightly higher,” said Mabizela, the chief director for university education policy and development in the department.

That means, if an institution was affected by a predatory journal publication, it would not receive the units and the money for those units would be redistributed to the entire budget, Mabizela told University World News.

He said the department has commissioned the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) at Stellenbosch University to conduct a study on the quality of South Africa’s research publications, which includes predatory publishing.

“CREST is finalising the report for submission to the department. The findings and recommendations of the report would be useful to devise strategies for dealing with the journals suspected of being predatory,” according to Mabizela.

In their article – the first study to analyse the extent of predatory publishing in South Africa – published in the South African Journal of Science in 2017, Johann Mouton and Astrid Valentine found that 4,246 South African papers published in 48 journals were either probably or possibly predatory.

“A few South African studies and reports have appeared in recent years which have suggested that predatory publishing is not only present but is in fact becoming more pervasive – at least in some disciplines. There has been a surge of interest in predatory publishing and its effects in recent years,” the academics wrote.

What is predatory publishing?

According to Mouton and Valentine, the term “predatory publishing” is attributed to Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado Denver in the United States, who was until recently regarded as the unofficial “watchdog” of predatory publishing. Beall administered a website called “Scholarly Open Access: Critical analysis of scholarly open-access publishing” which was rather abruptly shut down on 17 January 2017.

In an article published in Nature in 2012, Beall provided a first description of the term “predatory publishing”: “Then came predatory publishers, which publish counterfeit journals to exploit the open-access model in which the author pays. These predatory publishers are dishonest and lack transparency. They aim to dupe researchers, especially those inexperienced in scholarly communication.

"They set up websites that closely resemble those of legitimate online publishers and publish journals of questionable and downright low quality. Many purport to be headquartered in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada or Australia but really hail from Pakistan, India or Nigeria. Some predatory publishers spam researchers, soliciting manuscripts but failing to mention the required author fee.”

In a presentation to the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) last month, Mouton, who is leading the study on predatory publishing at CREST, said it was clear from more recent analysis that the extent of predatory publishing in South Africa – at least in subsidy-earning journals – has decreased over the past two years.

“We suspect that the high saliency of the issue together with the interventions taken by the DHET, NRF [National Research Foundation] and individual universities have forced academics to rethink their publication strategies. But this does not mean that academics have stopped publishing in predatory journals. Studies from other countries in the world where academics do not benefit financially from publications suggest that predatory publishing remains a major challenge,” Mouton said.

In its annual report on the evaluation of the 2016 universities’ research outputs released mid-way through 2018, DHET Director-General Gwebinkundla Qonde acknowledged that several studies suggest that some academics are falling into predatory publication traps due to the pressure to publish, accrue maximum subsidies and boost their academic reputation.

“Institutions and academics are urged to remember the importance of research integrity, ethics and the importance of academic publication, which is about knowledge dissemination rather than accruing incentive funding. Together we can combat this conduct that diminishes the quality of our research by also safeguarding against predatory journals,” he wrote.

Recognised journals

Mabizela said after extensive and detailed analyses of criteria used by international indices that list academic journals, the department currently recognises six journal lists or indices. The indices are: Clarivate Analytics Web of Science; the International Bibliography of the Social Sciences; Scopus; the Norwegian Register for Scientific Journals (Level 2); SciELO SA and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) list.

The latter two, SciELO SA and the DHET list, are locally administered and the rest are international. The department works with ASSAf in the evaluation of South African journals to be approved for the DHET list and based on criteria set out in the policy. Where a listed journal no longer fulfils all the criteria, it is re-assessed and removed from the list.

At the beginning of every year, the department distributes lists of recognised journals from all the approved indices and only publications appearing in the listed journals are recognised for subsidy allocation. The universities submit their journal publication claims via auditors who are required to carry out audits on the claims vis-à-vis their appearance in the listed journals.

When there are journals suspected of unethical practices, Mabizela said the indices are alerted and requested to conduct their investigations and remove journals that they find to be predatory or involved in unethical practices.

“The purpose of removing predatory journals from the indices and journal lists is to ensure that they do not get recognised and articles published in them do not get recognised for the purposes of subsidy, in the South African context. Besides, removing them is to minimise the possibility of disseminating fake or predatory journals,” he said.

Universities South Africa Chief Executive Ahmed Bawa said in an interview that its Research and Innovation Strategy Group has engaged widely on the use of predatory journals for the publication of research results. Along with the National Research Foundation, the Academy of Science of South Africa and the Council on Higher Education, he said a workshop had been held to discuss the phenomenon and to put in place interventions to improve, more generally, the culture of publishing in South Africa.

“Having said that, it has to be noted that over the last 10-year period, just 3.4% of the articles that have been published are deemed to have appeared in predatory journals. It is also important to note that South Africa’s research output has grown enormously between 2010 and 2016, say from about 9,000 research papers to about 22,000.

“With such a large and rapid increase, there is a need for developmental programmes that work with newer researchers in addressing issues such as this one. The Higher Education Leadership and Management initiative will run regular workshops to address this need,” he said.

Staying ahead of the predators – Not as easy as it seems
Sharon Dell

Everyone claims to be against predatory publishing but punishing those who are involved seems to be harder than one would expect. This was highlighted by a case recently investigated by University World News.

Contacted in April by a group of whistle blowers based at the University of South Africa (UNISA) concerning allegations that the university was protecting a senior academic alleged to have 16 publications in predatory journals – most of them published by KRE Publishers/Kamla Raj Enterprises between 2012 and 2018 – University World News contacted both the institutional spokesperson and the DHET for comment.

No comment from the DHET was forthcoming, but UNISA spokesperson Martin Ramotshela said in an email that the institution was satisfied that the credentials of the academic facing the allegations were “credible” and that institutional records show that all the academic’s articles or publications were published in DHET-accredited journals.

“The majority of these publications were published in 2014 and 2015, which pre-date the existence of the Beall’s list,” he said.

The institution condemns the publishing by its academics in predatory journals and subscribes to the Beall’s list and “utilises librarians to scrutinise journals or publications where its academics intend to publish before the articles or publications are submitted”, he added.

Date of publication

Confused by the emphasis on the dates of publication, University World News turned to CREST’s Professor Johann Mouton for help to unpack the issue.

During a telephonic interview, Mouton confirmed that while KRE Publishers are widely known to be predatory publishers, some of their publications did feature – until very recently – on the list of journals recognised by DHET, which rendered the department liable to pay the subsidies claimed.

How did it happen that the DHET list included predatory journal titles? The answer lies partly in a lack of governmental capacity and knowledge, and insufficient scrutiny.

Mouton said in addition to its list of approved South African journals, the DHET regards a number of indices as accredited. These include, inter alia, the International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (IBSS), the Web of Science and Scopus. Any journals on these lists are therefore indirectly recognised by the DHET.

He said that during the course of research for ASSAf in 2016, which informed the June 2017 article titled “The extent of South African authored articles in predatory journals” by Mouton and Valentine, published in the South African Journal of Science, it became clear that 40 or so journals listed by Beall also appeared on the DHET-approved lists at that time, particularly the IBSS list.

This fact was pointed out to the department but not before it had paid out the subsidies to a number of universities.

Legal rights versus ethics

“Legally, the universities believed they were within their rights to submit these articles for subsidy because they appeared on accredited lists,” said Mouton.

He said when the department tried to recover some of these monies, they were threatened in one or two cases with legal action and chose to drop the matter.

The DHET list has since been updated and, at the beginning of 2017, the department sent a memorandum to all universities to say that in future it would not pay out subsidies if institutions submit articles that turn out to be published through predatory means.

Mouton said during his recent monitoring activities he noticed that KRE Publishers had been removed from the 2018 IBSS list. On his urging, the DHET contacted new IBSS owners ProQuest, who confirmed that they had removed the publications because they were believed to be predatory.

“That means that for this year’s subsidy submissions which are going to the department for the 2018 year, no-one can claim they were not aware. KRE Publishers are now off the IBSS 2018 list.”

Mouton said that since 2017, monitoring by CREST has shown that the number of predatory publications has decreased – 180 were identified in 2016 and only 125 were submitted in 2018 for 2017 subsidies.

“This is a result of greater awareness and last year the department refused to pay subsidies to those deemed to be predatory.”

‘A decree is needed’

Mouton said part of the solution to the “malaise” lies in more firmness on the part of the government. “The department should decree that it if discovers that a university has submitted an article that appears in what is found to be a predatory journal, irrespective of whether it is on an accredited list, it will not pay.”

But the situation is highly fluid and requires constant monitoring as predatory publishers have “got wise” to scrutiny.

Mouton said he believes, but has not yet been able to verify, that some publishers are buying up some of the more lucrative predatory journal titles which then migrate from one index to another, causing a great deal of confusion among academics and administrators alike.

The next big challenge is dealing with predatory conferences and conference proceedings. Watch this space.