Tighter measures needed to combat predatory publications
The involvement of academicians in predatory publications is also exacerbated by inexperienced or ignorant academics who could also be nudged down this route due to a lack of research proficiency, rejection by standard journals and an urgency to get published quickly.
The issue of predatory publications should be of serious concern to institutions and researchers in low- and middle-income countries, especially in Asia and Africa, which have now become the main targets.
Countries are reacting to this challenge since it is becoming a serious threat to their research enterprise and their rapidly growing research output.
Data about the extent of predatory publication in Ethiopian higher education institutions is not available but there is ample anecdotal evidence that shows an alarming number of academics are being drawn to this practice.
A significant number of faculty members are being accused of securing their academic promotions through predatory publications and other sub-standard means.
Some of the recent schemes created by the Ethiopian Ministry of Science and Higher Education (MoSHE) are geared towards combating this unethical practice. But a more robust system is still called for.
A national system of journal accreditation
MoSHE recently introduced a journal accreditation system to serve a variety of purposes. The objectives are to:
• Provide a national framework for the assessment of the quality of research journals;
• Promote international standards in local journal publishing practices;
• Promote excellence in scholarship within Ethiopia;
• Identify challenges encountered in journal publishing and pave the way for enabling initiatives at national and institutional levels; and
• Enhance the international visibility and access to accredited Ethiopian journals.
In addition to serving as a mechanism for recognising excellence and promoting higher standards in publication outputs, the introduction of such a scheme should be useful in combating the increasing tendency among academia to publish in predatory journals.
According to this national scheme which was implemented in 2020, local journals will be accredited based on evaluation criteria that include scholarly quality of research articles, fitness of reviewers and critical rigour of the review process, editorial policies and guidelines, editors’ and editorial board members’ profiles, timeliness of journal publication and number and diversity of articles.
The criteria also include registration of journals in internationally reputed indexing and-or abstracting databases which are often taken as standard barometers for ensuring journal quality in many contexts.
The recent approval of the first 16 accredited local journals out of 34 that applied for accreditation appears to indicate the commitment of the ministry to pushing its plans forward and creating the needed publication platforms for quality research output across the sector.
New directive for publication and academic promotion
In concurrence with the above scheme, MoSHE issued a new Harmonised Standard for Academic Staff Promotion in Public Universities in October 2020 that emphasises the need for securing academic promotion only through accredited and peer-reviewed journals.
Combating publication in predatory journals has been identified as one objective of this directive.
Until the introduction of this new scheme, academic promotions at Ethiopian universities were granted based on the requirements set in the regulations of individual universities as a result of which promotion requirements or quality checking mechanisms were not uniformly enforced.
Many suspect that this has made its own contribution to the increasing practice of publishing in predatory journals and getting promotions through illegal means.
This scheme was met with opposition from some faculty due to its failure to have a transitional arrangement for those whose promotions were being processed through the old procedures.
While some regard this as a legitimate question, others suspect that it may be a camouflaged request for getting promotion through a dubious procedure that the new scheme seeks to rectify.
Identifying predatory journals
Despite MoSHE’s new directions, there are still institutional concerns about how to identify predatory journals.
The ministry suggests that the safest way to avoid predatory publications is to encourage academics to submit manuscripts to peer-reviewed journals that are indexed by scientifically accepted databases such as Scopus, Web of Science and PubMed, all of which have been officially endorsed by the ministry’s new directive.
The ministry also recognises the need to periodically follow updates and checklists from these indexing databases for possible retractions, discontinuation and suspension of journals from their list.
Other mechanisms, such as the list of predatory journals developed by individuals or organisations such as Beall may be considered useful, but the controversies associated with such lists and their sustainability may pose additional challenges.
These challenges suggest the need for a more robust, transparent and coordinated system of combating predatory publications both at ministry and institutional levels.
A bumpy ride ahead
The short- and long-term impact of predatory journals to the research enterprise and to researchers is clear. However, experience has shown that, given their sophistication and tactics to change, combating predatory publishers and tendencies within any given system is not easy.
While MoSHE’s recent efforts will go a long way towards curbing the tendency to publish in predatory journals, current initiatives must be assisted by further efforts that gauge the extent and impact of predatory practices within the system, identify their root causes and set up appropriate mechanisms to combat them.
This need appears to be urgent, considering the recent differentiation of universities and plans by most Ethiopian public universities to introduce a mandatory scheme of publication for all PhD candidates before graduation.
This may further fuel the tendency to publish in predatory journals.
As a new system that seeks to promote quality and integrity, the Ethiopian system should aim at starting with a clean slate.
For example, this may require checking the files of already promoted faculty and ensuring that they have not abused the system by publishing in predatory journals.
Apart from sending a message about the level of seriousness the sector wishes to promote, this measure can create confidence within the system and even among those who have earned their promotion ethically.
The scheme should also continue to be used as a quality check mechanism for all those who wish to be promoted in the future.
Strengthened institutional and national schemes
Decrying the practice of predatory publication in universities cannot be enough. Addressing the scourge will require coordinated efforts at every level of the research process and setting up a clear, rigorous and coordinated system at national and institutional level.
The fight must begin with individual researchers who should be fully aware of a journal’s status and characteristics before deciding to submit their articles for publication.
Following MoSHE’s general directions, institutions must establish clear structures, guidance and requirements for publishing research in legitimate journals, including accountability procedures.
Institutions should also devise strategies for creating awareness by supporting, guiding and mentoring researchers to help them identify high-quality publication opportunities on both local and international forums.
Mechanisms should also be sought to learn from other countries and institutions that have succeeded in curbing the continued impacts of predatory publications.
Wondwosen Tamrat is an associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a collaborating scholar of the Programme for Research on Private Higher Education at the State University of New York at Albany, United States, and coordinator of the private higher education sub-cluster of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa. He may be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.