The battle against predatory academic journals continues

In 2018, Euclides Sacomboio had two papers published in different predatory journals, one of which was an Indian outfit on infectious diseases. A medicine graduate, who now lectures at Agostinho Neto University, the largest public university in Angola, Sacomboio wanted to get published in a high-impact journal where he would get decent citations.

“I earn US$500, and the article processing fee in reputable journals is about US$2,180. Where do I get the money without any support?” Sacomboio said to University World News.

Access to Angola’s few journals was limited by language, some of them published in Portuguese, shrinking the global access to data. “To me, it was important to share my data. Worse, it was difficult to choose [where to publish] because some of these journals we call predatory have peer review processes,” he said.

Without any support from his university or any organisation, his supposed saviours came in the shape of publishers of these predatory journals who charged US$200 in article processing fees so, without hesitation, he sent his papers and they were published.

Now, a lot wiser, he slams the predatory journals, calling on the scientific community to fight the practice.

Sacomboio’s experience is not unique. A few years ago, Moses Samje, now an associate professor of biochemistry and head of department at the University of Bamenda, Cameroon, and a member of the African Academy of Sciences Chapter of Affiliates, was excited to publish his paper after he saw what he thought to be a reputable journal publishing similar work by a senior colleague.

Peer review in 24 hours

“The impact factor was quite attractive. It was too good to be true … We had to try and we submitted a paper and, in the space of 24 hours, they [the publishers] asked for the processing charge, which was getting way more affordable.

“In less than 48 hours, we received an e-mail [saying] our paper was online. I was quite excited,” Samje told a meeting of the World Science Forum held in Cape Town, South Africa, from 6-9 December.

Samje decided to go online and scrutinised the journal, but he realised that the peer review model, to the best of his knowledge in those two days, was a sham. The journal was questionable. For this early career mistake, he blamed his ignorance and inexperience. “I was acting naively ...”

Looking back, he says, the first thing that institutions can do is to really create more awareness and, by creating awareness, it’s not just about having access to documents such as the March 2022 InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) report, Combating Predatory Academic Journals and Conferences.

Why must predators die?

Reviewers in predatory academic journals and conferences hide their true identity, their products are fraudulent and of low quality. They are motivated by profit, not scholarship, and they exist worldwide and are driven by monetisation of research meetings and peer review, Susan Veldsman, director of the Scholarly Publication Unit, Academy of Sciences of South Africa, and co-chair of the InterAcademy Partnership Combating Predatory Academic Journals and Conferences report, told the meeting.

Professor Masresha Fetene, a plant ecophysiologist at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, and co-president of the IAP, told University World News that research output that goes to a predatory journal is a loss to science.

“The scientific community will not get access to it. The researcher will not benefit from it. It will not be used in any acknowledgment of service and it will also not contribute to any promotion – and any benefits that could have been accrued from the publication are lost to society,” he said.

“So, it’s very important that we hide predatory journals so that Africans publish in journals that are accredited and are read and accessible to the scientific community. Unless your output is seen by the scientific community, you will not be acknowledged by the scientific community,” Fetene added.

Samje said there should be regular sensitisation through seminars and conferences that will guide researchers on the predatory journals and how to avoid them.

Although some institutions do provide incentives for their researchers to publish, he said, it’s very important for institutions to have some kind of an auditor to see where researchers publish.

According to him, one of the reasons why researchers are publishing in predatory journals is because of disappointment.

“You can imagine submitting a good manuscript to a journal and it’s rejected. You are kind of frustrated. On the same day, you have the pleasure of receiving e-mails from journals where you can publish in less than no time … therefore, this temptation is high,” said Samje.

Particularly in the African context, stopping researchers from going to these predatory journals means institutions have to be empowering researchers with more financial support to produce high-quality data that is not questionable and would compete for international publishing, he said.

Recalling his first-time experience, Samje emphasised the need for mentorship for early-career researchers in helping them to avoid the pitfalls of falling prey to fly-by-night journals and conferences.

Publishing for promotion

He called on universities to review the idea of having a certain number of published papers before one can be promoted. “Everybody wants to get promoted,” he said, but, “it is imperative that universities should review that criterion for promotion.”

It’s a question Nigeria is also grappling with. Dr Mobolaji Odubanjo, the executive secretary of the Nigerian Academy of Science, said that, as researchers aim to publish more, they have been forced to relook at the tools of assessment for researchers as they face the problem of papers published in predatory journals.

Questions about the h-index and the citation-index are now being asked: are they fair assessment tools? How accurate are they to assess quality?

“I think we should start looking at the place of local journals,” Odubanjo added.

Sharing Samje’s concern, Odubanjo said some researchers produce good work, but because it’s focused on Nigeria, international journals reject it.

“So how do we create, promote and recognise local journals and strengthen them?” he asked, “[so that] at the end of the day, I’m going to get the best of medical research in Nigeria from an indexing platform in Nigeria [and] from a journal published in Nigeria – and why not?”

South Africa probably has a template to copy. Unlike other African countries, South Africa’s Department of Higher Education has a database of approved journals in which researchers can publish their work.

Veldsman said the standard for high quality should be a peer review process, strong editorial advisory boards, and policy to ensure research and cooperation.

Role of funders

Sepo Hachigonta, the director of strategic partnerships at the National Research Foundation of South Africa, said science funders’ role is more than just funding, participating in policy advice, science communication, and examining the grant management system of science. Funders can also help to expose predatory practices.

According to him, science funding reviews that are put up by some science funding entities solve issues around predatory journals during funding application processes.

Hachigonta underscored the importance of sharing information within national organisations, academies and among researchers at the same university to flush out predatory journals and conferences.

“If you don’t talk, you don’t know,” Hachigonta said.