UGC’s ‘List of Journals’ Will Not By Itself Improve Quality Or Volume of Research

It has been labeled “anti-vernacular” because it excludes reputed journals in regional languages. It also ignores some well-established Indian journals in favour of Western ones.

It is evident that the UGC’s list can only be a starting point to prepare a more inclusive and comprehensive list that, on the one hand, does not exclude prestigious journals like the JICPR and, on the other, does not include journals simply because they claim to have a peer-review process. Credit: cityoftoronto/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

It is evident that the UGC’s list can only be a starting point to prepare a more inclusive and comprehensive list that, on the one hand, does not exclude prestigious journals like the JICPR and, on the other, does not include journals simply because they claim to have a peer-review process. Credit: cityoftoronto/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

In a notice issued on January 11, 2017, the University Grants Commission (UGC) released its approved list of journals for the Career Advancement Scheme (CAS) and the direct recruitment of teachers and other academic staff (as required under its Minimum Qualifications for Appointment of Teachers and other Academic Staff in Universities and Colleges). In its present form, the list has 38,653 journals across disciplines. Additional journals will be added over time. This was the plan from the very beginning. However, UGC secretary Jaspal Singh Sandhu communicated this to the universities again, perhaps to assuage concerns about legitimate journals that could be missing from the current list.

To begin with, the list of journals is rather messy in terms of its presentation and access. It has not been compiled alphabetically by subject or discipline but in alphabetical order irrespective of subject or discipline. Further, while the list itself is posted in five files, these files are not labeled alphabetically as A-D; E-M; and so on, but numerically – as 1-9,333; 9,334-19,792; 19,793-27,363; 27,364-34682; and 34,683-38,653. This makes it user-unfriendly. The UGC could have easily made the list more convenient to peruse. Therefore, there is immediate work to be done and one can only hope that the concerned UGC officials will consider it worth the trouble to reorganise the list of 38,000-odd journals alphabetically under various subjects and disciplines.

In June 2016, it was noted that the preparation of a list of ‘approved’ journals had become necessary because a large number of teachers and researchers across India’s academic institutions, including many at prestigious universities, have been choosing to publish in fake and/or substandard journals to secure promotions or employment. A more recent article, in the journal Current Science, confirms that while college teachers are the major contributors to fake journals, researchers from ICAR, CSIR, and ICMR labs, and national institutes such as IITs and NITs too are guilty of doing the same. Thus, the rationale behind preparing a list of legitimate journals  was “to prod Indian academics to publish in legitimate rather than in fake or substandard journals” which could “help improve the quality of research and publications at India’s universities.”

This is important in itself – but also because one of the main reasons behind the poor performance of India’s universities in world university rankings is their low research output.

Only a starting point

The UGC’s list of journals has, quite unsurprisingly, come under criticism. It has been labeled “anti-vernacular” by some because it excludes reputed journals in regional languages. For example, Biju Dharmapalan, of the Mar Athanasios College for Advanced Studies, Tiruvalla (Kerala), noted that peer-reviewed journals in Malayalam like Vijanakairali and Sastra Keralam have been excluded. Others have described the list as setting a bar “too high” because it excludes well-regarded Indian journals, including those in English, at the cost of foreign/Western journals.

A glaring omission, which was quickly pointed by Koshy Tharakan, a professor of philosophy at Goa University, in a Facebook post, is the Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research (JICPR), the flagship journal of the council it is named for, ICPR. The ICPR was established by the Ministry of Education in 1977 and the JICPR is well-respected among scholars of Indian philosophy. S. Chauhan, who headed the UGC committee that prepared the list of journals from those suggested by the universities, has acknowledged that “some well-known journals might have been ignored.” He also noted that the “list can be revised.”

It is evident that the UGC’s list can only be a starting point to prepare a more inclusive and comprehensive list that, on the one hand, does not exclude prestigious journals like the JICPR and, on the other, does not include journals simply because they claim to have a peer-review process. Academics who read this will know exactly what I mean. This will be a big challenge for the UGC committee in the near future.

Many academics peeved by the exclusion of legitimate journals are also skeptical about what the UGC may or may not do and how quickly it acts on the matter. When the task of preparing the list was taken up, a draft version was supposed to have been completed within the unrealistic period of six weeks. That did not happen. The current list, which is clearly not a draft version, has taken six months to complete, which is still too short a period to prepare something of its kind properly. And this shows in the exclusion of journals like the JICPR.

So when UGC officials say that the list can or will be updated, one has to wonder how often that will happen – whether once or twice a year or once in three years. How the UGC moves will have an immediate impact on the job and career prospects of India’s current and future professors. And the commission’s past and recent record on such matters is not encouraging.

What needs to happen now

The real test of the list of journals will begin now.

First, the UGC must make it clear that the list of journals will be updated bi-annually to begin with (for perhaps the first two years) and on an annual basis thereafter. If the UGC committee managed to exclude the JICPR, it is very likely that the list excludes many other legitimate journals. It is also not impossible that the list currently includes fake or substandard journals. (Indeed, Thomas Manuel has identified 35 fake journals in the list and the number is a conservative estimate.) Therefore, subject experts and competent librarians need to sift though the list and remove such journals. Not updating the list on a regular basis will hurt good people in Indian academia. This can and must be avoided.

Second, even as the UGC expands the list, it must be careful that it does not include fake or substandard journals. Once such journals are included, it may not be easy to remove them. As a test case, we can wait to see how quickly the UGC is able to remove the journals identified by Thomas Manuel as junk. The inclusion of fake or substandard journals rewards the mediocre and the cheats.

It is very likely that there will be a loud clamour on the part of the professoriate to include several such journals on the grounds that they are in the “vernacular” or that they are Indian journals and peer reviewed. UGC officials must ensure that the list of journals is not updated casually.

Third, there are newer ways to game the system that have become popular. Academics have been using software to generate academic papers to get published in legitimate journals. The peer-review process too has been subject to abuse. Therefore, simply having a legitimate list of journals will not eradicate the problem of poor-quality research or low volumes of research output at India’s higher education institutions. The UGC and universities must put in place more effective mechanisms to discourage the faculty from engaging in research fraud, whether it is publishing in junk journals or something else.

The preparation of a list of journals is only a small step forward and will not by itself do much to improve the quality or volume of research in India. The list itself seems to be poorly prepared and is clumsy in its presentation.

Pushkar is the director of the International Centre Goa, Dona Paula (Goa). The views expressed here are personal.

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  • Joe Hill

    Thanks for this article. The UGC has done well to take a stand in this regard, but is it giving guidance to editorial teams as to how to qualify their journal for the list? It is likely there are many journals in India that are striving to make improvements and to get indexed. The journals listed are only shown to be indexed with 1) WoS, 2) Scopus, and 3) ICI. These are but 3 databases. Scopus owned by Elsevier has recently been in the news for its refusal to help make journals more accessible; since 1st Jan 2017 boycotted by consortium of over 60 major research institutions in Germany (http://boingboing.net/2016/12/15/germany-wide-consortium-of-res.html). Shouldn’t UGC explain why it’s chosen Scopus and WoS – meaning Elsevier and Thomson Reuters – as the directories for qualifying for the list?