Scientists in the Lurch After Imprecise MHRD Notice About 'Paid Journals'

A "completely confusing statement" in a gazette notification has scientists wondering which of their papers will and won't be considered towards their promotions in the future.

New Delhi: A notification from the ministry of human resource development to the National Institutes of Technology (NITs) in July this year has stated that papers published in journals that levy an article processing charge will not earn career advancement credits for their authors.

The notification has been directed towards quelling the menace of predatory journals, which will publish anything in exchange for an often substantial fee. However, the MHRD move has also sparked consternation among some scientists, who believe that there are legitimate journals that also charge an article processing charge, or APC, and that punishing scientists who publish in such journals would not be fair.

Rise of predatory journals

Scientists routinely publish the papers that they write in scientific journals. The journals provide two services in return. They subject the papers that they receive to a peer review, where the manuscripts are vetted by a group of experts on the same topic for their novelty and validity (among other things). And once a paper has cleared peer review, the journal publishes it to create a public record of it as well as to publicise it. Conventionally, such journals have covered the costs of peer review and printing (and reap great profits) by charging readers an access fee.

“Journals are published by commercial entities, academies, societies and government bodies. Most non-open-access journals are published by commercial entities, with a few corporations dominating,” said Subbiah Arunachalam, a scientist and activist. “Their journals are priced high and several of them make big profits. Not all the journals they publish are of high quality though.”

One of the major modern scientific publishing paradigms, broadly collected under the label ‘open access’ (OA), flipped this convention. OA journals make their money by charging scientists an APC and then make the published paper available to access freely.

The OA movement has been perceived as a form of social justice because the financial burden of publishing is moved towards educational institutions and universities, which have higher spending power, and away from individual consumers, who often can’t afford the access fee by themselves. The movement also gives scientists in countries with lower spending power the ability to easily access papers published by scientists in richer countries.

Also read: Why open access has to look up for academic publishing to look up

However, some journals – many of them published from India – call themselves ‘OA journals’, charge an APC from scientists but don’t bother with the quality, originality or validity of what they’re publishing. Collectively called predatory journals, their rise has been fuelled by the ‘publish or perish’ environment in modern academia, where scholars can’t rise to the top unless they publish great papers frequently. In India, the problem has been exacerbated by a set of guidelines issued by the University Grants Commission last year. And when the institutions they belong to simply want to be able to claim their faculty members publish a lot of papers, the result is that predatory journals can charge a high APC, still expect scholars to want to publish mediocre research with them, and get away with it.

Simple statement, many consequences

The MHRD gazette notification, issued on July 21, 2017, lists amendments to the first statutes of the NITs. One amendment includes updates to the credit point system used by institutional administrators to determine if a faculty member qualifies for a promotion. For example, an assistant professor with 20 credit points can qualify to become an associate professor if she accrues 50 credit points. There are many ways to earn credits. One is to publish papers: according to the notification, each paper published that is indexed in the Science Citation Index or the Scopus database earns four points.

However, there is a catch: “Paid journals not allowed” (note 2, s. no. 4, p. 15).

This is a reference to the ‘pay to publish’ modus of predatory journals but it so happens to include some legitimate OA journals as well as non-OA journals that charge a fee to make a paper openly accessible. Subhash C. Lakhotia, a cytogeneticist and senior scientist at the Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, pointed out that the latter is a practice often carried out by ‘conventional’ journals like Nature and some titles published by Elsevier. As a result, “papers in all these journals become discounted – which is absolutely ridiculous.”

R. Subrahmanyam, the additional secretary for technical education at the MHRD, explained the notification to The Wire: “Non-consideration of publications in ‘paid journals’ for career advancement is a standard practice in IITs and other premium institutions, not only NITs,” He added that he wasn’t “aware of any ‘standard’ journals which take money for publication of a high-quality article”.

Also read: At least 82 in UGC’s list of ‘preferred’ journals can be classified as ‘predatory’

However, if the MHRD’s intention was to preclude authors publishing in predatory journals alone, some have argued that the brevity of the rider is callous. Lakhotia called it a “completely confusing statement”. But Subrahmanyam defended it: “The fear is that once you open this window, there is NO stopping of predatory journals. But [we] can get this contention examined by some experts” (emphasis in the original).

Peush Sahni, the editor of the National Medical Journal of India, thinks the sweeping nature of the ‘paid journals’ line does not bode well. In an editorial he coauthored in 2016, he had pointed out a similar issue with a notification of the Medical Council of India the year before. It had stated that if scientists at India’s medical colleges and institutions published papers in ‘e-journals’, those papers would not be considered when the scientists were up for promotions. However, this is unfair because excluding ‘e-journals’ would exclude “many high-quality journals that are published only in the electronic format”.

K. VijayRaghavan, secretary of the Union government’s Department of Biotechnology (DBT), acknowledged Sahni’s contention: “There are many excellent journals that are not predatory and charge, but these usually also waive when you declare an inability to pay.” Lakhotia disagreed, however, saying that many OA journals that used to waive their APCs earlier now refuse to and ask for a minimum fee.

Money put to better use

On the other hand, some scholars and activists have said that this is a welcome move. Arunachalam, a member of the team that drafted the OA policy adopted by the Department of Science & Technology (DST) and DBT, told The Wire that he doesn’t prefer scientists pay APCs to have their papers published – even in legitimate OA journals – “especially if the money for paying comes from the taxpayers”.

According to a paper in Current Science last year that Arunachalam coauthored, Indian scientists between 2011 and 2014 published 14,293 papers in OA journals that charged a fixed APC. The average APC per paper was $1,173 (Rs 75,900). A study published in 2014 had estimated that the global average per paper was $964 (Rs 62,400). Without APCs in the picture, Arunachalam and his coauthors estimated that Indian institutions could save about Rs 16 crore every year.

“The money saved could be used for other research-related activities – experiments, fellowships to students, facilitating student participation in conferences, hosting overseas collaborators, etc,” he told The Wire.

The DST-DBT OA policy requires full copies of all research funded either in part or in full by public money to be deposited in institutional repositories, or in a centralised national repository, that is free to access. “What I am suggesting and what the DST-DBT policy demands is for authors to deposit the post print – the final draft after peer-review and acceptance by a journal” in the repositories, and for the NITs and IITs to consider those copies for the credits system instead of rejecting “paid journals” en masse.

So the question remains as to how anyone expects legitimate OA journals that don’t charge an APC to recoup money spent on arranging for peer review, etc. As Joseph Esposito, a management consultant and an expert on the topic, has written, “Whatever the benefits of OA, reduced costs are not among them”.

Some Indian journals that are both OA and don’t charge an APC are published by the Current Science Association, the Indian Academy of Sciences, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences, among others.

However, there is a marked preference among scientists around the world – and within India – for publishing in journals with a high impact factor (IF). The IF is a measure of how important a journal is; it is calculated based on the average number of times a paper published in the journal is cited by other papers.

Of late there has been some awareness of the harmful effects of measuring a scientist’s ‘worth’ based solely on the number of papers they’ve published in high-IF journals, but such awareness is not widely shared. For example, getting one’s paper published in the UK-based  Nature is still considered by many to be more ‘prestigious’ than when published in, say, India’s own Current Science – if only because Nature has a larger and more influential readership. Over time, this perception leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Quantitative metrics to measure quality

Predatory journals have made this notion harder to defeat by misusing the ‘OA’ label, but they aren’t the only problem. Some publishers levy an APC and also continue to charge for subscriptions, a practice known as double-dipping. “This model is unethical in the first place and unaffordable to developing and emerging countries,” Arunachalam said. “When there are better and cost-effective ways to make one’s results known to other researchers, I don’t see any reason why we should choose the APC route.”

Also read: Research fraud of one kind or another will continue to take place in India

However, are scientists entirely free to choose to publish their papers in such journals without any impact on their careers? A faithful adherence to the DST-DBT OA policy would say the answer is ‘yes’. But some scientists this correspondent spoke to say the answer is really ‘no’. “It’s a common problem in India, both officially and unofficially,” according to Lakhotia.

“As the situation with regard to evaluation of scientists stands now, in India, I do not feel that scientists can afford to not take journal reputations into cognisance while choosing where to publish,” said Amitabh Joshi, a professor of evolutionary and organismal biology at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru. “Many of us do not want to spend the time and energy involved in reading and assessing the worth of a piece of work. So noting that it is published in a ‘big’ journal and assuming that ‘therefore it must be good science’ becomes a shortcut to proper scientific assessment. We cover this up by claiming that this is more ‘objective’. It is however also a fact that the freedom to exercise ‘subjective’ judgement can be misused for nepotistic or other unethical purposes. Ultimately quality can’t be judged via quantitative metrics.”

(Joshi clarified that his opinions are his personal views as a practicing scientist and are not necessarily shared by institutions with which he is affiliated in various capacities.)

Ultimately, the way out seems to be to have the MHRD clarify the notification such that it excludes journals that are known to be legitimate. One common way to identify them has been to check if they are listed in certain journal databases, like Scopus or Web of Science. But even should this happen, it will be a stopgap measure.

The real issue is that there appears to be discontentment simmering among OA activists who want public money to be spent on research-related activities instead of being given to journals in the form of an APC. On the other hand, scientists feel that they should not be penalised for what often is, at the end of the day, good science.

According to Lakhotia, the gazette notification to the NITs is a result of “bureaucrats making decisions without consulting scientists and the science academies”. He said that the MHRD has to stop going by the numbers – a request of Joshi’s also – and instead take qualitative measures to judge scientific research: “The MHRD should guide scientists on what is good science. Indian science is often of high quality but when the name of the journal matters and the IF matters, etc. – that is what is killing Indian science.”