The UGC Deserves Applause for Trying to Do Something About Research Fraud

However, what can be questioned is the wisdom of taking up the task of preparing a comprehensive list of legitimate journals.

Credit: pexels.com

Credit: pexels.com

This is the first part of a two-part essay on the UGC’s attempts to improve the research output out of Indian institutions. The second part is here.

In the last week of May, the University Grants Commission (UGC) set up a committee to prepare an exhaustive list of legitimate academic journals across all disciplines. If all goes as planned, Indian academics, at least those based at public universities and other academic institutions, will have to publish in UGC-listed journals to be able to earn points per the Academic Performance Indicators (API) system and become eligible for promotion and other benefits. The same rules will apply for new PhDs looking for academic jobs, in order to earn points and improve their chances of securing teaching and/or research positions (Meanwhile, there are reports that universities too can recommend journals for inclusion in the list and that the UGC committee will take a time-bound decision about it).

The need for making a master-list of legitimate journals arose 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. University authorities routinely ignore such practices because, in many cases, vice-chancellors, directors, deans and heads of departments themselves have published in dubious journals to rise to their positions. Sheer indifference to research ethics has also contributed to such practices becoming commonplace.

Even as teachers at Delhi University and elsewhere oppose the UGC-proposed API reforms and win concessions, including those that will allow individual universities to add to the UGC’s master-list of journals, the issue still calls for further discussion. Three sets of questions seem especially important.

1. How serious is the problem of publishing in fake and substandard journals among India’s faculty? Does the UGC really need to prepare a master-list of legitimate journals? The answer: the practice of publishing in fake journals is widespread in India and because university officials themselves show no interest in addressing the problem, the UGC needs to step in.

2. Is it possible for the UGC to prepare such a comprehensive and complete list across disciplines? Shouldn’t the UGC simply outsource this work to a competent agency and save itself the trouble? Answer: Whether or not the UGC committee outsources the task to Thomson Reuters or Elsevier, there will still be reasons for concern. Even if the UGC committee prepares a master list of journals independently, it will likely be inspired by the journal lists prepared by Thomson Reuters or Elsevier. Either way, the master-list could exclude genuine and relevant journals, especially in the social sciences and humanities. The list may also end up giving undue weightage to certain journals simply because of their high impact-factor even if they are not particularly relevant for Indian social scientists, and discriminate against others which are more relevant for India-specialists the world over.

3. It is important to ask whether the UGC’s master-list will help curb the practice of publishing in fake and/or substandard journals. Indeed, the bigger issue is the relevance of the list in addressing the larger problem of research fraud. Publishing in fake and/or substandard journals is now an ‘old’ practice; new techniques of research fraud – including computer-generated research articles – have emerged in recent years and become quite popular. A list of legitimate journals, even if comprehensive and regularly updated, will therefore only have a partial impact on research fraud. Those inclined to cheat will simply switch to new methods.

I address the first of the three issues highlighted above – that is, the fake journals problem in India – in Part I of the essay; in Part II (forthcoming), I will discuss the remaining two. However, before everything else, it is necessary to be clear about what fake journals are.

What is a fake journal?

Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, is a well-known authority on the subject of fake journals or what he prefers to label “predatory” journals (or publishers). In a document called ‘Criteria for Determining Predatory Open-Access Publishers‘, Beall lays out the many ways in which to identify predatory journals, under five categories: 1) Editor and staff; 2) Business management; 3) Integrity; 4) Other; and 5) Poor journal standards/practice. Under each of these categories, Beall lists several specific features that separate legitimate journals from fake ones.

Of course, there are quicker ways to ascertain whether a journal is legitimate. For example, any journal which approaches an academic (or anyone else) with the promise of publishing a journal-length manuscript (or even less) within a few weeks or even days only in return for a publication fee is likely to be from a predatory publisher or journal. However, in many cases, it is necessary to consult Beall’s notes and the extensive list of dubious publishers and journals that he maintains to be doubly certain. The fake journals menace is widespread and the disease of publishing in such journals quite common.

While writing this essay, I typed “international journal” on google.in. The first four hits were advertisements by what seemed to be fake journals. I clicked on the first one which calls itself the ‘International Journal of Scientific and Engineering Research (IJSER) and claims an impact factor of 3.8. IJSER also publishes PhD dissertations and, of course, it has a publication charge. I clicked on the January 2016 edition on the left side of the page to see who publishes here. You should, too; there are plenty of Indian names, many affiliated to engineering colleges, others to universities, and they include doctoral students and faculty. In general, academics from other Asian countries as also those from Africa and the Middle East commonly use the service as well. There may perhaps be a small number of cases where the person submitting an article was unaware that the journal is fake or predatory. Incidentally, IJSER publishes across nearly all disciplines, which is another known marker of a fake journal. In many cases, the articles are nonsensical. Many are plagiarised or are crude copy-and-paste efforts. And this is just one journal among thousands that are operating to serve academics from around the world.

Substandard journals are different from fake journals. The first and only intent of fake journals is profit. This is largely not true for substandard journals. Neither do they falsely claim a high impact factor or necessarily charge a publication fee. They also do not pursue academics with bulk emails. One can think of substandard journals as those which are not particularly selective in what they publish and, overall, they are of inferior quality in terms of content, editing and almost everything else. However, it is not unethical to publish in substandard journals. The definition of substandard is also subjective in some ways. For example, a legitimate journal with a low impact factor may be considered substandard by some people.

The practice of publishing in fake journals

Ever since the UGC introduced the API system in 2010 and made it mandatory for faculty across all kinds of higher education institutions – i.e. teaching-focused colleges as well as universities, which count as teaching-cum-research institutions – to publish journal articles, earn points and so become eligible for promotions, the practice of publishing in fake journals spread like wildfire. The UGC’s decision to do so was perhaps partly in reaction to the growing popularity of world university rankings and the embarrassing failure of India’s universities to figure among the top 200 institutions in the world.

It was already known that one of the main reasons for the great Indian absence was the poor research output of the faculty (which remains true today despite improvement in some areas.) The research requirement in the API was meant to change that. However, rather than demand research output from faculty at teaching-cum-research and research institutions, the UGC unwisely pushed it on every institution, most of which lacked the necessary research infrastructure, and on faculty who were for the most part poorly trained for research. The attempt to make researchers out of teachers was a terrible idea that rocket-fuelled the growth of fake journals.

Recently-proposed revisions to the API may help undo the damage but in the meantime fake journals have benefited cheaters and hurt the careers of ethically-burdened faculty. Incompetent and dishonest academics have climbed up the ladder while competent and honest ones have stagnated in their positions. University officials, and until recently the government, mostly stayed silent or evasive on the issue much in the same way as they have on another common disease that plagues Indian academia: plagiarism. In fact, it can be said that the complete disregard for research ethics by faculty, university officials and the government is one of the most important aspects of the ‘institutionalised mediocrity‘ in Indian academia.

According to a widely-cited study in the journal BMC Medicine, between 2010 and 2014, publication volumes in fake journals increased from 53,000 to approximately 420,000 articles in 2014. Some 27% of fake journal publishers are India-based. Nearly 75% of the contributors were found to be from Asia and Africa. Of the 262 sampled corresponding authors, around 35% of authors were from India, with Nigeria a distant second at 8%. The fake journals industry is booming and was estimated to be worth $74 million in 2014.

UGC intervention necessary but…

Given this larger context, it is heartening that the government/UGC has taken up the issue. Indeed, the UGC deserves applause for trying to do something. However, what can be questioned is the wisdom of taking up the task of preparing a comprehensive list of legitimate journals. Can such a list be prepared and routinely updated? Could the job not have been outsourced to a credible organisation/agency?

It is also puzzling that the UGC itself is, in recent revisions to the API, making the research requirement more flexible. Under the old scheme, it was mandatory for a teacher to contribute to research in the following manner: Publishing papers in journals (55% weightage); research projects (20%); attending conferences and seminars (15%); and guiding PhD and undergraduate dissertations (10%). In the new framework, a teacher can focus on any one or more of the above in a manner that she finds suitable for herself in the context of her discipline and other factors. What this means is that a teacher can, in theory, accumulate points without journal publications. It is hard to understand the logic of doing the hard work of preparing a list of legitimate journals when the importance of publishing in those journals has been diluted.

Pushkar is an assistant professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa.