The Sciences

Flaws in Academic Publishing Perpetuate a Form of Neo-Colonialism

Making the scientific literature open access from both the production and the consumption perspectives is essential to make knowledge more democratic.

Academic publishing is the backbone of science. Publishing papers is one of the primary ways in which scientists disseminate findings to peers as well as the general public. Academia has been plagued by the ‘publish or perish’ ethos, such that the number of publications you have determines important career events such as procuring tenure.

The process of publishing a scientific paper follows the publication process of any magazine but with more rigour, and the profits garnered by scientific journals are massive. This is because the costs associated with publishing – employing and paying authors, reviewers, and editors – are negligible as none of them are paid. However, to access most publicly-funded knowledge, readers are charged a humongous fee.

Against this background, it is reasonable to assume some individuals may stress quantity over quality and seek to publish quickly. And where there is demand, the market will generate supply. Predatory journals, which are often fraudulent and lack scientific rigour, were quick to cash in on this growing need among some academics to publish as quickly as possible.

They offered promises of quick peer reviews and quicker publication for what is an article processing charge (APC), usually ranging from Rs 2,100 to Rs 2 lakh apiece. An APC, when charged by valid and recognised journals, is meant to offset any potential gains the journal would have accrued had the article not been freely available to all.

Open access (OA) publishing models often let the reader access the paper for free but at a cost to the authors. Even then, all articles are not OA and are behind exorbitant paywalls, and the price an author has to pay to make sure their research can be accessed by anybody anywhere is to pay an APC.

Because academic publishing and OA have huge profit margins, fraudulent organisations, such as OMICS, have tuned into the market to deepen their pockets. Phishing scams are no longer limited to Nigerian princes and have seeped into academic publishing as well.

Also read: In Defence of the Accused, or How to Prove Academic Wrongdoing

Speaking strictly, in terms of India, falling prey to the predatory publishing model has recently been an increasing trend within academia. After the University Grants Commission made research compulsory for teachers, many desperately took to publishing in dubious journals, thus making Indian academics leaders in publishing in fake journals.

Moreover, over half of total predatory journals are Indian, making the issue much starker. Even when researchers may be aware about the reputation of a journal, they might still choose to publish just to show substantial research output, given the emphasis for quantity over quality.

Predatory outlets make use of fake websites that look like the real home-pages of journals, and gather valuable information. For example, hijackers may launch fake conferences and promise the authors that their papers will be published in indexed journals as conference proceedings. They may also encourage researchers to join their editorial board, and then force them to spam their colleagues and solicit them to submit to these journals. While experienced researchers are wary of them, victims are usually young, uninitiated researchers from developing countries such as India.

Another exploitative endeavour is that of a predatory mega-journal, which has a broad scope but low selectivity for articles – a highly bankable model. The majority of the problem lies not in the low selectivity (which should have been the main problem), but in that they often do not perform any serious peer review at all.

This reduces the complexity of the workflow, making them highly remunerative. In other words, they garner greater profits by cutting out administrative tasks such as an initial technical check, or assigning experts to review papers.

Transparency can become a pivotal part of the academic publishing process. For example, many academics recently expressed dissatisfaction about an unethical system, wherein editors reject papers based on “confidential comments from reviewers.”

Also read: Who May Swim in the Ocean of Knowledge?

When we do not know exactly why a paper is being rejected – it could be for completely arbitrary reasons that the authors are unable to address, since the process is not transparent – how would we help science progress? There have also been instances of reviewers being nudged to give a certain decision for subpar work, or work being accepted despite rejection decisions from reviewers.

Some publications charge up to $3,900 (Rs 2.7 lakh) as APCs, which leaves researchers from lower to middle-income countries such as India much poorer. And if academic publication is skewed in favour of high-income countries, science becomes skewed in favour of them.

Explaining real-world phenomena objectively has always been touted as the “white man’s burden” and has been the backbone of the colonising mission. Often only researchers and academics from certain privileged pockets have the resources to conduct and publish cutting-edge research. After all, they enjoy superior infrastructure and funding opportunities.

This disparity is exacerbated when they have sufficient resources to publish their work, often allowing knowledge to be created by only a certain kind of individual. Further, their blinkers and biases may continue to play a role in what they propose is a universal phenomenon – a form of neo-colonialism. Therefore, making science open access from both the production and the consumption perspectives is essential to make knowledge more democratic.

Incentivising editors and reviewers to submit timely peer reviews, in exchange for quicker reviews for their own work might be a good reward system, not involving any monetary aspects. If monetary compensations are to be considered, they could be in the form of adding to the reviewers’ own research funds, through proper protocols in conjunction with universities.

Also read: To Reinvent Peer Review, We Must Reinvent How We Pay Peer-Reviewers Back

The current academic publishing model works in a way that authors contribute their work for free (and often have to pay for it to be published themselves), and peer reviewers assess all submitted work for free. Publishers have therefore enjoyed huge profit margins through the years (in 2017, Elsevier reported a profit of about Rs 8,300 crore) by getting universities to invest in paywalled articles and not having to return these investments.

While research is compulsory for university level teachers in India, not everyone is well-equipped to undertake research. This encourages publishing for the sake of publishing, without consideration for the quality, sometimes leading individuals to hastily pay journals to publish their work in a short time, without following due processes of peer reviews and proofing.

It then falls upon various educational institutions in India to ensure that both students and professors alike are equipped with the appropriate skills to undertake sound research. In an attempt to curb fraudulent publications, the UGC has made a list of approved journals wherein one is encouraged to publish.

Thus, similar to training students in research ethics and academic honesty, we propose training Indian researchers to spot predatory journals and conferences with attractive and misleading claims. Particularly, early career researchers would benefit from such instruction, being the most vulnerable to such avenues.

Second, apart from simply the number of publications, we believe academic advancement across the world would gain from highlighting the quality of research output and wider impact of findings. As far as funding options are concerned, educating researchers about OA policies for research funded by the government a would be good. A step further would be for government funding bodies to include OA fees within grants to preserve access to publicly funded research.

Would offering one-time royalties to authors help solve this complex interaction of publishers, editors, authors, and readers? Would there ever be a time when science is truly open and APCs become obsolete? Such solutions can be considered because academic publishing has reached a crossroads: where we go from here needs to be debated and discussed, not blindly handed over to publishers whose for-profit interests may be driving a socially profitable not-for-profit endeavour into the ground.

Hansika Kapoor is a practicing clinical psychologist and research author; Sampada Karandikar is a senior research assistant; and Arathy Puthillam is a junior research assistant – all in the department of psychology at Monk Prayogshala, Mumbai.