The Sciences

'Predatory' Is a Misnomer in the Unholy Nexus Between Journals and Plagiarism

In academia, the crime of plagiarism used to be so heinous that moral discouragement alone kept this menace in check. Now, explicit laws seem necessary in place of a collective moral compass.

The recent investigation by Indian Express on the proliferation and success of fake journals, inappropriately called ‘predatory’ journals, raises a few questions for the academic community: Why do the fake journals succeed? What is the role of the academicians in the whole unsavoury episode?

At the outset, it is imperative to point out that it is incorrect to call them ‘predatory’ journals because the term predatory suggests that there is a predator and a victim. The academicians who publish in these journals are not victims; most often, they are self-serving participants. The measure of success is the number of articles received by these journals. The journals provide a space to those who wanted easy credit. And a large number of us wanted this easy credit because we were, to begin with, not suitable for the academic profession and were there for the job. In essence, these journals could not have succeeded without an active participation and the connivance of some of us.

Creating and disseminating knowledge

We academicians engage in teaching (disseminating known knowledge) and researching (creating knowledge). The knowledge created through research is mostly disseminated through publication in appropriate forums à la journals. Those who create knowledge are generally assumed to follow certain moral guidelines, at times explicitly defined by various institutions. The success of fake journals shows that we have failed somewhere.

As teachers, we are supposed to impart not just the knowledge regarding the subject but also the ability to distinguish right from wrong. Research experience of more than three decades has taught us that even the best of our manuscripts have improved after peer review. The acceptance of a manuscript without any comments from the referee should immediately raise a red flag, and be taken as an indicator of lack of peer review.

Once aware, as conscientious academics, we should avoid contributing to such journals. By continuing to publish in such journals, we are conveying to our students that it is okay to take short-cuts in order to meet our goals, without the rigour of following the correct path. By extension, we are conveying to the student that it is okay to take short-cuts in life for small personal benefits without going through the mill. At some stage, each one of us should answer this question to oneself: Did we encourage our students to publish in good journals, and discourage them by making them aware of the pitfalls of publishing in fake journals?

There are instances when academics have been truly duped by these fake journals. A colleague who is a physicist was sent an article on agriculture for reviewing. On declining to review the article, he was requested to make the suitable entry through the web-portal of the journal. On checking the web-portal, he was surprised to see a number of international research collaborators listed as reviewers of the journal, and they were not even aware of it. It seems that as soon as one makes an entry on the web-portal, one is “registered” as a reviewer.

The UGC list

A few years ago, the University Grants Commission (UGC) had sought a list of journals from various universities and institutes to be included in a master list of ‘approved’ journals. Each journal that appeared on the list was recommended by academicians and was filtered through collective committees. The appearance of fake journals in this list indicates the failure of academic institutions to check these journals even when there was a chance. Many of us were fully aware of the presence of fake journals on the list and either did nothing about it or were completely helpless in the given system. If the process is repeated – as proposed by Prakash Javadekar, the Union minister for human resource development (MHRD) – would we expect a different result?

Fake journals and plagiarism in academics go hand-in-hand. The lack of peer review and a complete absence of quality checking provides a safe channel to publish plagiarised articles. It is therefore no coincidence that along with fake journals, almost all academic fields have also seen an epidemic of plagiarism. The menace has grown to an embarrassing extent, with reported instances of plagiarism in the most respected institutions, forcing the UGC to take up the plagiarism issue and formulate laws to quantify crime and specify penalties for defaulters. Earlier, in academic circles, plagiarism was such a heinous crime that moral discouragement alone kept this menace in check, in the absence of any explicit laws.

In the corridors of every university, we have heard people publishing articles in very short time spans, sometimes within a day. By no stretch of imagination could that be a result of original research and/or thought. The fact that a large number of plagiarised articles are published in these journals is a testimony to our depravity as researchers.

In the recent past, there have been multiple reports on the incidence of plagiarism, including that of top-level academicians from the Department of Atomic Energy, various IITs and central universities and research institutes. The phenomenon is flourishing in most state universities. Such has the acceptance for this menace been that the administration does not even consider it worthy of investigation. We have multiple stories where the institutes are unwilling to investigate and punish one of its own and will try to hush up any reported cases.

It is always difficult to take unpleasant actions, particularly those without precedence. But unless some action is taken, there will be no precedence, letting plagiarism remain unchecked. The consequences for the research atmosphere is multifold; the system has insulted serious researchers, discouraged whistle-blowers and encouraged the juniors to emulate the plagiarisers.

Who is responsible?

The onus of correcting this is on the nationwide moral keepers of higher education.

A recent, sad example of the administration’s role in instances of plagiarism by two senior professors of the University of Rajasthan, a state university, was reported by The Wire along with proof of some of their plagiarised papers. In one case, the administration held an enquiry at the behest of the office of the chancellor, and absolved the professor on an unjustified excuse after causing as much delay in the report. One of the plagiarised articles had the professor as a single author and was published as conference proceedings (with an ISSN number) – where the professor himself was a member of the editorial board. In another case, the accused professor was absolved with the report of the committee saying that the professor had bought the copyright from the original author.

These personal experiences were very illuminating about the nature of all-pervading academic corruption. Both these professors were escalated to the post of dean, one of them as a member of the highest body of the university (Syndicate), and has since retired. Such was the influence that the gentleman in question, a master plagiarist, is now a nominee of the President of India to the Central University of Rajasthan.

In light of multiple episodes of academic fraud, the UGC has drafted regulations for the promotion of academic integrity and prevention of plagiarism in higher education institutions. When implemented, the regulations propose to place the responsibility of (i) recognising the act of plagiarism, (ii) deciding the responsibility of the act, and (iii) deciding the quantum of punishment on the university/institution administration itself. In cases when the head of the institute or the deans are themselves accused of plagiarism, there will be little respite from this menace even after the UGC regulations are implemented. It requires will and a firm moral beacon.

Unfortunately, if a known plagiarising faculty member goes unpunished, a very undesirable but strong message is passed to the faculty: ”the anti-plagiarism policy of UGC/institute does not have the teeth”.

It might be of interest to study the behaviour of academicians in this case. While the pressure to publish has always been present, it was more a positive pressure through one’s peers. The desire to make the process of selection objective – prompting the introduction of the academic performance indicators (API) – was an indirect way of accepting the lack of wisdom of the members of various selection committees. Worse, it pressurised academicians to increase their publications to meet the demands of the API. Instead of working towards obtaining the score, we are ready to circumvent the process with fake publications without any qualms. But the real reasons for willingness to cheat in order to publish and score a promotion lies more in the culture of our times.

Even when we are not participating in the fraud as individuals, we do not want to be the keeper of other persons’ morals, even at the cost of academics. We do not want to be whistle blowers, we do not want to spoil our relationships with our colleagues. In the process of not shouldering our responsibility, we elevated the crime from being individual to institutional. Can we, the academicians, still be trusted to imbue morals in our students?

What can possibly be done?

Since the ultimate damage is to academics, it is necessary for the guardians of academics – the academic bodies – to get their hands dirty. The agenda of an ethics committee of the academic bodies can be expanded to help define/certify that plagiarism has taken place. Once plagiarism is certified by an independent body, outside the ambit of the institution where it has been committed, the administration of the plagiariser’s institute cannot not take action against the perpetrators since the case goes on record.

Any inaction should warrant serious action from the MHRD or regulatory bodies. The message has to be passed that plagiarism is discouraged and that punitive action will be taken against those who indulge in it – and the message is best passed by showcasing examples. As with most other crimes, unless there is swift action, there will be no deterrence against plagiarism. In addition, any recruitment or promotion should be accompanied with an affidavit (with legal sanctity) that the candidate has not plagiarised and a pledge that she shall not plagiarise henceforth either.

The proliferation of fake journals is a symptom. The root of the problem is the loss of direction of our collective moral compass. Promoting plagiarisers in the academic hierarchy encourages others to take the same path. Peer pressure is essential to stem this rot and for that, it is essential to isolate and shame the plagiarisers in the community.

Many of us are aware of Jeffrey Beall’s list of predatory and fake journals, which was discontinued due to pressure from fake journals as well as the University of Colorado, where he was a librarian. The number of journals from India that were listed on it was embarrassing. It undoes the efforts of honest researchers who have been working to put Indian academic efforts at par with other countries in the world. Although Beall’s list has been discontinued, the Indian Scientific community should maintain a list of reputed journals that are recognised within the community and any publication in a journal outside this list should be ignored. The list would have to be constantly maintained to check the listed journal from reappearing in another guise. The recent efforts by the UGC to weed out fake journals from its list of approved journals is commendable. However, much still needs to be done on the list. It requires continuous efforts and the active support of Indian academics to keep the list free of fake journals.

Rashmi Raniwala and Sudhir Raniwala teach at the University of Rajasthan, and have had experience of international collaborative research at CERN, Geneva, and other places for decades. Sudhir Raniwala was the Director at LNMIIT, Jaipur. Both professors have been fighting against academic malpractice, spreading awareness and have given a large number of talks across Rajasthan on academic integrity and ethics.

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