How dodgy academics rake in the bucks

2018-03-11 06:00
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Professor Herbert Maserumule says the country’s academics and researchers are prepared to go to desperate lengths to publish work that doesn’t meet academic standards.

“It’s a money-making scheme,” said the chief editor of the Journal of Public Administration, a scholarly publication issued on behalf of the SA Association of Public Administration and Management.

At times, he says, academics simply plagiarise other people’s work to access funding and perks, which include chances for promotion and exposure.

Maserumule spoke to City Press after a letter containing a bullet was delivered to his office last week from, he suspects, a disgruntled author whose article he rejected.

Maserumule’s journal is accredited by the department of higher education and training, which pays subsidies to universities for published research.

He said some universities pay authors, while others use the subsidies to enhance academic research.

Maserumule says his journal is run correctly, and he sends “proposed articles to peer reviewers who are experts in the field”.

“They decide on whether the article is acceptable or not. I just edit.”

Maserumule is tight-lipped about the threat he received because police are investigating, but says he is still “shaken” and concerned about his safety.

It is not unusual for him to receive rude emails from distraught academics, though. He says paying authors of academic articles reduces scholarship to a “money-making practice” where editors often “endure the wrath of those whose articles have been rejected”.

“This ranges from rude emails from authors upon receipt of their feedback on their articles to deliberate machinations to discredit the journal or its editor,” he said.

“Associated with the practice of directly incentivising authors is often poor-quality papers, some of which are so similar to other works previously published that it suggests the possibility of plagiarism.”

He found it gratifying to receive feedback on his work – either positive or negative – because someone out there took time to engage with his writing and offered an opinion.

“This is what I understand by scholarship. Hence often I find it baffling how, in some instances, authors so aggressively take a negative review of their articles. The question that I often ask myself is: ‘Isn’t this linked to direct incentivisation of authors, where publishing is no longer about the pursuit of scholarship, but money?’

“Perhaps we need to discuss this as workers in the knowledge industry to ensure that research subsidies are always used to realise the intended higher education policy objective of institutionalising research culture, especially in historically disadvantaged universities.”

Maserumule’s ordeal follows a study published last August by Professor Johann Mouton and Astrid Valentine of the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (Crest) at Stellenbosch University. Their study highlighted concerns about academics choosing to publish their research in “predatory journals”, as well as “other questionable publication practices in South Africa”.

Academics pay excessive fees for their articles to appear in predatory journals, which are not academically rigorous and do not subject them to peer review. The primary motive is profit, not quality.

The Crest study found that close to 4 000 papers published by local academics between 2005 and 2014 in 48 journals were either possibly or probably “predatory”, and predatory publishing had been on the rise since 2011.

Researchers analysed 112 555 individual papers published by local academics and compared them with a list of predatory journals published by US scholar Jeffrey Beall, who initiated a now defunct website black-listing predatory journals.

Crest researchers found that articles by South African academics had appeared in at least 29 journals on Beall’s list, including the Mediterranean Journal of Social Science (MJSS), in which 388 articles were published.

The remaining 11 journals contained 659 articles.

Researchers noted that if all questionable papers they identified were granted funding by the department, it would have paid R27 million over the past 10 years for papers that appeared in spurious journals.

Maserumule said the department paid R120 000 per published paper.

The study also found that academics in 23 of South Africa’s 26 universities published papers in predatory journals other than the MJSS.

The study found that predatory journals usually include editors or editorial board members with faked or no academic affiliations, and bogus readership and impact claims.

“The demand to publish and to perform in highly competitive environments has led to different kinds of perverse consequences ... [including an] increase in plagiarism and self-plagiarism, and a host of unethical authorship practices [such as ghost authorship],” the study found.

Researchers found that between 2011 and 2015, scholars at 14 local universities published in questionable journals, including the African Journal for Physical Health and Education, Recreation and Dance, continued by the African Journal for Physical Activity and Health Sciences in 2016.

Researchers believe the journals were questionable because their editors, editorial board members and individual academics published alarmingly frequently in their own journals – sometimes a large number of papers in the same issue. They also found publication cartels, where two or more individuals repeatedly co-authored in the same journal.

Researchers said the enormous pressure to publish and publish fast was to blame.

“This situation is no less true in South Africa where we have for some time now seen the pervasive effects of the department funding system in combination with the National Research Foundation rating system,” the report found.

“As long as authors are [mostly] rewarded for publishing many articles and editors are rewarded for publishing them rapidly, new ways of gaming the traditional publication models will be invented more quickly than new control measures can be put in place.”

Researchers recommended that universities needed help identifying predatory publishing cases before submitting them to the department for subsidies. They also recommended that ongoing analysis of local publication practices was needed to identify cases and alert the department and university research offices to them.

“More workshops in basic bibliometrics are needed to understand the publication and citation behaviour, the dangers of unethical and questionable practices in scientific authorship and especially of predatory publishing for all students and emerging scholars,” the study recommended.

“Growth in output must go hand in hand with proper quality and ethical surveillance.”

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