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The Dark Side

India Tries to Deal With Predatory Publishers

There’s more activity on the predatory journal front. A large investigation reported recently that the number of papers put out by the five largest publishers in this category has tripled since 2015, so there’s clearly an expanding market for such “services”. Among the elite (by which I mean the top layer of this pond scum) are the Omics group and WASET, both of whose activities I have covered in past blogs here. Those links will give you a good idea of their operations: they’re scams. No one should give them money, which is the same thing as saying that no one should be publishing with them, because they sure won’t publish a word until your funds deposit. As usual, the problem is that there are indeed legitimate (and more than merely legitimate) open-access publishers that will charge you to publish your paper, too. The difference is that the legitimate ones actually do review and editorial work, funded by those charges, as opposed to the predatory outfits. Their model is publishing every single piece of crap that comes in accompanied by hard currency, and spending not one penny on quality control of any sort, because why would you?

Now the government of India has announced that it’s cracking down on such publications in that country, news that comes not long after word of far-reaching science oversight in China. Universities are to remove the predatory publishers from their approved lists, so that papers with them don’t count for promotion, etc. Of course, one reason we got to this point was that India’s system (the “Academic Performance Indicator”) is basically set up to weigh scientific publications by the kilo (a problem China has had, too). You’d hope that this would start to improve things, but I wonder.  One possibility is that the publishers themselves will change names/letterheads/putative locations just enough to stay ahead of the Indian bureaucracy, and from what I’ve heard from my Indian colleagues over the years, staying ahead of the Indian bureaucracy is generally not something that will cause you to break into much of a sweat.

This outcome seems likely to me based on what’s happened already: the country’s University Grants Commission already put out a “white list” of approved journals in 2017, but it had many predatory outfits on it. Their excuse has been that these were recommended by several universities, and that they only realized later that they were problematic, removing thousands of titles a few months ago. That’s not much of an excuse, honestly – how can you be in charge of putting together such a list and not notice this sort of thing? There also seem to be few consequences for publishing in these venues, so it look like (1) the incentives to crank out such papers will still exist, since they’re still evaluating based on number of publications, (2) the disincentives will be minimal, since you’re not punished in any way for this behavior other than your “papers” not counting if you send them to a title that’s on the current list, and (3) the predatory publishers themselves have every reason to get around this for their own purposes. After all, this is a large customer base and they’re not going to say goodbye to them without a fight.

So I applaud the Indian authorities for realizing that there’s a problem and at least attempting to do something about it. But they shouldn’t expect too much applause until they demonstrate that what they’re doing has some effect. It shouldn’t be too long before we know.

19 comments on “India Tries to Deal With Predatory Publishers”

  1. b says:

    One thing I’ve never understood about people publishing in predatory journals: shouldn’t the individuals that are judging job performance know what a good/reputable journal is in the field being evaluated and what isn’t? And if not, it can’t be that hard to have an in-house colleague provide some guidance. Are the higher-ups really that clueless?

    1. a. nonymaus says:

      The higher-ups are complicit, not clueless. As director of the Institute for Low-Impact Chemistry, I have an incentive to show that my researchers are publishing at a rate higher than those slackers at the Institute for Autocatalytic Substrate Decomposition. Thus, I cannot look to closely at exactly where my underlings are publishing so long as the next layer up is either far enough removed, politically appointed, or similarly motivated. After all, how else will I justify the overhead rates that keep the fixtures in the administrative wing gold-plated?

      1. Anonymous says:

        You call others “slackers”? And you brag about “gold-PLATED” fixtures? You need to upgrade your own slacker program to get solid gold (24 k, and not that 10 k junk) fixtures and door knobs for your admin areas. Until your future increased budgets get funded, you can fire a few lab researchers and divert their funding to the “transition metal research project” in your offices and bathrooms.

        1. Anon says:

          You must be joking. If anything, “transition metal research project” researchers are being replaced by chembio or materials science folks.

          1. MatthewTKK says:

            woosh

  2. cynical1 says:

    You asked “……..how can you be in charge of putting together such a list and not notice this sort of thing?”

    I really have no idea but it occurs to me that maybe some of the people on the country’s University Grants Commission might have been given a financial incentive in some way to look the other way……….not to be confused with a bribe.

    Of course, nothing like this takes place in the U.S. Our integrity starts at the top and, well,………..oh………..um……………never mind.

  3. doc says:

    Well, one possible approach to sanctions-by-the-kilo is to go to a “net publications” model. That is, one junk paper published is a negative number, and deletes a paper published in a recognized non-junk journal. Lots of problems with that, of course, not the least being that it counts everything as equally worthwhile (or not). But if all one is doing is counting the bodies, that method would sanction choosing predatory publishers without requiring any judgement beyond identifying those publishers.

    Wouldn’t prevent the “scientist” himself from counting everything, but it would easily deflate the bs for the grants and promotions committees, as the beancounting could be done by a secretary with a list.

    1. Junkie says:

      Define “junk paper”

      1. justhouseplants says:

        +1 to this. Without a solid definition accepted by the majority of scientists; it’s not an easy task. Someone should publish a paper on this. It would be interesting to make a bunch of obviously terrible papers and see who passes and who publishes them.

        1. MatthewTKK says:

          If you Google “john bohannon predatory” you can see just such an experiment (written up as a news article in Science). He even went the full enchilada and sent press releases to health magazines once a bogus journal agreed to publish the article; the magazines dutifully regurgitated the false claims of the bogus paper as if they were fact. Not cheerful reading.

  4. Eric says:

    Rather than try to stop these predatory journals, why not try and remove the incentive to publish in these journals?
    First, NIH could ignore previous publications when reviewing grants. Make grant funding contingent upon the proposed idea and don’t give weight to past performance. This would have the added benefit of reducing the super-labs that gobble up the lion’s share of the funding (unless they also happened to have the most novel and intriguing ideas – in which case, hey they probably deserve the funding).
    Second, universities could make promotions and tenure decisions by actually reading the candidate’s publications rather than just looking at the length of the CV.

    After writing this I realize that the likelihood of getting funding agencies and universities to make these changes are slim to nil. So just keep playing whack-a-mole with shady journals.

  5. Isidore says:

    I have seen many CVs that list being a reviewer for some journal or other among the individual’s accomplishments/qualifications. I am surprised that predatory journals could not find willing scientists to serve as reviewers, especially with the added incentive that reviewers wouldn’t be obligated to offer criticism or even read submitted manuscripts. Then they would be, at least on paper, indistinguishable from legitimate open access journals, as both charge for publishing an article.

  6. loupgarous says:

    We had (in wikipedia) to decide the fate of a guy in Florida who was the king of academic self-publication (a physicist who decided early on in his career that Steven Weinberg had the spare time to orchestrate a Zionist conspiracy against him for proving Einstein wrong) and who’d paid a couple of people on his staff to curate a wikipedia article about him.

    Well, not only were Dr. Fringe Antisemite’s in-house physics journals cited in his article, but his magnum opus of alternative physics, and a raft of his papers in pay-to-play fora such as “The American Journal of Modern Physics”, which had two dozen members, two of whom actually lived in either South or North America. The rest lived in the Stans, Pakistan, India, or east Africa.

    That was one of a number of journals printed by the “Science Publishing Group”, no relation to AAAS or the publisher of this blog. The one thing they all had in common was forgiving peer review (your academic sins were forgiven when your check cleared) and authors who tended (within the same discipline) to cite each other in the very large lists of references in their papers.

    That mattered to us discussing if this guy was notable enough to have his very own article in wikipedia because his Google Scholar impact rating was pretty respectable, due to the mutual admiration society he belonged to of guys you never read about in Science or any other reputable scientific journal. The consensus (to which I did not belong) decided this guy’s fringe science and his being a celebrity in self-publication made him notable enough for an article in wikipedia. At least we called his stuff fringe science in the article.

    But if people can cite each other in predatory journals and hike their impact scores in Google Scholar, that’s another reason for the predatory journals to stay in business. Google Scholar can’t be bothered to winnow the bogus journals out of the metadata it uses to assess impact on any particular author’s field. We found that out when we discovered fringe scientists in some disciplines (like physics) have as much impact on their fields as many reputable researchers.

  7. loupgarous says:

    that should have read, in paragraph two:
    Well, not only were Dr. Fringe Antisemite’s in-house physics journals cited in his article, but his magnum opus of alternative physics, and a raft of his papers in pay-to-play fora such as “The American Journal of Modern Physics”, which had an Editorial Board of two dozen members, two of whom actually lived in either South or North America. The rest lived in the Stans, Pakistan, India, or east Africa.

  8. AResearcher says:

    Can’t the Indian government simply switch to Scopus/SCI indexed journals instead? (Please correct me if my logic is wrong). Isn’t it obvious that the whole system is corrupt from head to toe?

    1. Thoryke says:

      It’s possible that India would like to have its own system, rather than rely on information from other countries. Science is an international effort, but national pride can get in the way of other ideals.

      1. loupgarous says:

        I’m not picking on India here – bureaucrats in research everywhere have survival instincts.

        It’s possible that someone whose publications list consists to a significant degree of articles in journals eschewed by reputable scientists would not be anxious to bar other people’s articles in those very same journals, and invite charges of hypocrisy.

        I can foresee reforms such as the ones India and China have announced eventually being denounced as driven by “first world privilege” – when, say, a prominent scientist, one who’s lead author on an IPCC report and whose prestige is useful to his government is found to have a publications list in which the work which contributed to his Google Scholar impact ratings was published in predatory journals.

        One thing those journals are really good for is log-rolling among scientists in the same fields to cite each other and boost everyone’s Google Scholar impact scores. It wouldn’t be hard for people like that to discover that they’re victims of an elite unwilling to allow prominent researchers in the Third World to receive the recognition due them.

  9. Insilicoconsulting says:

    You’d be surprised to learn that while still a beaureacracy ,the current indian govt has seriously cracked the whip in a number of areas. While predatory journal publishers changing titles can’t be ruled out, sooner than later , the govt will find a means to lessen their impact. India’s been changing….

  10. Marc Piquette says:

    Well it’s a good first step to recognize that there is a problem both with predatory journals, and with success being measured only by a (fairly arbitrary) number. Whether or not meaningful change will arise from it…

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