Saturday, December 31, 2016

Academic publishing is the name of the game

For over three decades I have subscribed to an academic journal which has unfailingly maintained appalling quality. A grab bag of unreadable articles printed on awful-looking stationery – a very good combination, I must say – with a drivelling editorial in laboured sentences adding to the effect, the journal, in its four-decade-long history, has never made an attempt to rise above subpar editing. If I still subscribe to the journal, it is because the association of teachers that publishes the journal is doing good work in promoting the teaching of English in this country. Besides, when journals which are poorer in quality charge a fee for processing submissions, this one doesn’t. That the journal has repeatedly invited me to contribute articles is another factor that has often dissuaded from saying anything bad about it.

What broke this resolve was what I saw on the cover page of the current issue of the journal last evening. Crowning the unaesthetically-designed cover was the logo of an impact factor (IF) company with the metric assigned by the company prominently printed in black on a light blue background in the centre. The title page was also dominated by the IF: it carried not only the logo of the IF company but also a photocopy of the certificate of IF obtained from the company. Apparently, the journal was proud of its new acquisition.

Why shouldn’t it be? A journal being indexed among scholarly journals of the world and its value calculated in scientific terms and announced in the form of a certificate is a major landmark in the growing reputation and credibility of the journal. And if the journal proudly displays the metric assigned as well as the logo of the IF company which assigned the value, what’s wrong?

Oh nothing. Except that the IF seemed a fake metric and the company an impostor. I wanted to be doubly sure, so I wrote to Jeffrey Beall, Librarian, Auraria Library, at the University of Colorado, Denver, USA, who is an authority on the subject; Beall's List of potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers is well-known in scholarly circles. Within two hours, Jeffrey sent me a reply confirming that the IF company was an impostor. The impact factor, he said in the mail, ‘is a completely fake metric... Don’t be fooled. Xxxx is an imposter. If you use the xxxx impact factor, you will be telling all researchers that yours is a fake journal.’

 As a reviewing editor of a few reputable international journals for over a decade, I have had opportunities to witness some of the disturbing trends in the field of academic research in general and academic publishing in particular. Five of them, which have grown to alarming proportions, thanks to overt support and encouragement from third-rate researchers and academics, pose a serious threat to academic publishing:

  1. Predatory open-access publishing (accepting submissions, including hoax and nonsensical papers, as a matter of course, and publishing them on payment of a fee with no peer review [though peer reviewing is duly mentioned on the websites] and without even editing)
  2. Selling and buying authorship of papers – an extension of the widespread practice of ghostwriting theses for money
  3. Hijacking journals (counterfeiting scholarly journals and then spamming academics, especially researchers who are desperately in need of publications in impact-factor journals – a case in point is the hijacking of Revista CEPAL [CEPAL Review], a scholarly journal sponsored by ECLAC, a UN agency)
  4. “Organizing” fake conferences
  5. Assigning fake impact factors

It’s the last that I’m talking about here.

This is what Wikipedia says about IF:

In any given year, the impact factor of a journal is the number of citations received by articles published in that journal during the two preceding years, divided by the total number of articles published in that journal during the two preceding years. For example, if a journal has an impact factor of 3 in 2008, then its papers published in 2006 and 2007 received 3 citations each on average in 2008.

Fake impact factors are produced by companies not affiliated with Thomson Reuters (TR). These are often used by predatory publishers. Consulting TR's master journal list can confirm if a publication is indexed by TR, which is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for obtaining an IF.

And Jeffrey has confirmed that the IF company in question is not affiliated with TR.

Aren’t the publishers and the editors of the journal aware that the company whose services they have used for obtaining an IF is an impostor?

For all I know, they are. You see, academic publishing is by and large – I repeat, by and large; in sequestered pockets, brilliant research is going on generating exceptional papers – a con game. According to an estimate by Jeffrey Beall (, there were 477 predatory open-access journals in 2014; it was a huge leap from 225 in 2013. Assuming that they maintain that rate, there must be over 1500 such journals now. And if you include what Jeffrey calls standalone journals without the platform of a publisher, the number may be 5000; it may be 10,000 if you add genuine but trashy journals carrying useless stuff. In the case of pay-and-use journals, once you pay the submission fee (some journals even collect an editing fee from authors and then publish their papers within a couple of hours!), your paper is published – within twenty-four hours! Thus, you have a publication in a “peer-reviewed” journal which has a fake impact factor for good measure. But who cares if it is fake or genuine? Trashy journals also need the IF status because they cannot hope to gain reputation by virtue of the quality of their articles. Together, all these categories of people – publishers of journals, fake IF companies, and third-rate researchers and academics – play a con game pulling the wool over the eyes of a gullible system which can’t read but can only count.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Elephant-like or tigerish? -- some thoughts on quality assurance in Indian higher education

Having just declined an invitation to speak at a seminar on quality assurance (QA) in higher education, I thought I might record some of my "heretical" ideas on the subject here.

The post-NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council) period has seen the emergence of a plethora of fashionable terms in higher education.  One of them which has become so well-known on account of its having been bandied about in seminars and reports is QA.  Over the past two decades, there has been a surfeit of national seminars on quality assurance, quality enhancement, and the role of the internal quality assurance cell (IQAC) in quality enhancement.  I have attended some of them either as a resource person or as a mere participant, and I have gone through the proceedings of a few other seminars which I did not have the opportunity to attend.  As I reflected on the seminars I participated in, I had three thoughts, two of which were disturbing and one amusing. I would like to share them here.

Thought 1: Are the seminars on QA themselves qualitative?

If the seminars I attended were representative, seminars on QA do little more than dishing out in, textbook language, theoretical information on QA norms which would make little sense in the context of education but which provide easy answers to questions about quality assurance and enhancement in higher education.  That even these borrowed ideas and easy answers are expressed in a sloppy, slipshod way is a measure of the presentation skills of professionals who are primarily communicators.  This sad spectacle in QA seminars is due not so much to the dearth of competent resource persons in our country as to our choice of resource persons.  It is also due to the fact that a national seminar has become a numbers game.  The upshot of all this is that, ironically enough, it is quality that becomes a casualty in many quality assurance seminars!   That this casualty is “achieved” by spending enormous amounts of the taxpayers’ money is indeed a disturbing thought.

Thought 2: Is the corporate QA model necessary?
QA and the other derivatives of ‘quality’, such as quality sustenance, quality control, and quality enhancement, which are often part of the discourse on higher education nowadays, come from the industry – from the corporate world.  In the industry, QA refers to the methods that a company uses to check that the standard of its services and goods is high enough.  And, in the industry, the Darwinian Law operates: only the fittest survives.  To ensure its continued survival, therefore, each company adopts rigorous and standardized QA measures.  Quality, conceived in this way, has a distinct corporate identity.

Over the past two decades, higher educational institutions have been making desperate attempts to acquire this corporate identity because, in the global market, their survival is at stake.  In the process, they have been using an idiom unknown to education systems in the past.  It is a corporate idiom, and it comes with their attempts to acquire a corporate identity.

How this idiom operates is at once interesting and frightening.  A college is not a college; it is a service sector.  It doesn’t impart education; it provides educational services.  Teachers are not teachers; they are service providers.  And we have products: at one level, the courses we offer are our products, and, at another, our own students are our products.  We have customers also: our interim customers are our students, and ultimate customers are employers.  And our job as service providers is to ensure the salability or marketability of our products.  This is where the quality mechanism comes in: quality assurance, quality control, quality sustenance, quality enhancement, and what not.  If a college ensures all this, it will have a brand image (not ‘reputation’ which is an old-fashioned expression)  – an image determined by NAAC accreditation, NBA accreditation, ISO certification, and so on.  In short, a college will not be imparting education; it will be trading in educational services.

Now, the question that needs to be raised is: Do we need a corporate image, a corporate identity, and the accompanying corporate idiom?  The corporate identity seems to be a dehumanizing identity according to which the learner, who is a human being, is a product, and the college, which produces this product, is like a factory.  Institutions such as Loyola where I have taught for about three decades have (or had) an ennobling image and identity as institutions which regard(ed) education as a creative art, as a humanistic discipline, and as a means of ethical transformation.  This does not at all mean that quality need not be our concern. We do need high standards, and, to achieve high standards and maintain them, we do need to adopt rigorous measures.  But, in the process, there is no need to adopt the corporate model, the corporate pattern, and the corporate mode of functioning.  It is certainly possible to evolve a humanizing non-corporate model which is in keeping with the genius of educational institutions.  This calls for some introspection. We must remember here that quality is not something unknown to higher education.  In the past, our institutions – some of them, if not all of them – have rather unselfconsciously maintained quality of a high kind without even using the term quality.  What we need to do, therefore, in evolving quality norms in higher educations is to take a hard look at our long-neglected traditions and healthy practices, instead of merely searching for a chimerical creature called quality in the corporate jungle. 

This leads to my third thought, an amusing one.

Thought 3: Why this deafening noise about quality in higher education now?

Why has there been so much noise about quality in higher education during the past few years?  The easiest answer is: globalization and the impending internationalization of trade in higher education.  But, as I reflected on this question, I remembered an old joke which perceptively answered the question.  Once a German asked a Swiss, ‘Why is it that we Germans often talk about honour, where as you Swiss often talk about money?’  The Swiss quietly replied, ‘I guess people often talk about what they most lack.’

I didn’t intend this post to be so lengthy – I hope it is not unreadably so. Just a brief concluding paragraph. In my opinion, adopting a corporate model for QA in higher education will be as futile an exercise as painting stripes on an elephant.  For one thing, the stripes will make no essential difference: the elephant will still be elephant-like, not tigerish.  For another, as Gurcharan Das so perceptively pointed out in a different context – I think the book is The Elephant Paradigm: India Wrestles with Change – it is a meditative, elephant-like approach rather than a tigerish one that can ensure a safe passage for higher education in the treacherous terrain that lies ahead.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A first-of-its-kind conference experience

Right from the word go, everything spun off the track at the conference.  The organizers had booked me on a train which arrived at midnight. A huge family got into my cabin with a whole load of luggage and kids, dropped them – the luggage as well as the kids – all around me and debated for a good one hour in the thick of night how the cargo should be strategically arranged. When the job was done, the 2-tier cabin was a virtual luggage van with the bodies of the family, sprawled all over the luggage, adding a touch of animation to the luggage. I lay sleepless until I got off at 8 o’clock in the morning.

At the railway station, the pick-up arrangement failed. After a half-hour agonizing wait and several phone calls, a doleful-looking English professor from the university arrived at 8.30. Evidently, he liked neither chauffeuring nor English; and the conference seemed the last thing on his mind.

I was worried sick. I had been invited to play two crucial roles at the international conference the English Department was organizing – as a guest of honour at the inaugural ceremony, which was scheduled to start at 9.30 in the morning, and as a plenary speaker later in the day. And I had barely twenty-five minutes to shave, wash, change and have breakfast.

When the first three were accomplished, it was 9.25. Deciding to skip breakfast, I called the conference secretary and said I was ready. ‘Sir, please wait,’ he said. ‘Once I hear that the Chancellor has left for the conference venue, I’ll come and pick you up myself. Before that, I’ll call you.’ Or, something to that effect: the English language and the English teachers in the university seem to be poles apart.

It was 10. There was no call. I called the organizing secretary and asked him whether I could go to the conference venue. He said, ‘Oh, no, sir. I must come and pick you up myself. I’m waiting for a call from the Chancellor’s office. I’ll get back to you.’

The time was 11 now. The stomach growled a protest. ‘Shut up!’ I said. ‘I’m in no mood to think about creature comforts; I may have to leave anytime now.’ I called a fellow plenary speaker staying in a different room on the same floor in the guest house. She said she had made several calls and got the same reply as I did.

To cut a long story short, when, at last, I was led into the conference venue at 12 o’clock, the inaugural ceremony had been over – without the guest of honour! The head of the department of English was proposing a vote of thanks in unhearable English.

My immediate impulse was to walk out on the conference, registering a protest. Inviting a senior professor and a well-known conference/seminar leader as a guest of honour and keeping him away from the ceremony where he was to play the role he had been invited to play was a grievous insult, not just a faux pas. That it was done by a university which was cocking-a-hoop about its having been ranked No. 1 among institutions of its kind made it even more grievous. Resisting the impulse to walk out on the conference, I stayed on and listened to the keynote speech by a professor from a reputable university. It was a drivel – a scripted drivel which he was reading out with some difficulty.

In the afternoon, I decided not to be part of the conference anymore. The conference, I said to the organizers, could do without me. The university authorities were apologetic, and tried to persuade me to stay on, but I left.

I had a rough time on the ten-hour-long return journey by bus; it was tougher than the outward journey amid loads of luggage and kids. But it was not half so bad as the rough deal at the conference which sticks out like a sore thumb in my three-decade-long history of attending and leading professional development programmes.