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.