Academic publishing: Don’t let the number crunchers win
Over the last four decades it has been considered routine for academics around the world to be expected to publish their research, although not many actually achieve it.
Regulating authorities often focus on the number of publications rather than the quality, and specify in which quality publications academics should publish. This becomes alarming if an authority stipulates that academics can get jobs and promotions only if they publish papers in certain high impact journals.
The expectation becomes ridiculous when ministries of education in countries whose educational institutions perform badly in terms of research ethics enforce it on their academics. It is similar to forcing people to only eat at some well-known hotels even when the food they like is not served there and they can’t afford it.
Some readers may feel that this analogy trivialises what is a serious matter for many academics. Yet some branches of knowledge studied at university do not have any, or have very few, high impact journals (ie the visual arts, the performing arts, indigenous cultural studies, vernacular languages, tribal studies, etc).
So it is not possible for experts in these fields to be published in high impact journals and thus satisfy the requirements for appointments or promotion.
Indeed some institutions demand that even non-science academics publish in Science Citation Index-listed journals, despite their being inappropriate for a broad range of knowledge areas from history to anthropology.
Giving so much credit to certain publications shows the unhealthy practices that have crept into the profession.
On the other hand, it is wrong to assume that all the academics at certain prestigious institutions are good teachers and researchers. There has been cunning plagiarism of all sorts involved in gaming the system, such as the use of ghost authors.
A lack of academic spirit
The number of publications by researchers which bear the names of their guides and-or supervisors as co-authors is part of a game with arbitrary rules that aims to aggrandise the persons concerned and the name of the institution in question, but is not imbued with any academic spirit.
The issues are summed up by Eve Marder in an article “Who should be the authors of a scientific paper?”. She writes: “It was not uncommon [in the past] for the papers from PhD theses to have just one author because a PhD thesis was meant to be an independent piece of work.”
But now it is almost unheard of to have single-authored papers from students and postdocs – and “at a time when journals are being more specific about author contributions in papers, and institutions require researchers to attend courses on responsible conduct in science that often include discussions about authorship”.
If academia is about the search for truth, are we willing to look at the truth about our own profession?
In an article in the The Guardian, titled “Why we can’t trust academic journals to tell the scientific truth”, Julian Kirchherr writes: “The idea that the same experiment will always produce the same result, no matter who performs it, is one of the cornerstones of science’s claim to truth.
“However, more than 70% of the researchers who took part in a recent study published in Nature have tried and failed to replicate another scientist’s experiment. Another study found that at least 50% of life science research cannot be replicated. The same holds for 51% of economics papers.”
Joel P Joseph in Wire Science reports that in 2016 a team tried to reproduce 18 economics studies published in two leading journals and failed to replicate seven.
In 2018, other academics attempted to replicate 21 papers in social sciences published in Nature and Science to find that only 13 studies held up. In both instances, there was evidence that the original findings may have been overstated.
The solution is not to abandon performance indicators, such as the number of papers published in high-impact journals, but neither must we over-rely on them. Indeed many papers are not uncovering new knowledge but revisiting and reviewing previous work.
Another issue is the power imbalance when it comes to those journals which are most cited. These tend to be heavily dominated by research produced in and about a small number of ‘core’ countries, mostly the US and the UK, and therefore reproduce existing global power imbalances.
Is a change coming?
Could things be changing? The three-dimensional tunnel of impact factor, indexed publications and unpaid reviewers and-or editors has recently been contested with news that the faculty and staff members at Utrecht University will be evaluated on their commitment to open science, with impact factors being abandoned in hiring and promotion decisions.
The publishing ‘paywall’ is an extension of index and impact factors and reflects the commodification of education by the commercial world. This atmosphere of ‘publish or perish’ has changed drastically, evolving into ‘pay and publish and don’t perish’, a rather vulgar dictum.
Then there is the article processing charge, a fee which is paid in some cases directly by private institutions and indirectly by public institutions to maintain their ranking on a year-to-year basis.
Also of concern is the rising number of predatory journals which run counter to the academic goal of truth-seeking. In the developing world these have gained a lot of ground. An Indian Express article sums it up: “Most of these journals exist online and are operated by companies based across the city, including the posh Banjara Hills, but flaunt addresses from abroad on their websites, mostly in the US and UK.”
They include Openventio, which has a US office and publishes 40 journals from Hyderabad, with an ‘article processing charge’ ranging from US$127 to US$1,027 depending on the article’s length and the author’s country.
Scientific Open Access Journals runs 24 journals, with an article processing charge of US$500 for 20 of them.
On the other hand, the so-called journals of repute charge the subscriber and individual readers without any consideration for their ability to pay. These charges need to be reduced and the peer review system needs to be strengthened, which could be done by reducing the output of the journals so that they focus more on quality.
An article published by Raphael Tsavkko Garcia in The Bookseller states: “I wrote the article, but I simply could not access it, nor [could] anyone from my university that might be interested in a similar topic. I spoke to a few colleagues who also could not access it, but rather had to pay large sums of money to read it and cite it – which is the academic’s main goal. So, I managed to publish, but I would ultimately perish because no one in my area seemed to be able to read it.”
This is the reason why, in 2011, a Robin Hood figure emerged in academia. Alexandra Elbakyan created Sci-Hub, the largest free repository of pirated scholarly articles in science in the world.
Meanwhile, the website unpaywall.org, created by Jason Priem and Heather Piwowar of Impactstory in 2017, is a plug-in tool for individual users to access and find open access articles in 50,000 institutions across the world.
To understand why people like Elbakyan, Priem and Piwowar have ventured in this direction, let us examine the argument about the cost of publishing and the explanations put forth by the publishing giants and their validity in a situation in which individuals who want to use JSTOR must shell out an average of US$19 per article.
The academics who write the articles are not paid for their work, nor are the academics who review it. The only people who profit are the 211 employees of JSTOR. The paywalls are designed, as the anthropologist Sarah Kendzior writes, to “codify and commodify tacit elitism”.
In its investigative studies Deutsche Bank concludes: “We believe the [Elsevier] adds relatively little value to the publishing process. We are not attempting to dismiss what 7,000 people at [Elsevier] do for a living. We are simply observing that if the process really were as complex, costly and value-added as the publishers protest that it is, 40% margins wouldn’t be available.”
Elitism and profit-making
This indicates how the elite publishing world of journals is fraught with high profit-making and indifference to the ability of the individual researcher’s capacity to pay and publish or even read the research.
Another problem is pointed to in a recent article published in University World News written by Philip G Altbach and Hans de Wit: “No one knows how many scientific journals there are, but several estimates point to around 30,000, with close to two million articles published each year.”
Ernest L Boyer argued in his 1990 book, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities for the professoriate, that the evaluation of academic work should include all aspects of the responsibilities of the academic profession, and that the large majority of professors who are not employed in research-intensive universities should be evaluated for their teaching and service, and not for their research.
Alex Mayyasi, in his post “Why is science behind a paywall?”, writes: “A history of publication in prestigious journals is a prerequisite to every step on the career ladder of a scientist.
“Every paper submitted to a new, unproven OA [open access] journal is one that could have been published in heavyweights like Science or Nature. And even if a tenured or idealistic professor is willing to sacrifice this in the name of science, what about their PhD students and co-authors for whom publication in a prestigious journal could mean everything?”
The pressure to publish doesn’t serve any real public interest and hampers important blue skies research. We have by now already reached a stage in academia which can be summarised as a number cruncher’s paradise.
Let’s not be governed by numbers for numbers’ sake. Even if numbers are necessary, we now need the imagination to embrace a broader definition of knowledge.
Einstein once said: “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” We are living at a time when we have to show that we have truly understood the spirit of academia in terms of our need to have a knowledge of the present, the intelligence to manage it and the imagination to frame it properly for the future.
Professor Prasanta Kumar Panda is professor in English at the department of humanistic studies of the Indian Institute of Technology (Banaras Hindu University) in Uttar Pradesh, India.