The researchers who are ambitious to expand their publication list in a short time include those who are applying for promotion based on the number of their publications, researchers with poorly conducted research or manufactured data.
Dr. Sadiq Bhanbhro
In the 21st century, traditional economic models are rapidly replaced by a knowledge economy, in which scientific knowledge and information have the ultimate value. A few centuries ago, the most valuable resource was land, then oil, and now it is the knowledge. A reality check is needed to see where we are with it. There are many parameters to be looked at for a realistic evaluation. Here, I would discuss the crucial knowledge production as a first step to building the economy. The industry that produces the knowledge for the country is universities and concerned research institutions.
Recently, I called a friend to congratulate him on completing a PhD on time. While speaking with him, he amazed me by sharing ‘good news’ that he has not only completed PhD in three years, but managed to publish 16 peer-reviewed papers based on his PhD research project at the same time. Further, he doubled the jubilation and said that ‘very soon I will be promoted as an associate professor based on my seven years of job experience, PhD and the long list of publications’.
Initially, I envied him as I have been working as a full-time researcher in a university in the UK without teaching responsibilities for the last 15 years and publishing only 17 peer-reviewed papers, five as a first author and the rest as a co-author. Out of curiosity, I asked him how he published 16 papers in three years while working on his PhD. He said, ‘It’s nothing; there are academics who have published over 100 papers just in a couple of years’, he replied.
I started searching on the internet to find more about those academics who are so successful in the publishing game. I found that a lecturer of social sciences from a top-class public university of Pakistan has managed to publish 106 research papers within five years, and an assistant professor of economics from an agriculture college has published 120 papers within a couple of years. Similarly, an assistant professor of chemistry from another public university has published 94 papers in 5 years.
While the quality of the papers is poor, a vast majority of journals in which they have published are dubious, and impact is zero except promotions and pay rise, as the research they have carried out, or manufactured data is largely irrelevant to the public policy and planning needs of the country.
The question is how they managed to publish such a huge number of papers in a short time. At the same time, my experience shows that publishing a paper in a genuine peer-reviewed academic journal takes at least two years. Well, digging deeper into the publication lists of these academics, available on research sharing websites ResearchGate, and Academia.edu, I was shocked to see a vast majority of their papers were published in infamously known as ‘predatory or deceptive journals’. The academic journals look like genuine scholarly peer-reviewed publications, but in most cases, these journals attract aspiring authors to publish whatever the author submits in return for the payment of an article-processing charge.
These journals falsely claim high impact factors, fair peer review processes, and editorial oversight, but they are scams. An open publication advocate group, a list of such questionable journals has been compiled. It is important to note that most predatory journals are not on the HEC recognized lists 2005, 2014, 2015, and a couple of these are on the HEC de-recognized list.
So, who publishes in these fraudulent journals?
The researchers who are ambitious to expand their publication list in a short time include those who are applying for promotion based on the number of their publications, researchers with poorly conducted research or manufactured data, and doctoral students.
According to a study published in the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, the academics from India, Nigerian and Pakistani, are the top three customers of these publishers. The academics mentioned above have published most of their papers in scam journals. For example, the lecturer has published 92 of his 106, the assistant professor 70 from his total 120 and the chemistry teacher 50 of his 94 published papers
These academics have not published as a single author but included their colleagues and friends in the authors’ list to share the perceived benefits of the publications and the cost of publication. The authors and their colleagues have spent approximately 30000 USD to publish these papers. The authors normally pay an average article processing charge of 150 USD per article.
In fact, after having a long list of papers published in so-called international impact-factor journals on their CVs, most university teachers have received promotions, pay rises and perks based on the list. ‘Many of my colleagues are awarded promotions to next grade based on the papers they have published in dubious journals, and surprisingly, the university has accepted their papers without any scrutiny’, said an assistant professor of Sindh University Jamshoro.
‘Faculty members from most of the universities of Pakistan use these papers to achieve their promotions and upgrades, and this is not only intellectual but financial corruption too,’ said an assistant professor of Quaid-i-Azam University.
How to stop this malpractice?
A transparent and effective monitoring system requires urgently checking and making the producers of fake research papers accountable. The country’s level of terrorism to corruption needs urgent contribution from academics and researchers; for instance, they can develop studies focusing on improving the evidence-based on reducing terrorism, corruption, and other social issues.
The first step would be creating and publicizing clear guidelines on avoiding predatory journals by the HEC, universities and research institutions. Research capacity building of faculty members containing all aspects of research from designing to publishing is needed on a priority basis. Also, HEC can introduce a national framework to audit productivity, quality and impact of research to counter the malpractice of sub-standard and useless publications.
As a researcher, I fear that genuine academics and researchers will be affected if this malpractice is continued. Especially, young academics will face enormous challenges in their career progression, including finding PhD scholarships, fellowships and international research grants. The academics and researchers publishing low-quality research papers in illegitimate journals are wasting time and resources and spreading bad science, which is harmful to the country and society. Also, we are losing good research articles to fake journals. Above all, publishing within predatory journals is unethical and gives a bad name to academics and universities nationally and internationally. Universities will be considered complicit in producing and promoting fake knowledge if they knowingly turn a blind eye and allow faculty members to publish in illegitimate journals but accept these for the perks and promotions.
The growing number of useless research papers is a cause of concern. They contribute anything to the knowledge economy, but this dubious practice has become a cause of international laughingstock for Pakistan. The concerned institutions and departments need to act soon, including HEC and the universities.
Dr. Sadiq Bhanbhro is a Senior Research Fellow at Sheffield Hallam University