Predator alert! Credible science is being gobbled up‚ warn academics

03 August 2017 - 14:21 By Dave Chambers
Image: Gallo Images/ IStock

Predatory publishing — in which bogus journals publish academic research for a fee — threatens to undermine science in South Africa.

That’s the warning from academics at Stellenbosch University‚ who say Blade Nzimande’s Department of Higher Education and Training has wasted up to R300-million on research grants to scientists whose work ended up in predatory journals.

Johann Mouton and Astrid Valentine say between 2005 and 2014 more than a quarter of the research output at three universities ended up in bogus journals. They are Mangosuthu University of Technology in Durban; the University of Fort Hare in Alice; and Walter Sisulu University in Mthatha.

The two academics‚ from the Centre for Research on Evaluation‚ Science and Technology‚ say urgent action is needed from the DHET‚ the Council on Higher Education and the National Research Foundation.

“[Predatory publishing] poses a serious challenge to science‚” they say in the South African Journal of Science. “If it continues to increase at the rate of growth seen in the last five years‚ [it] may well become accepted practice in some disciplines and at some universities.

“Not only will it affect the very fabric of the science system (our confidence in the peer-review system)‚ but it will also undermine the trust and confidence of the general public in science and its products.”

In the decade they analysed‚ Mouton and Valentine found 3‚906 South African papers in journals they classified as probably or possibly predatory. Many of their authors had received DHET grants averaging R100 000 to complete their work.

“Young and inexperienced scholars are often advised by senior academics to publish in such journals without knowing that this may compromise their academic career‚” they say.

The 47 journals they identify as predatory appeared on a list recognised by the DHET for funding purposes. “This means that academics were within their right to submit these papers for subsidy purposes‚ and no ‘rule’ of the funding framework was violated.

“But ... most of these journals do violate the basic rules of ethical publishing and research integrity and should therefore be avoided.”

The National Research Foundation warned against predatory publishing in March‚ saying it would decline funding applications linked to “unethical and unscholarly practices”.

Narend Baijnath‚ CEO of the Council on Higher Education‚ said he shared the concern. “Predatory publishing ... causes irreparable harm to the peer-driven knowledge production and dissemination system‚” he told TimesLIVE. “[It] is driven primarily by the profit motive.”

The council had been awaiting the outcome of the investigation by Mouton and Valentine and supported their call for a national indaba to discuss the problem. “[This] will be constrained only by the council’s lack of resources in the current financial year.”

Baijnath said the DHET funding system “has to be brought under review to ensure that any perceived weaknesses that are being exploited are remedied‚ and that the journals accredited for subsidy are regularly updated to remove predatory journals”. The council was also introducing a new system of reviewing universities‚ “to ensure [they] give systematic attention to the scourge of predatory publishing‚ and have in place internal processes of review and scrutiny which pick up dubious journals long before an article is published”.

Mahlubi Mabizela, the DHET chief director for policy and development support, said when the department identified a predatory journal it was immediately removed from the lists of “approved” journals.

“Once a publication or a journal gets identified as predatory, the DHET immediately communicates the information with the owners of the relevant index in which the journal is listed,” he said.

“The purpose is to alert the owners and to have the journal removed from their list once they also complete their verification. When the journal is removed, this is communicated to all the universities in the country and its withdrawal means that the department will not subsidise publications that appear in it.”