Sunday, February 12, 2017

Beall-based Indian turmoil?

The following is adapted from the February 9 issue of my subscription newsletter: I think it is important enough to make OA.

Beall-based Indian turmoil?

By David Wojick, Ph.D.

Synopsis: New data sheds light on Indian researcher's use of low cost journals. The Indian Government's attack on these journals, based on Beall's list, could adversely affect the Indian university science community.
Three weeks ago we reported that an Indian agency was using a whitelist to ban the use of unlisted journals for the purpose of evaluating researcher performance. The Agency is the University Grants Commission (UGC), which apparently plays a major role in university based Indian science. I know little about this realm, but it seems to include setting the criteria for hiring and promotion, perhaps as well as granting PhD's. 

The Commission staff says it started with the Scopus journal list, which probably rules out most of the Beall's list (BL) low cost OA journals, the dramatic growth of which we have been reporting on. This growth has been centered in India, on both the publisher and author sides. It may have been driven by earlier UGC criteria that make publication the major form of evaluation. If so then the UGC ban may well be a backlash to something the Commission itself engendered.

A new research article provides important data on the use of BL articles by Indian researchers. It shows that these journals have come to play an important new role in Indian science. Thus the UGC ban could have serious consequences, if it is effective.

The article is "India’s scientific publication in predatory journals: need for regulating quality of Indian science and education" G. S. Seethapathy, J. U. Santhosh Kumar and A. S. Hareesha in Current Science, December 10, 2016.

The title shows that the authors consider the widespread use of BL journals to be a bad thing. They do not distinguish actually predatory journals from simply low cost journals, just as Beall did not. (This is an error that is widespread.) In fact they do not mention cost.

What the data show, however, is very interesting. India, like the US, really has two tiers when it comes to doing research. The top tier is a small number of prestigious research universities, which get most of the grant money. In the second tier are the many lesser universities and colleges, which have lots of science faculty and graduates, but do relatively little funded research.

Simply put, it is the second tier faculty and grad students who are publishing hundreds of thousands of articles a year in the Beall's list journals. Moreover, the sample data show that the vast majority of these authors are paying the journal APCs out of their own pockets, not from grant or university funds.

The explosive growth of low cost BL journals makes perfect sense if there is great pressure on second tier researchers to publish. The characteristics of these journals fit the needs of the authors.

The BL journals publish less important research, often written in less than perfect English. Most of this probably could not get published in the rich journals. They provide rapid publication, often in weeks or a few months, while the rich journals often take a year or more. Even worse, the rich journals have high rejection rates, which lead to multiple lengthy submission times prior to eventual publication.

And most importantly the BL journal APCs are just a hundred dollars or so, compared to the thousands of dollars charged by the rich journals. All of this means the low cost BL journals are ideal for meeting second tier publication needs.

In fact one piece of data is astounding if correct. The article mentions that PhD candidates may need to publish one to three articles in order to graduate. To my knowledge no US PhD candidate is under this sort of pressure. The first article is usually mined from the thesis and submitted after getting the degree.

Given this situation, banning the use of BL journals for evaluation could seriously disrupt the world of second tier Indian science. If forced to submit to rich journals, many researchers probably could not get published. Those that could would face huge personal APC charges, typically thousands of dollars per article, amounting to potentially billions of dollars a year in publication charges. There would also be great delays, potentially years per promotion, compared to the present system, which is quite efficient.

This combination of rejection, delay and cost could wreak havoc with the present system of graduation and promotion. I see no evidence that the UGC has considered this adverse possibility. Most likely they have viewed the situation as others have, namely that BL journals are a bad thing. The benefits of rapid, low cost and tolerant publication have been lost in the widespread damning of so-called predatory journals.
Perhaps the second tier universities and colleges will simply ignore the UGC ban. Or they might relax the publication requirements. Or the UGC could expand the list to include the low cost journals that are presently publishing over a hundred thousand articles a year by Indian researchers. Recognizing the existing publishing system is the ideal solution.

If not then Indian researchers and universities may be in for a period of serious and disruptive turmoil. We are talking about onerous new rules potentially affecting hundreds of thousands of researchers, presently publishing in low cost Beall's list journals. Where are they supposed to publish and at what cost? They cannot just suddenly switch to the rich journals.

Something has to give.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Tracking Trump

December 1, 2016

By David Wojick, Ph.D.

Synopsis: We begin the process of tracking the new Trump Administration (as well as Congress) with regard to the uncertain future of the US Public Access Program.

The transition team

To begin with, the Trump Administration has gotten off to a very slow start. The transition team did very little work prior to the election, which is unusual. Federal funding is available to both major candidates as soon as they are nominated. Romney's transition team spent a reported 8.9 million dollars before the election. The Trump team has spent very little.

The transition team has a lot to do. To begin with it is supposed to vet applicants and job holders for about 4,000 federal positions which are held "at the pleasure of the President." About 1,000 of these positions require Senate approval, so the vetting is not trivial.

There is a transition team for each Cabinet Department and the major non-Cabinet agencies, like EPA and the SEC. In addition to vetting applicants, the teams are supposed to meet with the senior civil servants of each Dept. and agency, to be briefed on how these huge and complex organizations actually operate. Something as small as Public Access may not be noticed.

Each team is also supposed to begin to formulate specific policies for their organization. Given how vague Trump as been on policy specifics, this may not be easy. Or it may mean that the teams have pretty broad latitude when it comes to specific agency policies. There seems to be little information as to who makes up each agency team, so their views on public access are unknown at this point.

Moreover, the head of the Energy Department transition team was recently replaced, which has to slow things down a bit. DOE has been a leader in developing the Public Access Program.

But in the long run the fate of Public Access is in the hands of the Department and Agency heads, and their deputies, not the transition team. Science related nominations have yet to even be announced.

The Science Advisor and OSTP

Then there is the issue of OSTP and the memo creating the Public Access Program. The Office of Science and Technology Policy is part of the Executive Office of the President. It is headed by the President's Science Advisor.

At one extreme the memo might simply be rescinded. President Obama issued a great many orders and executive memos, in direct defiance of the Republican led Congress. Many of these orders seem likely to be rescinded and Public Access might get caught in the wave and wiped out. Then too, Republicans tend to be pro-business and the publishers may well lobby against the Public Access Program.

On the other hand, a public access policy is relatively non-partisan, as well as being politically attractive. The new OSTP head might even decide to strengthen the program, especially because Trump is being labeled as anti-science by his opponents.

The OSTP situation is also quite fluid at this point. No Science Advisor has even been proposed at this point, that I know of. The vast majority of academic scientists are Democrats. The last Republican president took a year in office before nominating a Science Advisor, and he was a Democrat.

The American science community is watching this issue very closely, even though the Science Advisor and OSTP have very little actual authority. The Public Access Program is really something of an exception in this regard, but it is after all largely an administrative program. In the interim, OSTP has over a hundred employees so it will keep operating. So will the Public Access Program if the memo is not rescinded.

In fact the slower the Trump people are in taking over, the longer the Government will be run by civil servants who will favor the status quo. This will be true of all the Departments and Agencies. The worst case scenario would be if OSTP were eliminated altogether. There is some discussion of this, but it seems unlikely as a political strategy. It would be viewed as a direct attack on science and it has no upside.

On the other hand, given that their internal Public Access Programs are well established, the agencies could decide to continue them, absent the OSTP memo, or even OSTP.