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.

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