Image from ‘Academic publishing is broken. Here’s how to redesign it’, Fast Company
On 20th September 2019, I was invited to be part of a panel discussion on ‘Academic Publishing In India’ organized by Primus Books in New Delhi. One of the five themes I referred to in that discussion was ‘Publishing in the era of fake publishing.’ While reading on the matter, thinking on it and discussing it with colleagues in New Delhi, I realized what I had to say on that day mattered not just to India but to Sri Lanka, South Asia and the rest of the world too, even though each national location would have its own peculiar nuances. In fact, in India, in the United States and Canada among many other countries, significant public debates have already taken place on the main issues involved in academic publishing in our times with particular reference to the presence of fake publishing houses, emergence of predatory journals and their impact on academia as well as the world of knowledge. In Sri Lanka however, this debate is non-existent. Any discussion on predatory publishing will need to take into account at least two inter-related phenomena: 1) the realm of predatory journals and, 2) the realm of predatory publishing houses focused on producing seemingly academic monographs.
The present time globally is marked by the presence of what may be called ‘academic publishing mills’ going by the sheer scale of these operations based on a conveyor-belt-like production process. It is this situation that is generally known as predatory publishing. Today, there are over 10, 000 predatory publications, most of which are online journals, and predatory publishing has now become an organized industry. In simple terms, this practice refers to publications and publishers that lack credibility. Looking at this phenomenon in Iran, Ebadi and Zamani refer to predatory publishing as a matter of ‘symbolic violence.’ But the word ‘predatory’ does not always capture the broader sensibility of the phenomenon, as it exists today. True, some colleagues may be misled by their lack of awareness about the world of publishing or simple naivety. Others may be misled by the similarity of some predatory journals with established ones. For example, the Journal of Economics and Finance, published by Springer seems quite similar to the more shady Journal of Finance and Economics at a first glance. Similarly, the Journal of Engineering Technology published by the American Society for Engineering Education, sounds quite similar to the GSTF Journal of Engineering Technology, which has no serious credentials to reckon with. In such cases, the understanding of predatory as an approach that victimizes colleagues makes sense as these operations target uninformed and naive colleagues.
On the other hand, however, there is also a self-conscious embracing of these operations by many other colleagues knowing quite well what they actually are. This is what Gina Kolata in a 2017 essay in the New York Times described in the following words: “But it’s increasingly clear that many academics know exactly what they’re getting into, which explains why these journals have proliferated despite wide criticism. The relationship is less predator and prey, some experts say, than a new and ugly symbiosis.” Phaedra Cress also argues that the word ‘predatory’ does not adequately explain the nature of this phenomenon. As she suggests, “‘illegitimate publishing entities’ may be a more appropriate term because some authors are knowingly collaborating, due to publish or perish pressures within academia.”
Predatory publishing schemes cater to and establish themselves in the following interrelated contexts:
- One, in a situation marked by the ‘publish or perish’ rationale, these entities give instant access to publishing to colleagues who are in a ‘hurry’ or who cannot approach more established publishers due to issues in the quality in their work; lack of necessary connections; lack of confidence in approaching more reputable publishers; lack of salability of their work in the perception of publishers, and so on.
- Two, specifically for colleagues in a hurry, these entities significantly cut down the time one needs to spend on the publishing process since submitting a manuscript. Once a text is produced, they are also very aggressive in their outreach to the extent of instantly creating an Internet presence for these publications.
- Three, these entities cater very well to colleagues in internal promotional schemes of their institutions in situations where there are no specific methods to root out dubious publications. Also, in counters like Sri Lanka, where promotional schemes offer additional marks to supposedly ‘international’ publications, predatory publications offer more marks by virtue of these operations being based beyond the borders of the country.
It is in this overall context we can understand the emergence and reach of entities like Lap Lambert Publishing and Cambridge Scholars Publishers, which are merely two among many dubious ‘international’ publishers who publish anything and everything. Many academics must have at least received an email asking them to publish their undergraduate, masters or PhD dissertations as long as they are a part of some online repository to which these entities have easy access. Lap Lambert even wrote to me more than 20 years after I had submitted my PhD dissertation at a time my publishing record was relatively thin. Even at that time, however, both commonsense and some basic research gave me enough concern not to tread down the path towards Lap Lambert School of Notoriety. Seen in this sense, there is no real reason to argue in favour of ignorance.
While there is no review process in Lap Lambert, there is some basic review-like practice at Cambridge Scholars Publishers. This, along with disregarding issues of academic integrity and scholarly merit of a submitted text are the main reasons that have allowed these entities to adopt a rapid production system. With regard to Lap Lambert, people simply pay a designated fee, find a cover from a choice of samples available online, and with minimal or no-copy editing and zero peer-review, it is possible to get anything published that might look ‘adequately’ academic in visual terms. One can also buy two or more copies of one’s own publication to offer as ‘proof’ to whoever who needs it. A similar system is in place with regard to predatory journals as well. It is a simple matter of paying for publishing what might not be published in a more established journal. As Kolata notes, many ‘papers’ are published “in ‘journals’ that will publish almost anything, for fees that can range into the hundreds of dollars per paper.”
Why such entities have evolved so rapidly in recent times says much about what publishing – particularly what is thought of as academic publishing – mean to many colleagues today. Their growth is not merely powered by simple consumption, but more so by the seeming legitimacy, they have received – at least to some extent – in the region’s university systems. It was not long ago that a former colleague from the University of Colombo was awarded the Faculty Research Award, by the university’s Faculty of Arts, which among other things took into account his Lap Lambert publications. In that singular act, the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s oldest university, affectively recognized Lap Lambert in the same sense as any ‘reputable’ publisher while at the same time degrading the value of whatever value Faculty Research Award might have had. In the same manner, I know a number of colleagues in Delhi and elsewhere in India who proudly show off Lap Lambert and other predatory publications in their CVs, which seem to have also served them well in advancing their individual academic careers. And why not, one may ask in a situation where no university in India, Sri Lanka or elsewhere in South Asia has specifically banned the submission of predatory publications in promotion schemes. Sri Lanka’s or India’s University Grants Commission or any other comparable entity in other South Asian countries has also not moved in this direction. But India’s UGC has attempted to maintain an online list of what it considers ‘legitimate’ journals across disciplines even by no means, this is a fool-proof system.
In any case, this is not merely a South Asian malaise. It is also global. Derek Pyne from Thompson Rivers University, British Columbia notes that colleagues in his own institution who were promoted in 2016 “had at least four papers in questionable journals” while “all but one academic in 10 who won a School of Business and Economics award had published papers in these journals.” This was in Canada where at least the issues have been raised in public. What has Sri Lankan academia done, beyond individual academics embracing these systems and protecting them for personal gain? The Internet is also replete with defences of these publishing ventures usually by people who have become their authors.
The bottom line is, this state of affairs offers almost no risks in the local context while their benefits are much greater in a monetary sense. For instance, public funds are used to pay for the salary increases of colleagues who are promoted due to their association with these predatory publishing schemes. To their credit, a handful of younger colleagues have written to me and asked if specific journals and publishing houses are predatory, and I have offered them my opinion along with the publically available information I have. But many, I have learned have justified the predatory system on the following grounds:
- What is the guarantee the more established journals and publishing houses are any better?
- The criticism of entities like Lap Lambert is not reasonable as they, like everyone else, publish both good and bad material.
These are mere rhetorical statements that work as weak excuses rather than dealing with facts. It is true that established publishers also at times engage in less than ethical practices. But that is closer to exceptions than norms. Besides, these established entities have the benefit of their own histories to vouch for them, which predatory operations simply do not. The critique of these predatory enterprises, on the other hand, is not merely coming from a single source. Instead, such criticisms come from multiple sources globally with substantial evidence.
But there is an important fact that negatively impacts academics in countries like Sri Lanka when it comes to academic publishing, that does not affect academics in a country like India in the same sense. Though Sri Lanka had some decent journals until recent times such as the Modern Sri Lanka Studies, the country never had a robust academic publishing industry. The University of Colombo Press, which used to publish serious academic texts ceased operations in the 1950s and closed up shop permanently in the 1960s. On the other hand, there has been no serious attempt to revive the University of Colombo Press or establish university-based publishing operations more broadly. The country also never had a local operational presence of international University-based presses like Oxford University Press and Cambridge University press as in the case of India and Pakistan. Similarly, other international publishers with an interest in academic publishing like Sage, Routledge, Bloomsbury and so on never had an operational presence in Sri Lanka unlike the situation in India. The main reason for this is the lack of a significant market in Sri Lanka for academic publications and more importantly, the relative inability to sustain such an industry given the country’s minuscule research base. On the other hand, Sri Lanka never locally compensated for this lack of a global publishing presence by initiating its own credible publishing operations locally. Comparatively, despite the long-term presence of international publishers in the country, India also saw the emergence of local publishers such as Permanent Black, Speaking Tiger, Orient BlackSwan, Aleph, Kali for Women, Primus and many others who have been able to make their presence felt despite the competition. Unfortunately, Sri Lankan publishers like Sarasavi, Godage and so on who publish academic tracts along with many other genres of texts have never attempted to put in place the most basic practices of global publishing from peer review to copy-editing making even the best of locally available publishing options questionable at best. At the same time, no university or any other entity has also attempted to work out long-term publishing agreements with established publishers in a county like India that could have taken the best of local knowledge to regional and global forums.
I cannot see any indications that the impact predatory publications have had on Sri Lankan academia has been seriously taken into account so far. This also includes dubious materials that are published in Sinhala and Tamil locally in addition to the global predatory output with which local academics have now made contact. One can only wonder when the Sri Lankan University Grants Commission, individual universities or the academics’ own trade union, the Federation of University Teachers Associations would enlighten their own members on how best to navigate the minefields of predatory publishing that could make their work to be understood as mediocre, but would also negatively affect local discourses of knowledge for a long time to come.
. For a good explanation on how Lap Lambert works, one can read Joseph Stromberg’s 2014 essay, ‘I Sold My Undergraduate Thesis to a Print Content Farm: A trip through the shadowy, surreal world of an academic book mill.’ Available at: https://slate.com/technology/2014/03/lap-lambert-academic-publishing-my-trip-to-a-print-content-farm.html