35 of UGC's preferred journals could be classified as predatory

Originally published in The Wire.

The phrase ‘publish or perish’ isn’t meant to fill you with a warm glow. It’s meant to describe a cut-throat academic world in which professors have two options. Option A is that they write research papers, rack up citations, attend conferences, serve on the editorial board of journals and generally tack on more and more pages to their resume. Though it’s hard to believe, Option B is even less fun. Option B is the drying up of research funds, a lack of promotions or (more likely) an inability to find a job in the first place. This system was meant to incentivise good research but, in a world where good research takes time and teaching workloads aren’t getting lighter, it has instead heralded the rise of the for-profit academic publishing industry, exemplified by the predatory journals.

Predatory journals look like genuine scholarly publications but, behind the façade of respectability, there tends to be a litany of false claims and a bill for the joy of seeing your paper published. They are, in a way, unintended beneficiaries of the open access (OA) revolution. The shift to OA is predicated on a change in revenue model. Instead of charging people for access to the journal, all papers were made openly available and the journal was sustained by collecting an article processing charge (APC) at the time of submission. This charge was meant to cover the costs of peer review, maintenance of the website, etc. Predatory journals charge an APC without doing any of the work that merits the cost.

These predatory journals, and those who publish in them, tend to be from Asia and Africa. One study found the average publishing fee to be USD 178 (Rs 12,000). The same study found that, in 2014, an estimated 420,000 articles were published by around 8,000 journals. In September 2016, the US Federal Trade Commission sued the Hyderabad-based publisher OMICS Group for, as Ivan Oransky put it, “bilking researchers out of potentially millions of dollars”. While the majority of these papers are from private colleges, premier national institutions aren’t exempt. A recent Current Science analysis of 3,300 papers found 11% of them were from institutes affiliated to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the CSIR labs, the National Institutes of Technology, IITs, etc.

In an effort to combat this pernicious trend, the UGC announced that it would convene a committee to prepare a list of recommended, genuine journals. Only the papers published in these journals would count towards an academic’s performance evaluation. And only these papers would count towards an academic’s score in the Academic Performance Indicators (API) system. This in turn forms the basis of the Career Advancement Scheme (CAS) and the direct recruitment of teachers and other academic staff as per the University Grants Commission (Minimum Qualifications for Appointment of Teachers and other Academic Staff in Universities and Colleges and Measures for the Maintenance of Standards in Higher Education) Regulations, 2010. Prior to the amendment in July 2016, the universities decided by themselves as to which journals would count and which wouldn’t.

Last week, the UGC published its list of recommended journals. They numbered a staggering 38,653 across all disciplines. A quick analysis of the list showed at least 35 journals that might be classified as predatory. (The full list is available at the end of the article.)

The 35 include the Journal of Computers, which describes its aim as “the integration of computers and opens to the world”. The Journal of Natural Products is an Indian journal run by a Sudanshu Tiwari, which coincidentally has the same name as a journal published by the American Chemical Society. Another on the list, the World Applied Sciences Journal, accepts articles “in biological sciences, biodiversity, biotechnology, clinical sciences, animal and veterinary sciences, agricultural sciences, chemistry, environmental sciences, physics, mathematics and statistics, geology, engineering, computer science, social sciences and information technology”, and asks submitters to recommend reviewers in their field.

To its credit, the UGC has declared that the list is dynamic and subject to change as new evidence is made available to them. But if they were truly serious on a transparent vetting process, their first step should be to make the list of journals available in a more accessible format. It is also unclear right now how university administrators could even cross-check a journal with the list. Without a simpler mechanism, the process looks too cumbersome to implement immediately.

Ideally, the entire system of output metrics should be massively overhauled. As K. VijayRaghavan, the secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, told the magazine Science, “The fundamental problem is an ecosystem that values where you publish and how many papers you publish rather than what you publish. That needs to be changed.”

List of journals

  1. Actual Problems Of Economics
  2. Aging
  3. Australasian Medical Journal
  4. Cellular And Molecular Biology
  5. Der Pharma Chemica
  6. European Journal Of Science And Theology
  7. European Journal Of Social Sciences
  8. Genetics And Molecular Research
  9. Global Media Journal
  10. Interdisciplinary Toxicology
  11. International Archives Of Medicine
  12. International Journal Of Environment
  13. International Journal Of Health Research
  14. International Journal Of Network Security
  15. International Journal Of Nursing
  16. International Journal Of Pharmacognosy
  17. International Journal Of Pharmacy
  18. International Journal Of Pharmacy And Technology
  19. Journal Of Clinical And Analytical Medicine
  20. Journal Of Computers
  21. Journal Of Electrical Engineering
  22. Journal Of Environmental Biology
  23. Journal Of Environmental Hydrology
  24. Journal Of Internet Banking And Commerce
  25. Journal Of Language And Literature
  26. Journal Of Natural Products
  27. Journal Of Pharmacy Research
  28. Journal Of Psychology And Theology
  29. Journal Of Software
  30. Oncoscience
  31. Romanian Biotechnological Letters
  32. Scholarly Research Exchange
  33. Shiraz E Medical Journal
  34. Sport Science
  35. World Applied Sciences Journal

Author’s note on data and the methods of analysis

This analysis comes with a few caveats. The UGC list was published in the form of five PDFs of scanned documents that had been run through an optical character recognition (OCR) software. This meant that the extraction of data from the PDF was far from perfect. In fact, I would estimate my analysis covered less than 50% of the journals listed and so my finding could be conservative. I looked up the UGC’s journals in Jeffrey Beall’s list of predatory journals to see if there was a match.

This was performed using an R script; you can find the code for that here. Jeffrey Beall is a librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver. He maintained the list from 2008 till earlier this month, when his site mysteriously shut down. Retraction Watch, which broke the news, says the list might be maintained by Cabell’s, a publishing company, in the future. The analysis relies entirely on the archived version of his list. I have taken no steps to double-check his work.