Scientists in the Lurch After Imprecise MHRD Notice About ‘Paid Journals’

Which paper will take me up, which paper won't? Credit: joi/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A notification from the ministry of human resource development to the National Institutes of Technology (NITs) in July this year has stated that papers published in journals that levy an article processing charge will not earn career advancement credits for their authors.

The notification has been directed towards quelling the menace of predatory journals, which will publish anything in exchange for an often substantial fee. However, the MHRD move has also sparked consternation among some scientists, who believe that there are legitimate journals that also charge an article processing charge, or APC, and that punishing scientists who publish in such journals would not be fair.

Rise of predatory journals

Scientists routinely publish the papers that they write in scientific journals. The journals provide two services in return. They subject the papers that they receive to a peer review, where the manuscripts are vetted by a group of experts on the same topic for their novelty and validity (among other things). And once a paper has cleared peer review, the journal publishes it to create a public record of it as well as to publicise it. Conventionally, such journals have covered the costs of peer review and printing (and reap great profits) by charging readers an access fee.

“Journals are published by commercial entities, academies, societies and government bodies. Most non-open-access journals are published by commercial entities, with a few corporations dominating,” said Subbiah Arunachalam, a scientist and activist. “Their journals are priced high and several of them make big profits. Not all the journals they publish are of high quality though.”

One of the major modern scientific publishing paradigms, broadly collected under the label ‘open access’ (OA), flipped this convention. OA journals make their money by charging scientists an APC and then make the published paper available to access freely.

The OA movement has been perceived as a form of social justice because the financial burden of publishing is moved towards educational institutions and universities, which have higher spending power, and away from individual consumers, who often can’t afford the access fee by themselves. The movement also gives scientists in countries with lower spending power the ability to easily access papers published by scientists in richer countries.

Also read: Why open access has to look up for academic publishing to look up

However, some journals – many of them published from India – call themselves ‘OA journals’, charge an APC from scientists but don’t bother with the quality, originality or validity of what they’re publishing. Collectively called predatory journals, their rise has been fuelled by the ‘publish or perish’ environment in modern academia, where scholars can’t rise to the top unless they publish great papers frequently. In India, the problem has been exacerbated by a set of guidelines issued by the University Grants Commission last year. And when the institutions they belong to simply want to be able to claim their faculty members publish a lot of papers, the result is that predatory journals can charge a high APC, still expect scholars to want to publish mediocre research with them, and get away with it.

Simple statement, many consequences

The MHRD gazette notification, issued on July 21, 2017, lists amendments to the first statutes of the NITs. One amendment includes updates to the credit point system used by institutional administrators to determine if a faculty member qualifies for a promotion. For example, an assistant professor with 20 credit points can qualify to become an associate professor if she accrues 50 credit points. There are many ways to earn credits. One is to publish papers: according to the notification, each paper published that is indexed in the Science Citation Index or the Scopus database earns four points.

However, there is a catch: “Paid journals not allowed” (note 2, s. no. 4, p. 15).

This is a reference to the ‘pay to publish’ modus of predatory journals but it so happens to include some legitimate OA journals as well as non-OA journals that charge a fee to make a paper openly accessible. Subhash C. Lakhotia, a cytogeneticist and senior scientist at the Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, pointed out that the latter is a practice often carried out by ‘conventional’ journals like Nature and some titles published by Elsevier. As a result, “papers in all these journals become discounted – which is absolutely ridiculous.”

R. Subrahmanyam, the additional secretary for technical education at the MHRD, explained the notification to The Wire: “Non-consideration of publications in ‘paid journals’ for career advancement is a standard practice in IITs and other premium institutions, not only NITs,” He added that he wasn’t “aware of any ‘standard’ journals which take money for publication of a high-quality article”.