Predatory journal ranking debatable

Researches in tertiary institutions here are merely to fulfil key performance indicators instead of basing it on its relevance and applicability to the goal of producing workers or...

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Published by The Sun Daily, Focus Malaysia & Astro Awani, image from Focus Malaysia.

WHEN the research paper of two economists from the Czech Republic was published in an international journal Scientometrics on February 7, which delineated the extent of how predatory journals across countries are making their mark in Scopus – a respectable global citation database of scholarly works – pandemonium broke out in Malaysia because it is ranked fifth among 20 countries with the most numbers of its academics being cited in more than 300 predatory journals in Scopus.

Being in a fifth position in this first ever list has a grave implication because it implies the quality of our local academic works is wanting and not at par with world standard.

Scopus is used as a basis for the annual global rankings of universities, with at least two major outfits – Times Higher Education and QS – relying very much on data from Scopus in publishing their annual rankings of universities worldwide.

The more citations a university has of its academics’ works in Scopus, the greater will be its chances of improving its global ranking, along with the expected prestige and monies for the university concerned via the inflow of more public and private research grants and increasing enrolment.

What’s more, the list compiled by the researchers Vit Machacek and Martin Srholec mirrors the corruption perceptions index (CPI) of Transparency International where the majority of Muslim countries top the list.

But before we, rightly or wrongly, get too excited on this, there are two basic flaws in the study which render it as less robust and rigorous in coming up with a ranked list of countries that have their academics cited in the predatory journals penetrating the respectable Scopus database.

For the list to be a robust source of predatory journals making its mark on global citation database of scholarly works across all countries in the world, the researchers must consider as much as possible all the world’s citation database that have ever existed.

The researchers themselves admitted this limitation when they said, “Scopus, rather than Web of Science, is used because it covers substantially more journals and it is more susceptible to predators”. 

Does this mean because Web of Science relatively covers substantially less journals than Scopus, it is not worth the effort to include it in the research because covering less journals would imply zero number of predatory journals in Web of Science?

The focus on Scopus alone may give the impression of the existence of some kind of agenda against the global citation database, perhaps due to its success in being used as a basis for university ranking.

Reading through the research paper until its conclusion, it is indeed very clear – the whole research is a dressing down of Scopus.

If you want to build an index or a list of anything covering all the countries in the world, your research must be robust scientifically by including all that are relevant to the research.

In their methodology, the two researchers compared the titles indexed in Scopus between 2015 and 2017 with a list of potentially predator journals in Beall’s list.

This refers to US librarian Jeffrey Beall who was both the first person in the world to create his own list of predatory journals in 2008 and the first person to coin the term, predatory journals. The list was maintained by Beall until 2017 when the site was taken down by the University of Colorado where he worked.

Beall’s list which was very helpful in creating awareness on the potential, possible or probable existence of predatory journals, was at the same time controversial as admitted by the researchers themselves because “the justification of the decision over individual journals and publishers is often not clear and hardly verifiable”.

Having admitted this, yet the two researchers insisted “the form of Beall’s list forces us to work with a binary classification only, in which a journal is labelled either predatory or not.

This is a direct admission that the study is not rigorous.

There are studies positing that some of the predatory journals in the Beall’s list began life as a legit journal but because they didn’t make monies, a new management took over and engineered it into a predatory journal.

The opposite scenario could also be true: a predatory journal whose business was affected because it is in the Beall’s list being taken over by a new management which intended to take it out of the predatory publishing.

The problem with Beall is he didn’t do the necessary follow-up and hence, the complain that once you are in the list, there’s no way for you to get out.

Also, his list may contain journals that are below par in term of quality and this raises the question of whether it is a crime for producing low quality works as opposed to producing predatory works that are either fraudulent or applying pseudo-science in its publication.

Meanwhile, in a letter to local professors in Malaysia which was sighted by EMIR Research, the Scopus team, while emphasising its recognition of the problem that predatory publishing presents, and its commitment to uphold the highest quality standards in Scopus indexed journals, also said while any research that helps shine a light on predatory journals is welcome, the latest research by the two economists is misleading.

“Beall’s list has not been maintained since 2017 and although journals listed in it may be suspicious, it is also controversial and based on the opinion of one person. Beall works with a binary classification in which a journal and publisher is considered either predatory or not.

“As Beall did not systematically explain his decisions, it is not possible to make a more detailed quantification of “predatoriness”. Therefore, just being listed by Beall does not necessarily mean the journal is predatory,” said the Scopus team.

The letter also said there’s no valid research methodology applied to determine that these journals are indeed deemed predatory and still covered in Scopus. The research also does not acknowledge the rigorous evaluation and re-evaluation mechanisms that Scopus has in place to combat predatory publishing.

It added that predatory publishing is not well defined and for responsible use of metrics it is always recommended to use multiple metrics in combination with qualitative measures.

The main thrust of this article is not to deny the existence of predatory journals in Malaysia. There are many reasons why predatory journals make its way into our country.

Talking to some academics here, EMIR Research discovers some of the reasons as follows:

  • Most of the researches done in tertiary institutions here are merely to fulfil key performance indicators (KPI) instead of basing the research on its relevance and applicability to the goal of producing workers/talents of the 21st century;
  • The direct payment business model between writers and the journals where the writers must pay first for their articles to be published, instead of the subscription business model where there is no need for the writers to pay; and
  • Rogue lecturers quietly doing business with entrepreneurs without the university’s knowledge for quick bucks in producing predatory journals.

Jamari Mohtar is director of media & communications at EMIR Research, an independent think-tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based upon rigorous research.

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