Questionable publishing practices or questionable colleagues?
A sad story from the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague
Who would question questionable academics?
Academic wars are ubiquitous. In every country and in every academic community, there is always a plethora of opposing views with regard to how the research should be done and who should be in charge. Science and progress are constantly evolving and dynamic processes and the pressure on academics is getting higher with each year. Hence, the competition is getting tougher too.
Academics often clash and fight over their research, publications, patents, and results. Old friends become archenemies (like Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto from the X-Men). The main reason for that is probably due to the fact that they are (usually) clever people with high IQs and remarkable intellects and for some of them it is sometimes difficult to acknowledge that they might be wrong and their competitors might be right. We all have been there and we all know that. However, when someone's opponents launches a targeted hysterical campaign that involves the mass media and social media, it all suddenly becomes very serious and life-threatening.
This is of course a total nonsense and most of the criticism is unfair, unsupported and unjustified. Let me show you why:
2. Publications and RIV points scheme in the Czech Republic
Since the Czech Republic is a small country with only a handful of academic workplaces producing noticeable scientific output in terms of publications in prestigious peer-reviewed journals, it is relatively easy to monitor the research and publication productivity by the Czech academics. While research in the field of natural sciences (e.g. biology, botany, climatology, nuclear physics, or mathematics) or engineering have always been notable and produced excellent scientific output (including publications in the top scientific journals like Nature or Science), the researches in the field of social sciences and humanities have always lagged behind.
Until recently, Czech social scientists did not bother much about publishing in English and in top academic journals. Most of them published their research in Czech and in local peer-reviewed journals and proceedings. Locally-published books and monographs were considered to be of higher importance for boosting careers and acquiring academic position and degrees.
This situation changed about 5-6 years ago, when the stress started to being put on publishing in journals listed in Thomson Reuters ISI Web of Knowledge database. In those days, all academic journals listed in this database were considered "prestigious peer-reviewed journals" without distinguishing between the rankings of the journals.
In 2013, the situation fundamentally changed when the Research, Development and Innovation Council of the Czech Republic adapted its Methodology of remuneration for academic publications in the Czech Republic for the years of 2013-2016 (http://www.vyzkum.cz/FrontClanek.aspx?idsekce=685899&ad=1&attid=752948). In accordance with the new methodology, the remuneration was conducted based on the points assigned to each publication based on its weight and significance. Publications with an IF and indexed in ISI Web of Knowledge and publications indexed in Scopus gained similar status. For the period of 2013-2016, the formula for attributing the points to the academic publications was set as follows:
Jimp/sc = 10 + 295 x Factor
where Factor is the adjusted IF for ISI Web of Knowledge journals, and the SJR for Scopus-indexed journals. The methodology is presented in the Table below. It becomes apparent that the value of Scopus-indexed publications and ISI Web of Knowledge publications has levelled and yields the same output. Moreover, it is also apparent that the value of book chapters and research monographs declined considerably.
In accordance with the methodology presented above,
Czech academics submit a list of their publications to their Departments or
Institutes. The publications are then evaluated at the Department level, then
the whole Faculty level, and then submitted via an electronic system to the
Central Library (e.g. in the case of the Charles University in Prague) level.
The library then compiles the lists and submits them to the RIV submission
system (RIV points' scheme that vaguely
resembles REF UK).
Each publication gets a certain number of points (from 10 to 305). The monetary value of the single point in 2014 was set at about 4000 CZK (about 150 EUR) with the decline in subsequent years to 3000 CZK (110 EUR) and lower. Based on these criteria, the monetary reward is calculation for each Czech institution (the money is divided proportionally between the Czech institutions and the foreign co-authors are not rewarded). The money for each publication output goes to the respective institution (University or research institute), where about one half of it is kept at the Rectorate or higher management level for the institutional needs, and the rest goes to the department or the institute where the respective author originates from. The departments and institutes take the money and pay the reward to the authors (quarterly or annually) in accordance with their internal guidelines. In most of the cases, a remuneration for the Scopus-indexed publication would vary between 3000 CZK (110 EUR) and 10000 CZK (370 EUR), while a paper in a Thomson Reuters-indexed journal would yield from 10000 CZK (370 EUR) to 20000-30000 CZK (750-1100 EUR).
Hence, the rules in the Czech Republic are that all publications listed in Scopus and Thomson Reuters databases are acknowledged and rewarded. Moreover, the system of control (which publication gets into the system) is very strict and has at least 3 upper levels of internal control. Furthermore, it is the University or the research institute that mostly profits from the publications, since the authors receive just a small margin of the money allocated based on the points attributed to their publications.
3. Predatory journals
My former colleagues accuse me of publishing only in "outlets of questionable quality and origins" referring to the so-called "Jeffrey Beall's list", a list that exists on a blog created by the librarian from the University of Colorado Denver. They did not bother to check the obvious facts and often write total nonsense (at one point they claim that all my monographs were "published by the vanity press Lambert Academic Publishing", which is not true - I only had one monographs published with LAP in 2011 and I soon realized my mistake, so it never went into the RIV points' system - all my other monographs are published by the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague and their ISBN can be checked to prove that). Moreover, if they bothered to check my publications against the list of "potentially predatory" publications submitted by all Czech research institutions to the RIV points' system, they would find just 1 entry amongst 672 (and not a single LAP book either).
Although Jeffrey Beall is considered to be an academic expert in questionable publishing practices by many, one has to remember that he himself acknowledges that his list includes "potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access journals" . Beall's list might be a good reference but it is not officially recognized by the Research, Development and Innovation Council of the Czech Republic - the main criterion remains whether the publication was listed in Scopus or Web of Science.
"Beall's list" itself is a point of many controversies. Charging a fee does not make a journal "predatory" - many reputable journals published by the reputable publishing houses charge publication fees based on their "author pays principle" or offering the authors to grant open access to their published papers (therefore helping to increase downloading and citations) in exchange for hefty sums.
Additionally, one has to remember that Beall constantly updates his list by adding and removing the journals or publishers from his list. Has anyone decided what to do with the journals and publishers who used to be on Beall's list but were removed? Or what about the journals which were not on Beall's list several years ago, when someone published her or his papers in them, but appeared on the list recently? How far should the indexaction go? For instance, there a well-known case of MDPI, a publishing house from Switzerland. In 2014, MDPI was added to Beall's list. However, Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA) investigation concluded that MDPI met the OASPA membership criteria. Subsequently, MDPI was removed from Mr. Beall's list on the 28th of October 2015. MDPI's journals currently appear in UK's prestigious ABS Academic Journal Guide 2015. Another example is Hindawi, an Egyptian publisher once considered predatory and listed in Beall's list that improved its practices and standards and was removed from the list.
Monica Berger and Jill Cirasella, two librarians from the City University of New York also have a blog called "Beyond Beall's List: we need a better understanding of predatory publishing without overstating its size and danger" in which they demonstrate the limitations of the Jeffrey Beall's methodology. They describe how in 2014 Walt Crawford criticized Beall in his article called "Ethics and Access 1: The Sad Case of Jeffrey Beall". The main criticism is that Beall makes it look like the predatory or low-quality publishing were a phenomenon of Open Access journals and never existed before OA. Moreover, it is obvious that Beall favors toll-access publishers, especially large publishing houses.
Some of journals I published my papers in might have appeared on Beall's list later on but a simple look at my list of publications (43 papers in Web of Science and 90 papers in Scopus) reveals that I have lots of good papers in reputable journals published by Taylor & Francis, Elsevier, Wiley, etc.). Several of my papers appeared in journals with an impact factor equal greater than 1, which equates to CABS 3* in the UK lists).
To sum it up, all my academic papers that went
into the Czech RIV points' system were those listed in Scopus and Web of
Science databases. All of them were carefully scrutinized by my superiors and
found suitable. No one ever mentioned Jeffrey Beall's list or the fact that the
journals listed in Scopus and Web of Science databases might be "predatory". I
raised this point in my communication with the Central Library of the Charles
University in July 2015 and received an official letter (in Czech, see above)
stating that, in their view, if the respective journal is listed in Jeffrey
Beall's list and in Scopus or Web of Science in the same time, the only
relevant criterion is that it is listed in Scopus and Web of Science (Beall's
list is simply irrelevant). Hence, there are rules set up by the University
itself and I always played by these rules!
4. Emily Welkins controversy
Last but not least is the Emily Welkins controversy. Emily Welkins is a fictional writer and the author of the popular science book Till the last drop! that employs advanced mathematics (differential equations and mathematical models describing the epidemics and predator-prey equilibria) to show whether vampires and humans can live together in harmony. The books scrutinizes the scenarios based on popular books and films (Dracula, Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Blade, etc.) and analyzes the possible solutions for each case. I adopted this pseudonym in 2011 and since then have been working on this side project in my spare time.
Emily Welkins was created for fun and
popularization of science. The pseudonym was employed to create some mystery
and to distinguish my research on vampires from my main line of work. The
project proved to be quite successful and received some attention abroad: Annals of Improbable Research published
an issue based on the book, Boston Metro
journalist did an interview with me, and a prestigious French popular science
journal Science et Vie included the
research on vampires into its special supplement as an example of modern
In order to make Emily Welkins more "real", I added her as my co-author to a couple of papers that were published in academic journals (indexed in Scopus). I do not think I harmed anyone by that (except for myself) and the whole thing was an academic joke. Why would anyone thing otherwise? Science can also be fun!
It has to be stressed that
many academics enjoy playing similar jokes. There is a well-known case of an
American physicist Willian G. Hoover who "invented" his fictional co-author Stronzo
Bestiale (meaning "total asshole" in Italian) and published several papers with
him (fictional Italian co-author allegedly helped him to get published in the Journal of Statistical Physics), or the
case of the immunologist Polly Matzinger who published
a study co-authored Galadriel Mirkwood, her afghan hound. Moreover, a Nobel laureate Andre Geim also published a paper
with his hamster as a co-author. All in all, things that are not appropriate in the academia
data and plagiarism. I think everyone can agree with me that in the case of
joke authors on otherwise solid papers, a Corrigendum would be most appropriate
and there is no need for myths and rumors.
Overall, it becomes obvious that my critics "forgot" to mention relevant facts and omitted important information in order to make their point look more serious than it actually is. Despite the fact that I never violated any laws of the Czech Republic nor the rules set up by the Charles University in Prague or the Department of Journalism of the Faculty of Social Sciences, I had to face very unpleasant accusations. Desperate to make their point, my former colleagues summoned the journalists (mostly their friends, colleagues, and former students) who wrote and published several articles about me in the Czech daily newspapers presenting me as some kind of an arch-villain and "predatory" scientist (with just 1 possibly predatory RIV publication). Most of the things described in the Czech media were a total bogus taken out of the context but unfortunately this is how Czech journalism works. The legal system in the Czech Republic fail to offer mechanisms for protection of individuals in the cases of mass media witch hunt.
My contract at the Faculty of Social Sciences expired at the end of September 2015. Dr. Tejkalova, my boss at the time, promised me to renew the contract starting from January 2016 but changed her mind afterwards. I do not blame her - most of the Czech higher education institutions are afraid of one and one thing only - too much attention from the mass media. Perhaps, this is due to the fact that there is much more that lurks beyond the seemingly calm surface of the Czech universities.
It becomes obvious that Czech university environment lacks institutions similar to the University and College Union (UCU) that would be able to effectively protect academics from false allegations and scandals purposefully created to ruin their reputation.
Time will show who was right and who was wrong. It will also show who did what for science and progress and who simply fiddled around and wasted her time with writing blogs and making up elaborate accusations and intrigues comparable only to those depicted in the Game of Thrones.
Dr Wadim Strielkowski