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Predatory journal ranking debatable

17 Feb 2021 / 15:42 H.

WHEN the research paper of two economists from the Czech Republic was published in an international journal Scientometrics on Feb 7, delineating the extent of how predatory journals across countries are making their mark in Scopus – a global citation database of scholarly works – pandemonium broke out in Malaysia.

This was because the nation was ranked fifth among 20 countries with the most number of academics cited in more than 300 predatory journals in Scopus.

Scopus is a respectable global citation database run by Dutch publisher Elsevier that uniquely combines a comprehensive, curated abstract and citation database with enriched data and linked scholarly content, covering life, social, physical and health sciences.

Being in the 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 on par with world standards.

Not only that, citation in 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 of Transparency International where the majority of Muslim countries top the list.

But before we, rightly or wrongly, get too excited about 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 predatory journals penetrating the respectable Scopus database.

In the first place, why does the research target Scopus as if it is the one and only database for citation of scholarly works in the whole world?

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.

Web of Science, whose previous name is Web of Knowledge, is a similar citation database of the Thomson Institute for Scientific Information (Thomson ISI) which pioneered the field of citation indexing and analysis since 1956. It also offered scientometric and bibliographic database.

Some say it is even more prestigious than Scopus because of its list of “ISI Highly Cited Researchers”, one of the factors included in the academic ranking of world universities.

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 is relevant to the research.

It’s quite perplexing that only Scopus is chosen, when a Google search of companies that deal with database for citation of scholarly works returns more of a dozen such companies globally.

In their methodology, the two researchers compared the titles indexed in Scopus between 2015 and 2017 with a list of potentially predatory 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”.

While on some important cases Beall published at least a few sentences on his blog or Twitter, very often the journal or publisher was added to his list without any reasoning. The lack of comprehensive, rigid, and formal justification for Beall’s judgment is a major drawback of his list.

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. As Beall did not explain his decisions systematically, it is not possible to make any quantification of “predatoriness” of the journal, even though elaborated criteria exist”.

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

There are studies positing that some of the predatory journals in Beall’s list began life as a legit journal but because they didn’t make money, 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 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.

In the current study, the two researchers found 324 of these questionable journals on the Scopus database. According to them, these titles published some 164,000 papers between 2015 and 2017. That’s around 2.8% of the total number of papers indexed in the database during that period.

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.

“All of Beall’s list titles that are covered in Scopus have gone through rigorous re-evaluation, which is done by the independent Content Selection and Advisory Board (CSAB) that selects new journals, whereby the majority of the titles from Beall’s list have been discontinued in Scopus based on CSAB’s determination,” said the Scopus team.

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 but rather, with the difficulty of defining what really constitutes predatory publishing, it is preposterous to create a list of countries ranked on the basis of having the greatest number articles in predatory journals making its way in the global citation databases, and to boot, only one global citation database!

There are many reasons why predatory journals make their way into Malaysia. 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 instead of basing the research on its relevance and applicability to the goal of producing workers or 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 writers to pay to get published because the journals made money through subscription; and

* Rogue lecturers quietly doing business with entrepreneurs without a university’s knowledge for quick bucks in producing predatory journals.

The writer is Director of Media and Communications at Emir Research, an independent think-tank focused on strategic policy recommendations. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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