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Busting Myths of Academic Publishing

By Dr. Debashish Sengupta, Associate Professor, Alliance Business School and Program Director of Alliance Ascent College, Alliance University | Friday, 17 Mar 2017, 10:06 IST

"Publish or perish" has been the rule of the academic world. Academicians who fail to publish find themselves at disadvantage.  These may range from low or no salary increments to non-tenurship or even loss of job. Research and publication therefore counts as one of the most important KPIs of every academician. The estimated number of peer-reviewed journals is close to 30000, churning out nearly two million articles every year or 20 million articles every decade. Has such growth, however, boosted academic scholarship? If it is, then why has not such mountain of research publishing benefitted the real world? Has academic publishing largely reduced to a mere publication and subscription cycle, which is read by those who need to publish and then left to be forgotten in the archives? This article takes a critical look at the world of academic publishing and aims to bust the myths and poor practices; thereby aiming to bring greater level of objectivity in research and publication, necessitating practical application.

Myth 1: All Publication in Peer Reviewed Journals and Conferences are ‘Human’ Works
In 2005, a group of MIT graduate students decided to goof off in a very MIT graduate student way and spent a week or two between class projects to develop SCIgen - a program that randomly generates nonsensical computer-science papers, complete with realistic-looking graphs, figures, and citations. The paper developed by these MIT students made its way to a world conference, where it was accepted for publication. After its ‘smart’ authors unveiled the secret of the paper, the conference lost its major sponsor and academic publishing world lay exposed. The ‘act’ of these students laid bare the truth of larger part of academic publishing that questioned credibility. One may be entertained by the fact that computer programs are now good enough to create drivable gabble, but what is alarming and sad though is that many journals/conferences continue to accept such papers without being able to scrutinize them critically.

Myth 2: All top rated Peer Reviewed Journals make sounde ditorial decisions

A French computer scientist Cyril Labbé could detect more than 100 algorithmically generated articles in two major scientific publications. Later in 2012, he found out a batch of 85 fake articles in one of these publications. These two much respected publications on realizing their error decided to withdraw such papers post-date. Besides the computer generated articles, there are many more articles that are meaningless paper drudgery that sometimes make their way to some ‘good’ peer-reviewed journals. A lengthy literature review with a long list of citations makes a paper being perceived as impressive and one that has depth. Given easy availability of electronic database and advanced MS Word application creation of citation list is not too difficult. The fact that Cyril Labbé could find out such editorial lapses in top rated peer reviewed journals shows that fault lines are much deeper than we perceive. It will be hence wrong to believe all ‘top’ rated peer reviewed journal publications as crème dala crème.

Myth 3: Publication in a top-tier journal alone certifies good research

Now given the mad race to publish and availability of algorithms, electronic databases and advanced documentation applications, every year millions of academicians around the world are attempting to cite previously published research literature. Often the ones cited by author who have made their way to top journals end up being cited more, as such citations are perceived to be of greater value. In such a scenario where many authors are using citations in their papers more to impress and are blindly copying them from the papers of their accomplished peers, will ‘impact factor’ be a true measure always? What about the exciting new journals who are relatively new but are doing a great job when it comes to editing, review and publishing? It is similar to believing that all good products and innovations can come out of the great big companies alone! We need to remember that the start-ups have always altered the innovation landscape and Google – a start-up in 1998 - is perhaps one of the most exciting and innovative companies that we have today. 

Myth 4: All non-peer reviewed journals lack credibility

Gregor Mendel, a priest by profession, did experiments on sweet pea that helped him postulate Laws of Genetics, which hold true even today. His only ‘mistake’ was to publish that in an ‘obscure’ journal. Almost three decades later, after his death Erich von Tschermak, Hugo de Vries, Carl Correns, and William Jasper Spillman independently verified several of Mendel's experimental findings, ushering in the modern age of genetics. Mendel finally got his due but it is sad that the class system in journals prevented his work from spreading and being recognized. We believe that the collective wisdom of a group of peers make better judgements than an editor alone and consider any non-peer reviewed journal as junk or one that lacks academic rigour. The yardstick has to be quality and application alone when it comes to research journal and not whether it is peer or non-peer reviewed publication.

Myth 5: Empirical research papers command greater rigour and credibility

A primary grader good in mathematics in school is always branded as the sharpest, most intelligent and a brilliant student, while those good in literature or history are generally considered as those who can memorise matter and work hard to reproduce the same during examinations. This perceptual bias extends right from the school to world of research where empirical papers are perceived by many to be superior to qualitative research papers. The truth is far from perceived reality. To say that one or the other approach is "better" is simply a trivializing of what is a far more complex topic than a dichotomous choice can settle. Both quantitative and qualitative research rest on rich and varied traditions that come from multiple disciplines and both have been employed to address almost any research topic one can think of.

Myth 6: Academicians are always good researchers

While, the academicians are expected to be good researchers, the Indian higher education system does not attract the brightest and the best in the academic profession. There are outlier private institutions but in general, the focus is on getting professors at low cost and making them to teach without giving a dedicated time for research. Research funding in countries like India is almost non-existent. Added to this is the pressure to publish and academicians are expected to show published research output every year for getting fresh increments and promotions. Expecting them to produce fast-published research output can only results in poor research and peer reviews. It has also spurred increasing numbers of low-quality “predatory publishers” who spam researchers with weekly “calls for papers” and charge steep fees for articles that they often do not even read before accepting.

Myth 7: Tightly controlled academic publication is the future

The trust that high-ranked peer reviewed journals are necessarily producing high-end research is no more confirmatory. The research needs to be deregulated and must have greater social accountability. The engagement of the civic society in accessing research and exacting accountability out of the same is the need of the hour. Application of research felt by the civic society must be the only barometer of quality. In such a scenario, poor research will automatically fizzle out. Future of research publication has to be more “open,” less reliant on
pre-publication peer review, and self-supported by scholars. Research must also be freely accessible for all and not limited to ‘privileged’ few to determine its usefulness and application value. 


February  2017
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