Kanhaiya Kumar recently came under fire for publishing in a predatory journal to fulfil his PhD requirements. Since scientific publishing – including predatory publishing – are academic concepts, it’s important to clarify some things regarding this issue.
Predatory publishing is a very problematic practice that erodes the quality of the scientific literature, spreads misinformation and places an extra burden on ethical bodies to check, contest and clarify misconceptions now in the public domain.
If a researcher, even unknowingly and in good faith, publishes articles in predatory journals, they are likely to be complicit in the exaggeration of the certainty of those results. Predatory publishing is categorically bad.
That said, looking for unethical intent to publish in a predatory journal is not a straightforward exercise. For one, several journals may find themselves being called ‘predatory’, even inadvertently, simply because they lack the resources to afford proper quality control.
For another, deciding whether a journal is predatory or not is in itself a complicated task. For example, the University Grants Commission (UGC) only recently came up with a clear, definitive list of journals (but even which was not perfect). It is not a matter of incompetence or lack of motivation. The dynamic nature of research prohibits a universal and final definition. The UGC’s list, as well as others like it, will have to be updated regularly, and the efforts to catch unethical intent will have to be matched both in funding and in awareness by those on the right side of things.
I am reminded of an Indian scientist who has published in a predatory journal but who also, post-publication, received a national award from the government for his work. However, we cannot assume that the scientist published in the predatory journal knowing the full implications of the submission, so we must not assume that he has been unethical. Calling out specific individuals for their articles in predatory journals requires several checks, together with unequivocal evidence that the researcher published in the predatory journal with the intent of bypassing quality checks.
In fact, I worry that a detailed roster of everyone who has ever published in a predatory journal would reflect deep issues with Indian academia and what, and whom, we hold in high regard. Does this reflect more on Indian academia or on how complicated the matter of predatory publishing is? One may argue for both cases. I have grown to lean towards the latter.
It would certainly help if there were regular training programmes to raise awareness among researchers regarding this issue. There is almost no systemic support that enables researchers to identify predatory journals, even though India has become a globally recognised ‘hub’ of such publishers. In such a situation, famous examples of people who have landed on the wrong side, like Kanhaiya Kumar, could help amplify awareness of the issue – but then again, would it be justified?
When academic issues become a matter of public concern, academics must provide clarifications where necessary. However, they must keep their audience in mind, too. The general public cannot be expected to understand the nuances and the finer complications of academic issues. Individuals or media houses that are not familiar with the full extent of the problem would likely jump to the erroneous conclusion that publishing in a ‘fake’ journal is always intentional and unethical. That simply isn’t true.
More importantly, non-experts may not have the intellectual resolution to inspect issues at such close quarters. It is the duty of academics to not assume or extrapolate based on our ideologies. If all doubt cannot be eliminated, it is our duty to express as accurately as possible the uncertainty of our estimations. To exaggerate any allegation would betray the same standards we like to hold academic publishing accountable to, and when these matters impact a national narrative, we need to be even more cautious.
All this said, note that Indian academia’s troublesome relationship with predatory publishing can’t be propped up as a defence of Kanhaiya Kumar himself. If he intentionally published in a predatory journal, he must be penalised accordingly. A political candidate must not receive any special considerations or be exempt from rules, nor should they be subjected to supra-normal standards to set an example.
In an age of misinformation, public conversations will only benefit from the participation of academics; there is a desperate need to infuse such conversations with more informed, honest and rigorous opinions.
Shivangi Tiwari is pursuing a PhD in palaeoclimatology at the Université du Québec à Montréal. This article originally appeared on her blog and has been republished with permission.