Thought Leadership

Nigeria: A hub for substandard publishing in biomedical science?

4 Mins read
By Iruka Okeke

Academic publishing is the major mode of communication within specialist fields.  New biomedical findings almost always debut in the peer-reviewed literature.  Participants in a scholarly discussion publish their ideas, experiments and findings, and field leaders publish more, or better.  The most
common reason for denying US tenure-track faculty tenure is an inadequate publication record. And even in systems that are less brutal, ultimately, for academic practitioners at most institutions, the ‘publish or perish’ axiom runs true. Publication output is linked to career advancement and competitiveness for research funding.

In the last two decades, scientific publishing has come under considerable scrutiny as peer-review, its gate-keeping mechanism, is now understood not to be infallible and the cost of periodicals to libraries and readers has skyrocketed.  Efforts to make scientific publications more accessible have led to the evolution of the Open Access publishing model in which, after peer review and acceptance, authors pay page charges to (largely online) journals and then their articles are available to readers for free.   Open Access appears to be working because the major funding agencies have agreed to pick up the charges and some mandate their grant awardees to publish Open Access.  Also, scientists like their work to be accessible and Open Access is the best way to ensure accessibility.  Regarding journal quality, the impact factors of major open access journals are now as high as, or higher than, comparable subscription only publications.  The Open Access model has been honed to ensure that  unfunded scientists, particularly those in developing countries, can have page charges waived.  However, Open Access is still an experiment, and not one without flaws.

Jeffrey Beall, who recently authored a piece on predatory publishing in Nature,  is perhaps best known for curating a database of spurious journals that demand large publishing fees but have no real interest or desire to promote authentic scientific communication.  The predatory journals on Beall’s list, in the curator’s opinion, practice a corruption of the open access model, having authors pay publication costs so that readers can access the work free.  However, unlike authentic open-access publications, predatory journals have questionable, if any peer review and editorial processes and therefore they draw low quality work that should not be acceptable to a scholarly journal.  The money-making opportunity here is obvious.  Normally, these shady journals would burn out but predatory publications are sustained by authors who are willing to pay high fees to publish lower quality work and circumvent authentic peer review.  These authors can then list their substandard publications on their vitae to advance their careers.  Academic promotion reviews that focus on the quantity, rather than quality of published work fuel this behavior.  Sadly, hardworking authors commonly fall prey to predatory journals at least once by mistaking them for real ones.

The current rave in discussions about Open Access and rogue publishing is the ‘sting’ experiment performed by John Bohannon and published in Science.  (Science is not an Open Access Journal but there are ways authors to make their Science publication Open).  Bohannon’s experiment involved him submitting fake and flawed papers to journals published by 304 open access publishers and then identifying publishers that accepted them.  The list of targeted publishers includes well known and highly reputed publishers such as PLoS and Frontiers, a number of local journals from a variety of countries as well as 121 publishers off of “academic crime-fight[er]” Beall’s list of potential predatory publishers.  In the end, 157 journals accepted the flawed papers and 98 (including PLoS and Frontiers journals) rejected it.  Bohannon’s objectives and methods have been widely criticized but I’ll leave the details of those criticisms (a handful of which I agree with) to other blogs.  As is appropriate for this blog, let’s focus on Nigeria.

Accompanying the Bohannon’s article in Science is an interactive network figure showing the location of the publishers, their editors, and their financial offices and the links between them.  Like all network figures, this one makes it possible to identify hubs.  (Most people have seen network figures of air travel routes.  The hubs in those figures are your airline hubs e.g. London Heathrow for British Airways, Lagos for Arik, or Philadelphia for US Airways).  The Open Access publishing hubs are easily identifiable in the figure accompanying Bohannon’s article.  They include the USA, a number of Western European countries and India for example.  Nigeria is the only country in Africa with more than three Open Access publication offices.   It is a small hub, compared to India or the USA (and so did not merit discussion in Bohannon’s Science paper), but it is significant that every one of the publications connected to Nigeria accepted Bohannon’s flawed papers.  This makes Nigeria the largest hub of publication offices that unanimously accepted the spoof papers in the world. South Africa had only two data points, both editor locations and would not qualify to be a hub.  Only one of these accepted the article and that publisher banked in Nigeria.

While it is true that numerically more journals based in India and the USA accepted the flawed articles than those based in Nigeria, Nigeria is a standout on the figure because once again, it features as a ‘giant of Africa’, sadly this time not in a good way.  And it must be acknowledged that most journals receive and publish more manuscripts from their own countries than any other.   Sociologist Ebenezer Obadare and I have written (sorry not Open Access) about how apparent peer review – even in authentic journals – can damage medical research and misinform professional and public circles about the value of experimental therapies.  Predatory journals and those that publish substandard science in them can do real harm.  Nigerian institutional review committees need to scrutinize the credentials of academics to ensure that they are not building careers based on publications in predatory journals and well meaning academics need to take steps to avoid, and crush these ‘journals’ so that our international scholarly reputation is not damaged by them.   Perhaps we need to ensure that only papers that have been cited (and not self cited) can be included in a resume for review.  This would remove many (not all) publications in spurious journals from candidate’s CVs.

Timing is all important in science communication with Beall and Bohannon’s articles pubished respectively just before and after Open Access week.  By sheer coincidence, the Bohannon and Beall publications overlap with another Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) strike in Nigeria.  Once we have dealt with that current wildfire, we’ll need to ask ourselves how best to maintain the quality of the institutions that determine and reflect the quality of our academy.

Iruka N Okeke
Haverford, Oct 2013

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has…Margaret Mead

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