Thursday, 31 October 2013

Nigeria: A hub for substandard publishing in biomedical science?

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


Ak said...

Thanks for your write up on substandard publishing in Biomedical science.I beg to disagree on some of your views however.Nigerians are writing a lot and a lot of research have been done but efforts to get them published have repeatedly been tuned down as "Not meeting the standard of certain international journals', I wont mention names here.
Medical research findings have been doctored to conform with what the developed world accepts as the original at the detriment of our indigenous talent.
Sir, I think you should consider shining a search light on the international medical scientific journals and you will be shocked at what you will discover.Let me point out certain mind blowing points:
1.The issue of scientific writing has been politicized by the developed nations to the detriment of the less developed or developing nations.There is a "cabal" that controls who gets published, what gets published, who gets to read it and what knowledge is accepted as "scientific".
2.Have you considered the "economics of getting published" scientific writers from developing countries cannot compete favorably because of lack of an "enabling environment"(internet access, lack of access to journals, no research grants.e.t.c.) whereas their colleagues in the developed world have all the wherewithal to publish-availability of research grants, internet search engines, travel grants.
3.The developed world has to maintain control of what is seen as 'the scientific knowledge" so as to continue to provide markets for their research commodities at the detriment of the developing world.
Sir, no one will blow our trumpet for us.Its time that we form our own journals, and publishing outfits, host them on the internet so others can come and buy access and learn from it.
Sir, don't you get it, knowledge from Nigeria and other developing/less developed countries must be classified as second class so that those from the developed world can thrive.Lets look beyond the politics of these journals sir, lets look inwards.
Dr.Ak writes from Atlanta, Georgia

ogo egbuna said...

While i agree that we have to be proud of what we can publish as scientific coming from within the developing world, I have to disagree with AK on a number of points.

First of all, we can not hide behind the argument of a politicized publishing environment as a reason for not coming up with research and publications of international standard. Remember, even articles from the developed world are turned down by many reputable journals so why would the editors accept substandard from the developing world. I do not believe the standard for accepting an article should be lowered for anyone. As a peer reviewer for a number of articles and the one time editor of an open access internet journal, a lot more goes into accepting or declining an article- the newness of the concept or idea or a new perspective on an old idea is sufficient grounds for acceptance. But if it is simply a reproduction of what we already know with no real contribution to advancing knowledge in the field, it should be turned down. We should not set up our own publishing house to only become dumping grounds for low quality or unenlightening research. That would only perpetuate the perception of what comes out of the research community in the developing world.

Secondly, high quality research requires a real and substantial investment on the part of government. The research industry in the developed world is a multi billion dollar enterprise supported not only by government but by industry for which the benefits are legion. A similar infrastructure is almost non existent for many reason I need not bother expand on here in the developing world. Research that is of relevance in this day and age very often goes beyond mere observation and requires technology that measures change in response to an action or intervention on a scale never seen before.

While developing countries do need their own publishing houses with the objective of shining a light on problems of relevance to the regions involved, let us not use the economics of getting published as an excuse to let in garbage into our publication landscape. It takes resources to set up a high quality publishing outfit with the appropriate oversight and unless publishing houses are supported by well intentioned non-profit bodies, publishing houses in the developing world will fall prey to the same economic pressures and sometimes greed observed elsewhere.

Lastly, I would kindly ask that we not perpetuate the idea that the developed world wants a control of knowledge to the detriment of the developing world. The whole world is thriving on the technology developed world has made through the marketing such innovation and technologies to the whole world- both developed and developing. Many of these innovations we often take for granted- from life saving medicines, to vaccines, to electronics and so on. If developing countries invest enough to come up with original ideas worthy of mention, there are mechanisms in place to ensure that the ideas can be protected in the form of patent rights and appropriately monetized by engagement of the right parties.

Good post by INO and interesting comment by AK.

Ogo Egbuna

Iruka N Okeke said...

Some really interesting comments - thank you. In response to AK's comment, I did want to make it clear that I am not unaware of the biases against non-Western authors. While we must overcome these, creating and publishing in substandard and predatory journals actually exacerbates the problem. A few authentic journals are actually working to give African authors a leg-up where necessary. Those I am aware of are the Journal for Infections in Developing Countries and the African Journal of Laboratory Medicine. These and similar journals are the preferred option. African authors should not allow themselves to be victimized by predatory journals because they have difficulties accessing established ones.

And the need for investments at the front end - to stimulate quality research cannot be overemphasized. Many thanks to Ogo Egbuna for reiterating it.

Iruka N Okeke