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Keeping the score

- Predators in an academic jungle

Nowadays the University Grants Commission requires that college and university teachers be appointed and promoted on the basis of their academic performance indicators or APIs. These are used for academic assessment in many countries, but there is no standard format: each country, authority or institution devises its own. The UGC, too, allows each university to modify its general guidelines, subject to some overall stipulations.

The API system is intended to prevent the selection of teachers by subjective judgment, shading into nepotism and corruption. Like most schemes for academic improvement by mechanical means, it has not only failed to select the best candidates, but created a set of practices to ensure that this does not happen.

The problem can be traced to a growing policy of the world's leading academic journals. Under cover of the disarmingly named 'open access' model, whereby users can consult the journals online without charge, they are extracting money from researchers contributing papers. British academia tellingly calls this high road to publication the 'gold route'. There is also a 'green route', whereby a trickle of papers are printed without charge. Researchers in a hurry to publish their findings, in order to secure a job or pre-empt rivals in the field, can seldom afford to wait.

This system is gradually replacing the earlier one whereby journals were marketed at such exorbitant cost that the world's richest universities had begun to protest. Both new and old systems assume without contest that the electronic circulation of knowledge should command profit margins wildly disproportionate to costs. (No scholar associated at any stage - author, editor or reviewer - is paid a penny, and papers must be submitted in ready-uploadable form.) The technology of electronic publication gained ground in the post-Cold-War era. The upswing of global capitalism around that time captured this new territory from the start, overturning the earlier economics of academic print publication.

Researchers in developing countries have both gained and lost by the open access system. They can consult more material free of cost; but their own research, based on that material, cannot find a platform unless they pay for it. In countries like India, neither State nor academia made any intervention in the policy debate; a few individual protests went predictably unheeded. The global academic hierarchy remains as stratified as before, if not more so.

However they make their money, established international journals do not compromise on standards, if only to retain their market position: their papers are rigorously peer-reviewed. But across the world, particularly for a clientele in developing countries, the open access system has spawned a parody of itself: the 'predatory' journal or book which, for financial gain, provides indifferent scholarship with a platform for publication. The API system plays into the hands of these operators.

Predatory publication is a deep-rooted menace. The power it wields caused the best-known exposé of such titles, a blog maintained by the American librarian, Jeffrey Beall, to close down in January, allegedly as a result of "threats and politics". (Beall's list can still be accessed on the internet.) Like many corrupt systems, it thrives because its victims are also beneficiaries. This is markedly the case in many countries across South Asia, the Middle East and Africa, where greatest importance is given to formal or numerical criteria like APIs. The predatory journal is designed to meet these criteria. A colleague and I recently spent time browsing the websites of some such journals. Our findings are alarming in their implications for academic appointments and academic standards.

Of the officially stipulated criteria, the most untenable is an international standard serial number or ISSN. This simply a registration number, obtained for a fee. To quote the ISSN website, it "does not guarantee the quality or validity of the contents" of a journal. Predatory journals also lay claim to 'peer review'. The reviewers, where named, are often of junior rank or no stated designation. They belong to institutions (including junior colleges, training centres or even schools) missing from the humblest ranking lists. Two journals published from India have the same editor-in-chief, of whom nothing is vouchsafed but the name: he may be a fictitious person beyond the reach of inquiry. There are other such multi-tasking editors of journals that virtually clone each other. Nor are respected names a guarantee of respectability. One journal, based in an African country, named inter alia a senior professor from Delhi - who proved to know nothing of the matter, and was distressed to find out. Other well-known scholars have no doubt been falsely implicated in the same way.

These rogue journals have certain hallmarks, apart from the demand for a 'processing fee' or mandatory subscription. They often cover an untenable range of disciplines: perhaps all the humanities or, in one awesome case, all fields from engineering to the fine arts. They promise an amazingly short assessment time, perhaps (for an extra fee) as little as a week. (More venerable journals, sadly but notoriously, take months.) They might also advertise other services, like converting a PhD dissertation to book form in two weeks, with a few print copies to accompany job applications. This explains the ghost publications of senior academics that, years later when they are in responsible positions, prove untraceable on inquiry.

This opens up the parallel universe of predatory book publishing: a subtler line of trade where some ask for money (often through a buy-back arrangement) but others do not, and bring out a well-produced book into the bargain. The only problem, hidden from sight, is that the peer review is perfunctory or totally absent. These publishers find clients among pliant librarians, who buy every title at a profit to both parties. All seasoned academics know of such publishers, but it is almost impossible to segregate them by any formal criterion.

I repeat that these publications are designer-made for the API score sheet. Hence it is not only admissible to recognize them, it is virtually mandatory. Indian API guidelines allow an unlimited score on this count. In combination with other anomalies, this ensures that an applicant with just four such papers, at a moderate outlay of time and money, can trump another who has spent laborious years over a book, or three rigorously researched papers, from the world's leading academic presses. In the sciences, citation databases like Scopus, provide some notion (also quantifiable) of the impact, hence possibly the quality, of a paper; the humanities lack even this check.

Another outcome is almost more depressing: so as not to lose out in the race, truly meritorious scholars are led to contribute to these dubious journals, lending them a spurious respectability. And unless those scholars are exceptionally committed, they end up compromising with their own standards. We are witnessing a kind of Gresham's Law, whereby bad scholarship threatens to drive out good scholarship from our campuses.

The Law operates through a vicious cycle in academic appointments. The more suspect a round of selection, the greater the call for clear-cut criteria that, we fondly hope, cannot be fudged. Even right choices made in good faith are subject to judicial and bureaucratic scrutiny as never before. Hence again the call for objective, preferably numerical, criteria. Unfortunately, academic assessments cannot be streamlined in this simplistic way. Substandard institutions thrive under such a system, as it substitutes elementary arithmetic for academic rigour. It is the better institutions that suffer: they must abandon their well-tried methods for new ones geared to routine compliance rather than talent-spotting. The traditional criteria could not be formulated in concrete, quantifiable terms. They were therefore open to misuse, and could only operate on a basis of trust. Where many institutions are held not to deserve that trust, it is hard to accede it to any. The upshot is that the best institutions are fighting a losing battle against formalized mediocrity, while less fastidious centres continue as before, merely exchanging one set of indifferent appointees for another.

The truth of the matter, sad or reassuring as we view it, is that academic norms cannot be upheld by external means. Academics might dishonour the trust that society reposes in them. Society might retaliate with controls of its own devising, but only to cause further damage to an order that is unstable of its nature. History bears out that the order prospers only when able and conscientious academics are left free to work their own salvation by their own lights. They thereby strengthen their own institutions, and provide a model that replicates itself if - a big if - their society is in good health. We cannot achieve this end by academic ledger-keeping. That only incites the unscrupulous to cook the books.


The author is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University