South Africa has spent millions of dollars subsidizing articles in scam academic journals

Like we don’t have enough problems at South Africa’s universities.
Like we don’t have enough problems at South Africa’s universities.
Image: EPA/Nic Bothma
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The South African government spent between 100 million rand ($7.7 million) and 300 million rand ($23 million) over a 10-year period in subsidies for articles published in predatory journals, according to a South African Journal of Science study.

Internationally, the academic world has seen a spike in the number of predatory journals.

These journals lure academics—often junior researchers—into paying to publish their findings in journals that have little to no peer review, are not recognized within their fields, and are a racket to make money out of open-access publishing.

In South Africa, however, falling for these journals takes money away from an underfunded higher-education system. Following two years of widespread student protests and shrinking budgets, South African universities have been struggling. The #FeesMustFall movement, which pressurized the government into freezing or containing university fee increases, and declining government funding for higher education have pushed universities to the “tipping point,” academics said last year. On top of that, the damage from the protests ran into tens of millions of dollars.

However, the new study found that much-needed money has instead subsidized publications in predatory journals. The study does not quantify how much money academics paid to be published in these journals, although it notes that some charge $500 per submission.

South Africa, in a bid to improve its research output, offers a subsidy of about 100,000 rand ($7,700) for each academic article published.  This has seen the country’s research output rise from 4,063 articles in 2005 to 10,789 in 2014.

Through this incentives system, the South African government pays an addition R1.8 billion ($138 million) annually and this is a major form of revenue, says Johann Mouton, study co-author and director of the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at the University of Stellenbosch. 

Predatory publishers typically set up websites that closely resemble legitimate publishers and purport to be located in leading research countries like the UK or the US, but are typically from Pakistan, India or Nigeria, according to American librarian Jeffrey Beall.

In their article, the researchers, based at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, highlighted certain practices that make a journal more likely to be predatory: they promise quick article turn-around times (this makes proper peer-review, the process through which scientists review each other’s work, less likely or less rigorous), incorrect editorial information, have “bizarrely” broad titles, and publish a very high number of articles on a regular basis.

For example, Prof Richard Brown, an editorial member of the Journal of Social Science, has been dead for about 14 years. The African Journal of Business Management, on the other hand, began with 243 pages in 2007, but published an online edition that was 13,579 pages in 2011.

In total, the researchers identified 47 journals that were “possibly” or “probably” predatory, and many of these were on the government’s list of accredited journals.

“Not a single one of the authors did something legally wrong,” Mouton says.

But he said the millions of rand spent in subsidies for predatory journals should not mean the country scrap its subsidy system. “People say that because of these [quality] problems, scratch the system. But you have to be careful. If you have a complex problem, you look for a complex solution, not a simple one.”

The government has contracted his centre to do a decadal quality view of South African academic publications, he says.

The South African department of higher education and training is aware of the problem of predatory journals. “This [300 million rand] amount represents only 1.6% of the total subsidy paid to universities during this period. The department deeply condemns such practices as they are not only unethical but also tarnish the integrity of the research as well as the institutions,” it said in a statement.