“Potential, Possible or Probable” Predatory Publishers List Pushed to the Archives

As a postgraduate researcher, you are often warned, repeatedly, to watch out from predatory journal publishers, offering to review and publish your labour of love (perhaps at a fee), and more often than not addressing you as “Dr.”, “Professor” or “Chairman” (yes, it happens). If you had then gone on to ask how to identify predatory publishers, a thoughtful colleague might have sent you to a source such as Jeffrey Beall’s List of (what he describes as) “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers” and journals (You’ll note that all of Beall’s pages are currently archived on web.archive.org). If you have never heard of Beall’s List or Jeffrey’s work, check out this short segment from a CBC clip on “Cleaning up bad science“.

Beall’s List – De-commissioned

The frequent qualifications that attend comments on Beall’s List (i.e. “potentially” or “allegedly” predatory publishers) should remind users of the list that Beall’s work does not sanitise scholars of the need to use their own judgement and do their research. For any journal or publisher included on the list, Beall has maintained an Appeals page where he and his advisory team have sought to address scholar’s concerns and review inclusions on their list. While attempting to assist scholars in guarding their own reputations, Beall’s List has attempted to improve academia’s meta-cognisance, making itself aware of the need to question the institutions on which its practitioners depend.

Unfortunately for these ideals, Beall’s List was discovered to have been taken down in mid-January, with most being left to speculate as to why. Both Beall’s Facebook and staff page at Auraria Library have also been deactivated/dismantled.

Retraction Watch (a rather self-explanatory name really) claims: “The decision to take down the site — and Beall’s faculty page at the Auraria Library, where he remains a tenured associate professor — was his own, the University of Colorado Denver tells [us].” Beall appears to have remained silent over why he has pursued this decision, although Retraction Watch notes that Beall has been threatened with lawsuits before, from a publisher on his list. If indeed some form of litigation has compelled Beall to act, then the scholarly enterprise may be all the worse for it. As Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus have noted, Beall’s List wasn’t just a blacklist, but a “a catalog of remarkably bad behavior” – a glimpse between the value-spheres of academia and business and a reminder of where organised scholarship is far from perfect.

For many, this bad behaviour is not limited to publishers. On the blog Derivance, Luděk Brož, Tereza Stöckelová and Filip Vostal lament the loss of Beall’s List and recall its utility in raising the publishing history of Dr Wadim Strielkowski to controversial status. The trio comments that

Strielkowski, then a junior lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague, first attracted the attention of colleagues in early 2015, when it was discovered that he had published 17 monographs and more than 60 journal articles in just three years. It is probably not surprising that a number of these texts were published in a rather unconventional way: Strielkowski’s monographs, with one exception, were in fact self-published and self-illustrated, even though each appeared to have been published by the Faculty of Social Sciences. A substantial amount of his articles were published in journals that could be described, following Beall’s terminology, as “potentially, possibly or probably predatory”.

Mark Carrigan notes that the case of Dr Strielkowski emphasises the agency of scholars in the transformation of scholarly norms:

The case is a fascinating one because it illustrates how metricised evaluation and predatory publishing cannot simply be regarded as imposed from outside, leaving academic victims with no choice but to adapt or be left behind. Strielkowski is an extreme example but his case illustrates how the opportunities these systems create for advancement are drawn upon and engaged with knowingly by scholars, in a way that is always implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) orientated to the others embedded within them.

The rise of predatory publishing is perhaps something of a misnomer because it implies a unilateral process of domination by publishers and journals. Certainly for more naive scholars seeking to find some source of security in our academic pursuits, journals engaging in (ostensible) flattery and promises of publication are predators. However, taking a more ecological (and systemic) view, both academics and publishing companies may indulge new sets of norms, centred around metric rankings and outputs rather than scholarly merit. A culture of publishing, focused on the value added via publication metrics is not predatory or “bloodsucking”, but rather parasitic: the host is the ideal of intellectual development and the parasite is the technocratic norm that reconstitutes the world in an abstract game. Both publishers and academics alike must choose to play at the expense of self-scrutiny.


The Value of Academic Freedom

A little while ago, a paper emerged from the interwebs titled, “Overflow in science and its implications for trust“. As its parsimonious title suggests, the paper concerns itself with the over-production of scientific research publications (“overflow”) and the implications of this speed of productivity for trust between scientists. The ever growing demand for academic productivity has produced new challenges for scholarly research, as information becomes more readily accessible, voluminous and specialized. The high speed of production of scientific publications (and also academic publications more generally) produces a Matthew Effect within the academic attention economy, whereby well-known scholars become valuable anchors for guiding the broader field and thereby increase in value and esteem. Meanwhile, lesser-known scholars find it increasingly difficult to accrue similar degrees of peer esteem. Essentially – the academically rich get richer and the poor get “I regret to inform you…” Overall, the fields affected by overflow may be experiencing a growing lack of trust, as the push to be ‘visible’ (and hence valuable) provides incentive for researchers to make bolder claims about their findings, to stand out, while journals find it harder to secure reviewers competent in the assessment of the volumes of articles being submitted to them (see Seibert et al.’s paper for an account from USA’s medical sciences).

The pressure to be popular produces distortions in a range of domains associated with academic and scientific work. Alongside the growing important of gaining fame in the scholarly attention economy, managerial pressure to produce ever more research publications also has the potential to transform values fundamental to both academic and scientific enterprises. The illustrative example that I will focus on in the remainder of this post is the valued idea of “academic freedom”.

Academic freedom is a value that has attained a high degree of normative integrity across the academic profession. Even in a post-modern era where the values of ‘truth’, ‘beauty’ and the ‘good’ face not only epistemic but ontological fracturing, academic freedom is still held a primary norm through which these values are explored and contested. The absence of this freedom is also the condition under which truth, beauty and goodness are warped by ‘external’ interests. The academic pursuit entails a kind of free speech, which Foucault may have perhaps described as necessarily “fearless” (the first lecture here is pretty neat). But free speech itself is not enough to fire the engines of an academic freedom. Free speech must be paired with free inquiry – the ability to pursue truth, beauty or the good. Robert Merton perhaps most clearly outlined the values and norms required to pursue truth in modern science. Merton’s values/norms of Communism, Universalism, Disinterestedness, and Organized Scepticism (CUDOS) highlight the necessarily social and organizational nature of modern science. For science, as for the academic profession more generally, the freedoms of the individual cannot be ensured apart from institutions. The university has a vital role to play here.

In an era in which universities are facing large organizational restructuring, the power relations that had once encouraged the maintenance of (an admittedly masculine, European and restrictive) vision of academic freedom have mutated and no longer aspire to the separation of the academic, and the profane world of everyday life and economy. The “impure” world of economics and the broader social are now regularly invoked to argue that academics should be more open and responsive to “the rapidly changing world in which we live“. The challenge is to remain open to social needs whilst avoiding outsourcing ethics to poorly suited proxies such as economic gains or governmental policy agendas. It is within these milieu – the ‘disorganized’, the ‘runaway’, the ‘postmodern’ – that academic professional norms and universities have mutually-constitutive responsibilities towards their enterprise.

Academic freedom is insufficient when conceptualised as negative freedoms (i.e. the freedom from interference, censorship, etc.) because this view presupposes that academics have access to the means to conduct their pursuits. In a corporatising university, subjected to every more restrictions on the resources available to research and teaching staff, access to the means to conduct academic duties are not ensured. The “ivory tower” vision of academic freedom as a negative freedom is also a privileged view of academia – of a wealthy and self-sustaining endeavour. In a scenario of resource abundance, negative freedoms may be enough to ensure that worthy research projects commence and that valuable lessons are conducted. It is not commodificaiton per se that threatens academic freedom, but rather the failure to recognise that in an era of resource scarcity, academic freedom must be conceptualised as a positive freedom. This would entail, among other things, the freedom to conduct worthy research, the freedom to disseminate research, the freedom to have that research acknowledged by the broader academic community – for what value is a message sent that is never received?

Academic freedom is not the freedom of any individual, but the freedom of truth, beauty and the good to exist with some degree of consistency among human beings. Merton’s norms and values of modern science are concerned with the enactment of the scientific enterprise, not the benefice of any individuals. Merton’s CUDOS are the norms through which the pursuit of truth is to be realised in a modern society. They are the integrity of science in human minds. Both academics (as the actuators of these values) and universities (as institutions with any sense of self-integrity) have an inherent interest in sustaining academic (alongside scientific) norms and values. Academic freedom, as the broadest of these values, is hence paramount to distinguishing the academic from other (non-professional) modes of communication and action. Conceived in the negative mode, academic freedom is divisive, as academics may compete against one another for (for example) less interference or less censorship through economic means. The tenured professor wealthy in both grant funding and prestige can purchase the time and attention of lesser academic commodities, more easily dictate the terms of research, to a degree. Conceived in the positive mode, academic freedom must be pursued in cooperation. Competition over scarce resources produces appeals to the private interests of funding bodies, incentive for academics to engage in “boasting” research findings and generally self-interested conduct. (Mark Carrigan aptly describes the competitive self-interest produced by the recent digital metrification of academic work, claiming that “The depressing thought is that I struggle to imagine not being interested in them [publication and citation metrics]“.)

Although academic freedom is not a freedom for the benefit of individuals, it does entail an ethics of the individual – a mode of relating to oneself as an academic. That is, academic freedom is normative. When taken for a negative freedom, the maximisation of academic freedom might entail the maximisation of discretionary effort – that is, the effort one expends above the threshold required to avoid “getting in trouble”. Maximising academic freedom in this manner is fraught with deleterious consequences for both academic work cultures and perhaps even the academic profession in general. Individuals encourage each other to overwork via positively reinforcing workaholism and the broader academic profession becomes obsessed with proxies of academic value, such as publication formulae, citation counts and grant dollars.

A positive conception of academic freedom – as a freedom of the academic profession, not the individual – is a useful conceptual tool to re-frame what is at stake in the corporatised/managerial university. Individual academics are encouraged within metric assemblages to become self-interested actors, seeking to maximise their personal freedoms often in competition with other academic actors. While this survival-of-the-fittest model of academe may indeed assist universities in adapting to changing funding environments, producing leaner and meaner bureaucracies, it does not ensure that academe will remain a distinct realm in which truth, beauty and the good are openly sought, spoken and heard. This would require a bureaucracy that recognises that academic freedom and integrity are systemic. The danger is not individual dishonesty (which is rare and readily sanctioned), but the systemic normalization of self-interest over scientific interest.

Competing with Neo-liberalism

The future of higher education within Australia and across borders has been subjected to critique for at least as long as universities have been public institutions. Critique is the duty of a citizenship that entrusts representatives to develop and distribute public goods. Representatives must be made aware of the desires of their polity: you may govern us to these ends, but not these ones; by these means, but not these ones. Public universities in Australia and overseas are at least in part the preserve of the public good – of the education of citizens at least as much as employees. But as Willem Halffman and Hans Radder have commented in their ‘Academic Manifesto’, there lurks a great Wolf within academe: the ferocious and jealous beast of management. The Wolf shepherds academic sheep into line through the logics of competition, assessment, evaluation and the ever-present rhetoric of ‘quality control’.

In the Wolf’s den, the public good of the education of citizenship is redefined as a private good. Education becomes described within education policy as a means to train a work-ready labour force, budget shortages are filled by increased demands for commercialisation of research, the sale of degrees to international (full-fee-paying) students and the re-orientation of academic values in response to changing demands.

ABC’s Four Corners program recently exposed to the public via broadcast what many academics have known for quite some time: the current system of marketising education forces academic standards and financial imperatives into direct competition. Plagiarism, dishonest conduct and the emergence of ‘black markets’ for the sales of essays, English language competency certification and (ultimately) degrees are only one rotting corpse revealed from within the Wolf’s dark lair.

Although Halffman and Radder attempt to recommend some interesting means of resisting the Wolf’s campaign of complacency through terror, collective resistance requires an academic culture which supports solidarity. One academic may make a mess through sabotage or leaving her post, but the lair is deep. One strategy which Halffman and Radder touch upon but do not explore may perhaps prove a useful starting point: acting upon the ethical socialisation of academic staff.

For the moment, forget the Wolf. As threatening as it is, it’s also a puppy dog chasing its own tail. Performance metrics are here. Budgetary goals are mandated. What impact globalisation has in store for us is beyond our individualised, immediate control. Now what? I propose a rethink in tactics.

Rather than seeking to ‘compete’ with the neoliberal managerial metricated commoditised underpaying and outsourced beast (while also competing with our colleagues, other departments and universities, KPIs and H-Indices too), we might consider a new question: How might we compete ‘with’ one another? In other words, how might we restructure our work patterns to share our successes with colleagues? Are there means of directly contradicting the logic of competition through which academics are individualised and pitted against one another in selection panels, performance evaluations and league tables? Halffman and Radder suggest that we might muddy the metrics as a means of resistance: why not muddy reality beyond the grasp of metrics?

Obviously, this is not a simple solution, but it is a call to ethical reflection. The transformation of academic ethics (from elitism to individualisation) has developed over a century of political and economic reforms to higher education systems across the globe. Further ethical transformation is bound to be just as multifaceted and perhaps a little unpredictable. But we can certainly begin to experiment and share our visions of what an academic ethic might look like beyond popular disdain for the Wolf.

One ethic which I advocate I describe as “careful advantage”: to engage with colleagues in the pursuit of mutual gain. This ethic manifests already in practices such as mentoring, peer-review groups, taking an interest in the work of those around you. Through this ethic, perhaps we can further bolster reciprocated, practiced and felt trust between academic staff – the building blocks of collective agency. Careful advantage perpetuates the ‘gift economy’ (see Slaughter and Rhodes, chapter 3) of open sharing of knowledge and social capital, making the divide and conquer tactics of management less practical options.

Critique is inherently a political act. It must be enacted. It must be practiced and make alternatives seem less practical to have a lasting effect. The pernicious effects generated by our current higher education system will require some large policy interventions to redress. But perhaps while our leaders and reprogrammers are working on the bugs in that system, we might continue to experiment with the routines and practices through which we establish our security and seek to take careful advantage with those around us.