The Institutionalized Racism of Scholarly Publishing

In 2002 the African scholarly publisher, Academic Journals, began publishing  peer reviewed journals. By 2011 they had grown to be a considerably sized publisher, publishing 107 journals with more than 220 employees, and having become an important publishing platform for African researchers.

Then disaster struck. They were added to Jeffery Beall’s list of “Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers”.

(Beall’s list was taken down in early 2017. You can find an archived version of it via the Internet Archive’s Web Archive)

The impact was immediate. From the About Us section of their website:

Several editors resigned from the various editorial board. The number of manuscript submission declined, including several withdrawals.  This decline was steep and fast, and impacted on our ability to support our team. At the end of the year, under this very difficult condition, Academic journals was forced to downsize the number of employees. Almost half of all members of the team was affected by the downsizing. Over a hundred and twenty employees lost their jobs.

Academic Journals submitted a formal appeal to Beall. He admitted it may have been a bit harsh to add them to his list, but refused to remove them. Academic Journals had no choice but to struggle on. Quoting their website again:

Academic Journals doubts the sincerity of the Jeffrey Beall’s list. We perceive that the list is deliberately biased towards open access journals. In addition, we consider Jeffrey Beall’s methods questionable and lacking in rigor in a matter as important as the evaluation of academic publishing. We welcome a fair, transparent and rigorous evaluation of all our activities.

How crazy is it that you can build a substantial publishing infrastructure on your home continent and then see it decimated by a single man across the ocean who decides to add you to his blacklist?

Academic Journals wasn’t the only publisher to go through this with Beall. He also added the publisher MDPI, which he identified as “Chinese Publisher MDPI”,  in 2014, but MDPI managed to successfully appeal their addition and got removed from the list in 2015.

Recently, we’ve seen a new Journal Blacklist step in to fill the gap left by Beall’s List, Cabell’s Blacklist. Reviews of it have been mixed. Many worry it will have the same problem’s Beall’s List did. Specifically, the inability to distinguish low quality publishers from predatory ones.

This is a big issue. As I’ve argued before, there are a lot of low quality journals out there who are new to the field and trying to improve and establish themselves. Scholarly publishing is rigorous and hard. It’s easy to make mistakes at the beginning. Especially when it’s a new publisher and attempting to start a journal without pre-existing publishing infrastructure and polices.

Listing a new journal as being low quality or predatory puts the journal in a bit of a poverty trap. As use of a journal drops because of it’s blacklisting, so will it’s quality. They’ll become more desperate to survive, which can lead to them engaging in more practices that are considered predatory, e.g. mass email spamming to find authors or skipping peer review to publish quicker.

There’s a larger problem here though. It has become quite clear to me in recent months that Beall’s List and Cabell’s List do what blacklists often do, they over-represent minority populations and encourage widespread discrimination against these populations.

We know systematic racism exists and it impacts what we read and the value we give it. We know having privilege buys second chances and quick dismissal of mistakes/missteps. We know the opposite is true of those without Privilege, that they don’t get second chances and their mistakes are over-emphasized. We also know that one of the sly things about Privilege is that it hides itself. That we don’t notice we are being harder on those without Privilege, even though they make similar mistakes.

This is exactly what is happening to non-Western and/or non-English journals. It’s what happened to Academic Journals. We’ve been conditioned to see them as low-quality or predatory and be quick to jump on any flaws, while ignoring the flaws of journals we consider prestigious and Western.

I see this in discussions all the time when evaluating the quality of an open access journal. They are dismissed simply for being “one of those sketchy Indian journals”. I’m guilty of this myself….

Just a few months ago a researcher send along a peer review request from a scholarly journal, wondering if it was predatory. I saw a few very small issues – mostly awkward English phrasing – and replied to the researcher that this journal probably wasn’t worth their time. That their reviewing services would be better used at better journals.

I cringe thinking back about that. Here was a  journal reaching out to one of my patrons to help raise its quality. That patron then came to me to get my opinion and expert insight on this. And what do I do? I pull up the ladder. I support the status quo. I don’t make any attempt to help a new publisher shake-up the oligarchy of publishers. I essentially told the researcher that they should only peer review for the prestigious publishers who are bleeding libraries dry and exploiting their free labour.

And, worst of all, was the subtext, “This journal isn’t English/Western enough to deserve your services”.

I’ve got to do better.

The Scholarly Indexing of non-Western and/or non-English Journals

Non-Western and/or non-English journals are hugely underrepresented in our current scholarly indexes. For example, Scopus indexes more than 23,000 currently-published scholarly journals and only about 5,000 of these publish in languages other that English. (You can find this data in the Scopus Title List).

Compare that with the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), who does a much better job with outreach in non-English countries, of their 11,000 journals, 6,000 publish in languages other than English. They have less than half the journals Scopus does and they still have more non-English Journals!

This isn’t new information though. In this great study by Mongeon and Paul-Hus (2016), they looked at Scopus and Web of Science and found that “…the coverage in both databases is unbalanced between countries and languages and that it may introduce some biases when performing comparative analyses.” That, “…English-language journals are favored to the detriment of other languages.”

Other studies have found that around 36% of scholarly literature is not published in English and that ignoring non-English knowledge can be dangerous (Amano et al, 2016). For example, that time when an important paper on the influenza virus published in Chinese went unnoticed.

This ignoring of non-English research leads to researchers being pressured to publish in English. Often, English gets described around as the “Language of Science”, but this creates huge barriers. English researchers may have to deal with Publish-or-Perish, but non-English researchers have to deal with Publish-in-English-or-Perish (Bitetti et al, 2017). This can cause the deterioration of a culture’s local knowledge, brain drain, and hinder the emergence of important research (Bortolus, 2012).

Trying to solve and address these issues is complicated. For example, look at what is happening in Indonesia as they try to keep their scientific knowledge and resources from being exploited.

These issues get amplified with accusations of predatory publishing. The scholarly publishing infrastructure has demanded journals be Open and English to be noticed. Then we start calling these journals predatory as they struggle to fulfill our demands.

I’ve heard now about a few scholarly journals from the Global South, who won’t flip to open access because they know they will be immediately labelled as predatory. They’d prefer to remain closed and keep their authors submitting. To keep all their important scholarly literature closed off from the world. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

This is all made a bit more ridiculous because the Western Scholarly Infrastructure is trying to figure out how to transition to Open Access and a lot of non-Western Countries are already way ahead of us.

How do we fix this?

1. Reconsider how we talk about predatory publishers and stop recommending blacklists. A lot of the instruction I’ve seen about predatory publishers lately is based off a “Trust your gut” and “If it feels wrong, don’t trust it” approach.

We need to stop this. We aren’t objective beings and systematic racism has a lot of influence here. We need a “Look at this journal critically and be aware of your own bias” approach. Evaluate the journal critically based on the content and not it’s spelling or if the interface feels “familiar”.

2. Use other databases for research beyond just Scopus and Web of Science. We know they have flaws. Use DOAJ, Google Scholar, or other search indexes that capture the output from international publishers and researchers as well. Here’s a great list of some of these sources from Andy Nobes.

3. Make an effort to search non-English sources. For example, Amano et al recommend including speakers of a wide range of languages when doing systematic reviews.

4. Push publishers/vendors to include more of these journals in their databases (EBSCO is good at this). Do whatever we can to help these journals get better indexed and discovered. For example, a small thing a libraries can do, that makes a big difference, is to activate all of DOAJ in their knowledgebase.

5. Talk more about issues of privilege and discrimination in the scholarly publishing process. Especially in information literacy sessions. Bring these topics directly into these sessions when we talk about how authority is constructed and contextual.

6. Talk to these journals and researchers. Find out how we can help. What we need to work on. Bring them to the table. Give them more say in these decisions. Stop us from making the same mistakes again.

I wouldn’t be able to have written this blog post or realized the depth of these issues without discussions I’ve had with Obinna OjemeniDasapta Erwin Irawan, and Andy Nobes. So thanks to them! Also thanks to Lisa Matthias for this amazing piece

For more discussion of these topics:

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About Ryan Regier

Doing Library Stuff. Follow me on twitter at: @ryregier
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4 Responses to The Institutionalized Racism of Scholarly Publishing

  1. Thank you so much for this blog post! I intend to organize a little seminar on predatory journals for my colleagues, starting with generally raising awareness to this issue and then hopefully inspire some discussion. Haven’t considered this depth before either and feel a little swamped now… also by my own bias. Definitely going to include this!

  2. Mark Fisher says:

    This is OK, but if we are English speakers, how are we supposed to include non-English articles in our reviews when we can’t understand them? Basically, there is a lingua franca in science and it’s English (as in previous centuries it was Latin). It behoves scientists to at least learn enough English to write a technical article. And clearly they must be able to read English or they will end up repeating other scientists’ work.

    One day machine translation will solve this problem, but for now we can only work within the world as it stands.

  3. Thanks for the post, and thanks also to Nature Briefing for bringing our attention to it. I have felt myself identified with the issues it raises, both when submitting manuscripts as a non-English native researcher suffering the prejudices well described above and as a reviewer applying the same prejudices.
    This is an important issue that deserves further thought than the typical ‘but we are [only] English speakers’ reply.

  4. Monica Berger says:

    I appreciate learning about Academic Journals and how they were affected by B’s L. The story of MDPI is better known via Poynder’s Open and Shut blog but we have to wonder how many smaller and more poorly resourced publishers and journals were hurt. And we need to ask why SciELO is the exception and not the rule.

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