Comment: Payouts push professors towards predatory journals

In an effort to boost academic productivity, [South Africa’s] education department launched a subsidy scheme in 2005. It now awards roughly US$7,000 for each research paper published in an accredited journal. Depending on the institution, up to half of this amount is paid directly to faculty members… There is no guarantee (or expectation) that a researcher will use this money for research purposes. Most simply see it as a financial reward over and above their salaries.

Source: Hedding, D. (2019). Payouts push professors towards predatory journals (nature.com)

In general, this is a good article that makes several useful points, especially about the perverse incentives related to the publication subsidy, which are addressed later in the article. However, there are a few things that I take exception to in the opening (and title), and I’ll just list them quickly before following up with a few additional thoughts:

  • It’s not a payout. It’s a subsidy aimed to top up research funding especially for early career researchers who don’t have access to bigger allocations. Calling it a payout has negative connotations that immediately position the system in a certain context, which is disingenuous.
  • While there has been an increase in article publication in predatory journals by South Africans, this is not a South African problem. The increase in publication in predatory journals is global and may be correlated by the subsidy without being caused by it. For example, more researchers publishing more articles in an ecosystem with more predatory journals means that it’s likely we’ll see an uptick in publications in those journals that would have nothing to do with the subsidy.
  • While some institutions may give 50% of this publication subsidy to the researchers, in most cases it is far less than that. At the University of the Western Cape, where I work, authors receive 10% of the subsidy (about R12 000 per article in an accredited journal for a single author publication). In other institutions, it is even less.
  • Most researchers (to my knowledge) are expected to use this subsidy to fund research-related activities. In my own institution, academics don’t even have access to these funds, which are disbursed via the Research Office. I use my subsidy to fund postgraduate student bursaries, pay article publication fees, and attend conferences. The author actually suggests this later in the article but doesn’t acknowledge that it can be done within the subsidy framework too.
  • It is most certainly not a financial reward over and above our salaries and I know of few researchers who see it that way.

Maybe the opening of the article was aiming for provocation rather than accuracy, which is fine. I just wanted a record that those points are simply not correct in their current form in the article. Now I have a few thoughts of my own.

Many novice researchers do see the publication subsidy as an important aspect of building up their funding allocation, and for early-career researchers who don’t have access to larger grants (for example, because they don’t yet have PhDs), this is an important way to develop themselves. But as researchers start developing and getting access to larger funding allocations, the publication subsidy becomes less important; who cares about the R12 000 when you have R500 000? The subsidy is also a valuable form of assistance for those who fall outside of registered projects. In my own department, we often use our subsidies to fund conference and course attendance for junior staff members who don’t have their own research funding and who aren’t involved in our own projects.

I have some sympathy with the point related to the perverse incentive of avoiding collaboration because of the negative impact on the subsidy. However, the NRF rating system referred to by Mr Henning looks for evidence of the growing influence of researchers as a proxy for research quality. This means that researchers and authors who avoid collaboration solely to get the full subsidy are adopting a short-term view that will make it highly unlikely that they will get rated (or that their research will be published in high-quality journals). Authors, therefore, need to make the transition from single author, single-site studies of the kind done by early career researchers, towards more collaborative work across multiple institutions and countries. This move opens up opportunities for things like rating, international publication, and access to larger grants. So the publication subsidy, rather than driving academics towards predatory journals, is really an engine that aims to kick start the research careers of novice academics. This is especially important for historically disadvantaged institutions that lack the resources to provide funding to researchers in their own capacity. The subsidy allows for the government to support institutions in developing young researchers. And while there may be bad actors who abuse the system, this will be true no matter what incentives you develop.

Finally, I especially disagree with the closing comment, “…if South Africa hopes to drive innovation, it must stop publication payouts — they are the enemy of research quality.” This implies that our researchers are either stupid (because they’ve been duped) or corrupt (because they are making a choice to reduce quality in order to get the subsidy). I don’t believe that the publication subsidy inherently drives down the quality of South African research (every rated researcher at my institution – myself included – receives the subsidy and I like to think that we’re doing OK on the quality side). I think that almost all South African researchers aim to produce high-quality research and while the publication subsidy scheme is certainly far from perfect, I would bet that it has done more to enhance research in this country than not.

Thanks to Ina Diener for sharing this with me.

Also, I’m going to start appending my comments on other articles with “Comment” (or something like that) in order to distinguish them from the original titles that may come up in search results. It’s probably not a good thing for my own posts to have the same titles as the posts I’m commenting on.