Predatory publishing, vulnerable prey

On December 29, the International Conference on Recent Innovations in Engineering, Science and Technology (ICRIEST) is kicked off in Pune. It’s not a very well-known conference, but might as well have been for all the wrong reasons.

On December 16 and 20, Navin Kabra, from Pune, submitted two papers to ICRIEST. Both were accepted and, following a notification from the conference’s organizers, Mr. Kabra was told he could present the papers on December 29 if he registered himself at a cost of Rs. 5,000.

Herein lies the rub. The papers that Mr. Kabra submitted are meaningless. They claim to be about computer science, but were created entirely by the SCIGen fake-paper generator available here. The first one, titled “Impact of Symmetries on Cryptoanalysis”, is rife with tautological statements, and could not possibly have cleared peer-review. However, in the acceptance letter that Mr. Kabra received by email, paper is claimed to have been accepted after being subjected to some process of scrutiny, scoring 60, 70, 80 and 90.75 among some reviewers.

Why is the conference refusing to reject such a paper, then? Is it subsisting on the incompetence of secretarial staff? Or is it so desperate for papers that rejection rates are absurdly low?

Mr. Kabra’s second paper, “Use of cloud-computing and social media to determine box office performance”, might say otherwise. This one is even more brazen, containing these lines in its introduction:

As is clear from the title of this paper, this paper deals with the entertainment industry. So, we do provide entertainment in this paper. So, if you are reading this paper for entertainment, we suggest a heuristic that will allow you to read this paper efficiently. You should read any paragraph that starts with the first 4 words in bold and italics – those have been written by the author in painstaking detail. However, if a paragraph does not start with bold and italics, feel free to skip it because it is gibberish auto-generated by the good folks at SCIGen.

If this paragraph went through, then the administrators of ICRIEST are likely to possess no semblance of interest in academic research. In fact, they could be running the conference as a front to make some quick bucks.

Mr. Kabra professes an immediate reason for his perpetrating this scheme. “Lots of students are falling prey to such scams, and I want to raise awareness amongst students,” he wrote in an email.

He tells me that for the last three years, students pursuing a Bachelor of Engineering in a college affiliated with the University of Pune have been required to submit their final project to a conference, “a ridiculous requirement” thinks Mr. Kabra. As usual, not all colleges are enforcing this rule; those that are, on the other hand, are pushing students. Beyond falsifying data and plagiarizing reports to get them past evaluators, the next best thing to secure a good grade is to sneak it into some conference.

Research standards in the university are likely not helping, either. Such successful submissions as hoped for by teachers at Indian institutions will never happen for as long as the quality of research in the institution itself is low. Enough scientometric data exists from the last decade to support this, although I don’t know how if it breaks down to graduate and undergraduate research.

(While it may be argued that scientific output is not the only way to measure the quality of scientific research at an institution, you should know something’s afoot when the quantity of output is either very high or very low relative to, say, the corresponding number of citations and the country’s R&D expenditure.)

Another reason to think neither the university nor the students’ ‘mentors’ are helping is someone who spoke on behalf of the University to Mr. Kabra had no idea about ICRIEST. To quote from the Mid-Day article that’s covered this incident,

“I don’t know of any research organisation named IRAJ. I am sorry, I am just not aware about any such conference happening in the city,” said Dr Gajanan Kharate, dean of engineering in the University of Pune.

Does the U-of-Pune care if students have submitted paper to bogus journals? Do they check contents of the research themselves or do they rely on whether students’ ‘papers’ are accepted or not? No matter; what will change hence? I’m not sure. I won’t be surprised if nothing changes at all. However, there is a place to start.

Prof. Jeffrey Beall is the Scholarly Initiatives Librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, and he maintains an exhaustive list of questionable journals and publishers. This list is well-referenced, constantly updated, and commonly referred to to check for dubious characters that might have approached research scholars.

On the list is the Institute for Research and Journals (IRAJ), which is organizing ICRIEST. In an article in The Hindu on September 26, 2012, Prof. Beall says, “They want others to work for free, and they want to make money off the good reputations of honest researchers.”

Mr. Kabra told me he had registered himself for the presentation—and not before he was able to bargain with them, “like … with a vegetable vendor”, and avail a 50 per cent discount on the fees. As silly as it sounds, this is not the mark of a reputable institution but a telltale sign of a publisher incapable of understanding the indignity of such bargains.

Another publisher on Prof. Beall’s list, Asian Journal of Mathematical Sciences, is sly enough to offer a 50 per cent fee-waiver because they “do not want fees to prevent the publication of worthy work”. Yet another journal, Academy Publish, is just honest: “We currently offer a 75 per cent discount to all invitees.”

Other signs, of course, are the use of words with incorrect spellings, as in “Dear Sir/Mam”.

At the end of the day, Mr. Kabra was unable to go ahead with the presentation because he said he was depressed by the sight of Masters students at ICRIEST—some who’d come there, on the west coast, from the eastern-coast state of Odisha. That’s the journey they’re willing to make when pushed by the lure for grades from one side and the existence of conferences like ICRIEST on the other.

Solving mysteries, by William & Adso

The following is an excerpt from The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s debut novel from 1980. The story is set in an Italian monastery in 1327, and is an intellectually heady murder mystery doused in symbolism and linguistic ambivalence. Two characters, William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk, are conversing about using deductive reasoning to solve mysteries.

“Adso,” William said, “solving a mystery is not the same as deducing from first principles. Nor does it amount simply to collecting a number of particular data from which to infer a general law. It means, rather, facing one or two or three particular data apparently with nothing in common, and trying to imagine whether they could represent so many instances of a general law you don’t yet know, and which perhaps has never been pronounced. To be sure, if you know, as the philosopher says, that man, the horse, and the mule are all without bile and are all long-lived, you can venture the principle that animals without bile live a long time. But take the case of animals with horns. Why do they have horns? Suddenly you realize that all animals with horns are without teeth in the upper jaw. This would be a fine discovery, if you did not also realize that, alas, there are animals without teeth in the upper jaw who, however, do not have horns: the camel, to name one. And finally you realize that all animals without teeth in the upper jaw have four stomachs. Well, then, you can suppose that one who cannot chew well must need four stomachs to digest food better. But what about the horns? You then try to imagine a material cause for horns—say, the lack of teeth provides the animal with an excess of osseous matter that must emerge somewhere else. But is that sufficient explanation? No, because the camel has no upper teeth, has four stomachs, but does not have horns. And you must also imagine a final cause. The osseous matter emerges in horns only in animals without other means of defense. But the camel has a very tough hide and doesn’t need horns. So the law could be …”

“But what have horns to do with anything?” I asked impatiently. “And why are you concerned with animals having horns?”

“I have never concerned myself with them…”

When I first read this book almost seven years ago, I remember reading these lines with awe (I was reading my first books on the philosophy of science then). Like a fool on whom common sense was then lost but somehow not their meaning itself, I memorized the lines, and then promptly forgot the context in which they appeared. While randomly surfing through the web today, I found them once more, so here they are. They belong to the chapter titled “In which Alinardo seems to give valuable information, and William reveals his method of arriving at a probable truth through a series of unquestionable errors.”