Indian universities consistently fare poorly in world university rankings. No Indian institution ranks among the top 200 worldwide and only a few figure among the top 500. This is in large part due to the relatively low quantity and lack of high quality research and publications in journals by faculty members. But growing insistence on research by the government has created a new problem: publications in predatory or fake journals.

Last year, a group of more than a dozen media organisations including the New Yorker, Le Monde, and the Indian Express took part in an investigation facilitated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists on fake journals. The investigation found that such journals – which literally publish anything for a small fee and within a very short period – have grown exponentially over the years and become a global menace. The study also found that India is “one of the biggest global hubs” for predatory publishing.

The fake journals racket first started to get widespread attention due to the efforts of Jeffrey Beall, an American library science professor. For many years, Beall maintained and regularly updated a website of shady publications until his lists – consisting of publishers who published scores or more of fake journals and hundreds of other stand-alone fake journals – had to be taken off due to “intense pressure” from his employer, the University of Colorado Denver. (The contents of the list are now available elsewhere.) Though considered biased by some, Beall’s list is still commonly used by researchers for their work on fake journals.

India’s world leadership in predatory publishing is not entirely surprising. The country has a large higher education sector with 903 universities, 39,050 colleges and 10,011 stand-alone institutions. In 2010, the University Grants Commission, India’s higher education regulator, introduced the Academic Performance Indicators in which it made research compulsory for teachers across all kinds of higher education institutions, including teaching-focused colleges, for career advancement. The insistence on research from all teachers without consideration of, among others, infrastructural deficits (poor libraries and other research facilities) at the majority of institutions and poor knowledge and skills for research among most teachers, was foolish. With research and publishing made compulsory, a large number of teachers took the easiest option, of publishing in fake journals.

Even before the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists-facilitated study, many observers had on several occasions expressed concern about Indian academics publishing in fake journals. A headline in Nature Asia captured the commonly-held view bluntly: “India tops submissions in predatory journals.”

Such headlines as well as other reports more than once cited a 2017 article in Nature by Canadian epidemiologist David Moher and his colleagues which found that researchers from India made up 27% of senior authors in fake journals in the field of biomedicine. But other studies too have found Indians to be the largest contributors or among the leaders. A 2015 study by Cenyu Shen and Bo-Christer Björk found Indian academics to have contributed 35% of all articles published in various kinds of fake journals between 2010 and 2014.

But are things really as bad as the evidence suggests? Are India’s numbers for fake journal publications high simply because of the large size of its higher education sector?

All research, quantitative or qualitative, has different sets of limitations and the findings usually come with caveats. For example, the study by Moher and his colleagues was limited to journals in the field of biomedicine. The study by Shen and Björk, while it covered five years of publications in fake journals (2010-2014), examined 613 journals from over 11,000 fake journals they identified using Beall’s lists. As the authors themselves noted: “Due to the complexity of our sampling method, our results should be treated only as rough estimates showing the overall magnitude of predatory publishing and its central aspects.”

A study by Selcuk Demir published in November 2018 is one of the newest additions to the fast-growing research on fake journals. Like prior studies, it too has some limitations. The sample size is limited to stand-alone fake journals and to articles published in 2017. Still, Demir’s findings too implicate Indian academics heavily.

Among the key findings of Demir’s study is that 62% of stand-alone fake journals are published in India and Indian researchers contributed (only) 2,592 articles of a total of 24,840 (10.4%). On the face of it, this seems to make Indian contributions less impressive except for the fact that the numbers are very high relative to the total research output of Indian researchers. In absolute terms, even US-based researchers contribute fairly high numbers of articles to fake journals but such publications represent a small share – less than 1% – of their large total research output. In contrast, the share of publications in fake journals by Indian academics is as high as 10% of the country’s total research output.

On its part, the University Grants Commission is trying to curb publishing in fake journals by preparing a list of legitimate journals. So far, the process has been clumsy and high volumes of publishing in fake journals by Indian academics continues, giving the higher education sector a bad name.

Pushkar (@PushHigherEd) writes regularly on higher education in India.