The Sociology of Predatory Publishing

In a recent article on Derivace, Luděk Brož, Tereza Stöckelová and Filip Vostal reflect on the case of Wadim Strielkowski, whose over-enthusiastic game playing was the subject of extensive debate within the Czech academy. There are many factors which have, as a whole, led his prolific rate of publication to be regarded with deep suspicion, such as the self-publication of his monographs, typos in his journal articles, extensive recycling between papers and a continuously rotating cast of co-authors:

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”. Since many of his articles were skilfully placed in dubious journals that were featured in SCOPUS or even in the Web of Science’s databases, they were recognised by the Czech evaluation system as research outputs. As a result, Strielkowski’s employer was awarded the appropriate amount of funding, and Strielkowski himself, according to the Czech media, received bonuses to his salary as a result.

What makes his case interesting is how skilfully these articles were placed. As the authors note, a substantial number of his articles were placed in journals that could be described as “potentially, possibly or probably predatory” while nonetheless being included in relevant indexes which meant they counted as research outputs for formal evaluation, with all the advantages that entails. Not only was he skilfully navigating the publishing environment to facilitate his own rapid ascent, he made a business out of helping others do the same thing:

In addition to being a prolific author, Strielkowski also happens to be a globetrotting entrepreneur. Through his companies, he has offered courses on how to publish in academic journals, with special emphasis on SCOPUS and the Web of Science. Participants primarily hailed from the countries of the former USSR; if they paid conference fees, they were guaranteed publication of their text(s) in one of the journals that Strielkowski himself (used to) publish and which Beall monitored until January 2017 (such as Czech Journal of Social Sciences, Business and Economics, and International Economics Letters). For those ready to pay €3,000, Strielkowski, referring to himself as “professor” and “Vice-Chancellor”, even offered academic degrees. His Prague University of Social Sciences and Humanities Ltd. offered not only MBAs (apparently without an accreditation in the Czech Republic) and postdoctoral positions one had to pay for, but also a “MAW” degree, which stood for “Master of Academic Writing”.

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.

We do not simply ‘internalise’ these imperatives or find ourselves moulded to become ‘neoliberal subjects’. The exercise of agency to be found here is varied, complex and confusing. Denunciations of individual cases, which I don’t think Luděk et al are doing in this case, doesn’t help matters. I’d argue that what often understands itself to be theorisations of such cases, invoking the idea of the neoliberal subject etc, in reality more often represents a thematisation of them.

How do we counter this though? At one point, the authors write of Strielkowski’s papers that “they have hardly any readership to speak of to notice such a statement in the first place”. Similarly, when I read this article, the second thing I looked at after Strielkowski’s personal website was his Google Scholar profile, immediately noting that he has relatively few citations for someone who has published so prolifically, with a majority seeming to be self-citations. I wonder if there is an element of bad faith in finding reassurance in such things, an invocation of readership and citation as a quality threshold, when we know that the systemic problems preclude the reliability of such standards? I wonder if this represents a unacknowledged attempt to evade the vertigo of the accelerated academy:

I feel like I am drowning in knowledge, and the idea of further production is daunting. Libraries and bookstores produce a sense of anxiety: the number of books and journals to read is overwhelming, with tens of thousands more issuing from the presses each day. Moreover, there is no real criterion other than whim for selecting one book or article over another. To dive into one area rather than another becomes a willful act of blindness, when other areas are just as worthwhile and when every topic connects to others in any number of ways. The continual press of new knowledge becomes an invitation to forgetfulness, to lose the forest for the trees.

From Sustainable Knowledge by Robert Frodeman, loc 1257:

We have more room for manoeuvre then we acknowledge. Strielkowski’s game playing represents what Ruth Müller calls anticipatory acceleration taken to an unprecedented extreme: mindlessly speeding up the rate of publication in pursuit of competitive advantage within an overcrowded field. But if Trump academics are in the ascendancy, we’re liable to see more of this. The system is fucked and all the evidence suggests it is becoming more so with each passing year.

We need a honest account of our investments within the system of scholarly communication, building from the basic constraints which the requirements of pursuing an academic career impose. Looking at extreme cases like Strielkowski can help us doing this, by providing prompts to elucidate our assumptions and concerns about scholarly publishing that we might not otherwise feel the need to put into words.

On a related note:
(click through for the whole thread)

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