Recently Khrono reported that the journal “Sustainability” has been removed from the list of journals that give publication points in Norway. The decision cited several issues, including inconsistent and superficial review and editing practices, as well as a vast number of articles published each year.

https://khrono.no/stryker-et-av-verdens-storste-fra-listen-over-godkjente-tidsskrifter/689264

In this post, I discuss the exponential growth in volume and associated fees, how demand from academics to publish in such journals may be driven by factors such as “publish-or-perish” and by network contagion, and finally, what institutions such publishing practices are most common. The conclusion: the trend is increasing and most common in the less prestigious institutions in Norway, that also produce less high quality research.

The journal published 13 951 articles in 2021, up from 128 in 2011. Put differently, the volume has increased more than a hundredfold in ten years.

In the last few years Open Access publishing has become increasingly important. The for-profit publishing company behind the title, MDPI, cater to this trend. Their publication fee is 2000 Swiss Francs, (which as of may 2022 is on par with USD), or about 20 000kr, per published article. This means the journal Sustainability took in about 28 million Dollars, or about 275 million kroners in publishing fees in 2021, for this single journal title (There are more than 380 other journal titles in their portfolio). Revenues of this magnitude at stake for a for-profit publisher, it raises several questions. The most obvious question is what drives the editorial process: a commitment to research excellence, or profits.

A more interesting question comes from the other side of the equation, related to their customers. Namely who pays MDPI to publish their work. There are probably several multifaceted reasons including the  “publish-or-perish” culture in academia.

A brief explanation of the publish-or-perish situation comes from that academics generally needs a certain number of publications to be hired or promoted. It is also becoming increasingly common with a required number of publications each  year. Some institutions in Norway, require an average of 1 publication point pr. year pr. researcher. The Norwegian system only has three levels: Unranked, level 1 and level 2. Of all titles that are ranked, 80% are in level 1, 20% in level 2. This means one is not rewarded for aiming for the top of level 1, as opposed to the bottom of the level, at least not by a formal system. Rather, the reward often lies in the respect and reputation one receives from esteemed peers, at least, those who know the difference, and the effort required to publish in good journals.

Another reason academics may wish to publish in outlets like Sustainability stems from simply not knowing what to look for when evaluating a journal. Indeed, there may be a degree of network contagion at work, where one looks where friends and colleagues publish, and submit to the same journal.

In so far as it being a case of network contagion, it is interesting to examine who publishes in in such journals. To explore this, I downloaded all articles published by Norwegian authors, and conducted a bibliometric co-authorship analysis, where the unit of analysis is the affiliated institution. This includes a total of 531 articles. I divided the corpus in two, those published in 2019 or earlier (n=209), and those published after (n=322). The co-authorship maps are shown below respectively.

Co-authorship publications in Sustainability up to 2019

 

Co-authorship publications in Sustainability from 2020 – 2021

Observations:

Publications by institution by period

Institution

2019 and earlier

2020 – 2022

% difference from first period

NTNU 57 66 116%
UiO 21 13 62%
NMBU 18 18 100%
Høgskulen på Vestlandet 13 30 231%
Universitetet i Bergen 12 4 33%
UiT 12 24 200%
OsloMet 9 17 189%
USN 7 24 343%
Universitetet i Stavanger 5 26 520%
Høyskolen i Østfold 4 12 300%
Høgskolen i Mode 2 9 450%
NORD 6 8 133%
Høyskolen Kristiania 7
Høyskolen i Innlandet 6

 

The last column shows the ratio of number of publications from 2020-2021 and those from before. This shows what institutions reduced their output Sustainability, such as UiO and UiB, and which have had a dramatic increase, such as Universitetet i Stavanger, Høgyskolen i Molde, USN, Høyskolen i Østfold and Høyskulen på Vestlandet. As Høyskolen Kristiania and Innlandet had no publications pre-2020, no percentages were available, but both published significant numbers in the latter period.

Absolute publication numbers say little, both because some institutions do more research in the (albeit very broad) domain the journal targets, but also due to the size of the institutions. Universitetet i Stavanger has 1370 employees and caters to 11 000 students, while NTNU has 7401 employees and cater to 41 971 students. Naturally, research output will differ. Further, some institutions are more geared to research than others. To correct for this, I calculated the ratio of publications in Sustainability with the total number of publications for each institution in the period 2020-2021, and ranked the institutions by proportion. The results seem to indicate that the more established and prestigious institutions have a lower proportion of articles in Sustainability.

I also calculated another ratio, namely the number of publications on Level 2, to total publications, as a proxy for the proportion of high quality publications at an institution. The correlation between the proportion of publications in Sustainability and those in Level 2 was negative, at -0.42, an indication that institutions where high researchers produce high quality research, there are also fewer who publish in Sustainability.

Institution

Andel Sustainability

Andel Nivå 2

Universitetet i Bergen 0.06 30.85
Universitetet i Oslo 0.11 30.75
Universitetet i Agder 0.30 18.55
Handelshøyskolen BI 0.53 35.68
Universitetet i Tromsø 0.57 23.87
NTNU 0.58 26.78
Nord universitet 0.67 14.36
Høgskolen i Innlandet 0.72 16.79
OsloMet 0.73 20.08
NMBU 0.88 22.65
Universitetet i Stavanger 1.21 23.70
Universitetet i Sørøst-Norge (USN) 1.41 17.60
Høgskulen på Vestlandet 1.82 21.45
Høyskolen Kristiania 1.91 25.68
Høgskolen i Østfold 2.19 14.05
Høgskolen i Molde 3.05 19.66
Correlation -0.4152

 

The analysis presented here is descriptive and convenient. It does not factor in a host of factors that may influence publication decision. However, I believe the results are sufficient to question:

  • Are there contagion effects at research institutions?
    • These can be positive (more contagion) when other researchers publish in the same journal as colleagues, and
    • negative (less contagion) where a culture for publishing high quality research / in reputable journals, reduce the attractiveness of publishing in outlets such as Sustainability.
  • Are there publication incentives that drive publication to more predatory journals, such as Sustainability?
    • To what extent are these more common in less renowned research institutions?
  • What are the unintended consequences of national ranking systems for publications? The Norwegian system for ranking journals has long been criticized, and may soon be changed. Any new or revised system should be designed so as to minimize the incentives to publish in predatory journals, or those such as Sustainability.

Addendum:

Received a comment on this post, asking to what extent I believe that Plan S has been a driving force. Plan S requires the following:

…the Research Council will require full and immediate open access to all articles from projects that receive funding from the Council.

New requirements for full and immediate open access to publications

In line with the joint international requirements developed by cOAlition S, the Research Council requires all scientific articles from the projects we fund to be made available immediately, which means without embargo and with an open license that permits reuse of the publication.

Open access to scientific articles can be achieved by three routes:

  • publication in Open Access journals or platforms
  • publication in journals included in transformative arrangements
  • open archiving of an Author’s Accepted Manuscript (AAM) without embargo

To check for this, I examined the articles published in 2021 and so far in 2022 for funding details. About 25% of all publications report receiving a grant from a research council. Although there may be other funding agencies committed to Plan S, the results indicate it is not a driving force. Further, it should be noted that the third point, making an AAM available, does not require paying for Open Access at a journal.

Links:

Data for publications by institution: https://dbh.hkdir.no/tall-og-statistikk/statistikk-meny/publisering/statistikk-side/10.5?visningId=279&visKode=false&admdebug=false&columns=arstall!8!kanaltypekode!8!kvalitetsniva!8!pubformkode&index=1&formel=1133&hier=instkode&sti=&param=kanaltypekode%3D0!9!arstall%3D2021!8!2020

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