Scourge of fake journals

November 30, 2011


IT all began with false eyelashes. Growing up in the 1960s I could not fathom why actresses with plastic insertions appeared attractive to their fans. The equally disgusting discovery of fake-coloured nails on Americans was made in the late 1980s. An office mate explained these were off the shelf and not obtained through careful tending of the cuticles.

Returning to academia in Pakistan in the first half of the last decade, one discovered how expats and other Pakistanis were applying and getting jobs in our institutions using fake degrees from fake universities — here and abroad — using fake publications. In the context of this article, a fake academic journal is an online journal that has no referees (despite a long list of editorial board members) and that takes a fee from the author to get the article published online, very quickly.

Nearly eight years ago, I informed Dr Atta-ur-Rahman of a fake journals publishing racket in Faisalabad, which needed to be squashed by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) and the law agencies, failing which it would grow and entice academics to take the short-cut to promotion and privileges. The damaging role of substandard universities in our midst that had received a charter was also highlighted.

Unfortunately, the advice was not heeded. As a result, we have parliamentarians with fake degrees hoodwinking the HEC and the Election Commission for over two years. Sadly, the Supreme Court has also failed to take up an old petition by members of civil society outlining a simple process for verifying degrees that could be completed in a few weeks.

The issues of plagiarism, fake degrees, fake and substandard universities and dishonest politicians are intimately linked. A common response to this hydra-headed problem is despair. Wait until society reforms itself, some say. Proponents of this approach would like society to attack seemingly far more important issues, the solution of which would make such ‘minor’ issues disappear.

The wiser approach is to be holistic in one’s analysis yet split the problem into doable parts and attack each swiftly. This latter approach is how the HEC ought to tackle the issue. Failing to do so will cause the few centres of excellence and genuine researchers here to be viewed with suspicion internationally further dampening their morale.

A weeklong intensive research led to findings of large-scale use of fake journals. These are approved by the HEC and appear on its site in the resumés of its certified PhD supervisors. The HEC chairman, Dr Javaid Laghari, and several holders of the HEC Distinguished National Professorships have been notified of this. I can email interested readers the documents provided to the HEC.

My research and the follow-up letter to HEC was prompted by the encouraging news report in a newspaper titled, ‘Laghari says HEC believes in zero-tolerance policy with regard to plagiarism’. It said: “Dr Laghari … said that the HEC believed in a zero-tolerance policy on plagiarism in the theses of teachers and that if any university was found favouring plagiarists, the HEC would take stern action against it”.

The other spur to this effort was the unsolicited bulk mail that I received advertising patently fake journals. On investigating their claims I found a large number of Pakistani academics associated with them as editors and contributors. One such person, in addition to being on the editorial board of such a family of journals, had also contributed an article to them — this article was part of this person’s application for promotion to professorship in Pakistan’s premier public university. The HEC approved this ascension earlier this year.

Becoming suspicious of these editorial boards, I checked the names of four professors from prestigious western universities whose names appeared on these sites, including two from Cambridge, England, and the University of Maryland (UMD). They were both horrified by this revelation and the UMD professor got her university’s attorney to get the offending website removed. The others have been requested to do so similarly. But surely this is what one would like the HEC to do too.

One of the editors on the blanked-out site may have a little to worry about though. He is on the board of many such journals, and despite working for a university with a dubious reputation following a PhD from an equally poor university, published 11 papers in 2010, and in the first half of 2011 had nine ‘foreign’ publications, in fake journals. [The HEC website lists them as ‘recognised’.] Courtesy of his many papers, he has managed many foreign junkets, in fact 13 in the past five years. Most amusing is his attendance at a workshop in Lahore on Research Ethics and Anti-Plagiarism Strategy! I wouldn’t be surprised if the HEC footed the bill for this one.

One could continue offering other such anecdotal evidence of large-scale fraud, but I return to the warning I gave to the past HEC chairman in 2003, which has now been vindicated by articles by Jeffrey Beall of Colorado University at Denver. He has shown how the racket that began in Faisalabad has proliferated. It now has offices in the capital, as my investigations show.

Without doubt, the HEC’s quality assurance programme has failed. There is an urgent need for an internal and external review followed by the institution of a robust system that maintains transparency and restores the integrity of research publications and higher education in Pakistan. One hopes that such a change will not be relegated to endless committees. The treatment is known; it is time for action.

The writer is an independent researcher.