Unintended consequences: how will COVID-19 shape the future of research

What will happen to global research output during lockdowns as a result of the coronavirus?  Simon Linacre looks at how the effect in different countries and disciplines could shape the future of research and scholarly publications.


We all have a cabin fever story now after many countries have entered into varying states of lockdown. Mine is how the little things have lifted what has been quite an oppressive mood – the smell of buns baking in the oven; lying in bed that little bit longer in a morning; noticing the newly born lambs that have suddenly appeared in nearby fields. All of these would be missed during the usual helter-skelter days we experience during the week. But things are very far from usual in these coronavirus-infected days. And any distraction is a welcome one.

On a wider scale, the jury is still very much out as to how researchers are dealing with the situation, let alone how things will be affected in the future. What we do know is that in those developed countries most impacted by the virus, universities have been closed down, students sent home and labs mothballed. In some countries such as Italy there are fears important research work could be lost in the shutdown, while in the US there is concern for the welfare of those people – and animals – who are currently in the middle of clinical trials. Overall, everyone hopes that the specific research into the coronavirus yields some quick results.

On the flip side, however, for those researchers not confined to labs or field research, this period could accelerate their work. For those in social science or humanities freed from the commute, teaching commitments and office politics of daily academic life, the additional time will no doubt be put to good use. More time to set up surveys; more time for reading; more time for writing papers. Increased research output is perhaps inevitable in those areas where academics are not tied to labs or other physical experiments.

These two countervailing factors may cancel each other out, or one may prevail over the other. As such, the scholarly publishing community does not know yet what to expect down the line. In the short term, it has been focused on making related content freely accessible (such as this site from The Lancet: ). However, what we may see is that there is greater pressure to see research in potentially globally important areas to be made open access at the source given how well researchers and networks have seemed to work together so far during the short time the virus has been at large.

Again, unintended consequences could be one of the key legacies of the crisis once the virus has died down. Organizations concerned about how their people can work from home will no doubt have their fears allayed, while the positive environmental impact of less travelling will be difficult to give up. For publishers and scholars, understanding how their research could have an impact when the world is in crisis may change their research aims forever.

The future of research evaluation

Following last week’s guest post from Rick Anderson on the risks of predatory journals, we turn our attention this week to legitimate journals and the wider issue of evaluating scholars based on their publications. With this in mind, Simon Linacre recommends a broad-based approach with the goal of such activities permanently front and center.


This post was meant to be ‘coming to you LIVE from London Book Fair’, but as you may know, this event has been canceled, like so many other conferences and other public gatherings in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. While it is sad to miss the LBF event, meetings will take place virtually or in other places, and it is to be hoped the organizers can bring it back bigger and better than ever in 2021.

Some events are still going ahead, however, in the UK, and it was my pleasure to attend the LIS-Bibliometrics Conference at the University of Leeds last week to hear the latest thinking on journal metrics and performance management for universities. The day-long event was themed ‘The Future of Research Evaluation’, and it included both longer talks from key people in the industry, and shorter ‘lightning talks’ from those implementing evaluation systems or researching their effectiveness in different ways.

There was a good deal of debate, both on the floor and on Twitter (see #LisBib20 to get a flavor), with perhaps the most interest in speaker Dr. Stephen Hill, who is Director of Research at Research England, and chair of the steering group for the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK. For those of us wishing to see crumbs from his table in the shape of a steer for the next REF, we were sadly disappointed as he was giving nothing away. However, what he did say was that he saw four current trends shaping the future of research evaluation:

  • Outputs: increasingly they will be diverse, include things like software code, be more open, more collaborative, more granular and potentially interactive rather than ‘finished’
  • Insight: different ways of understanding may come into play, such as indices measuring interdisciplinarity
  • Culture: the context of research and how it is received in different communities could become explored much more
  • AI: artificial intelligence will become a bigger player both in terms of the research itself and how the research is analyzed, e.g. the Unsilo tools or so-called ‘robot reviewers’ that can remove any reviewer bias.

Rather revealingly, Dr. Hill suggested a fifth trend might be the societal impact, and this is despite the fact that such impact has been one of the defining traits of both the current and previous REFs. Perhaps, the full picture has yet to be understood regarding impact, and there is some suspicion that many academics have yet to buy-in to the idea at all. Indeed, one of the takeaways from the day was that there was little input into the discussion from academics at all, and one wonders if they might have contributed to the discussion about the future of research evaluation, as it is their research being evaluated after all.

There was also a degree of distrust among the librarians present towards publishers, and one delegate poll should be of particular interest to them as it showed what those present thought were the future threats and challenges to research evaluation. The top three threats were identified as publishers monopolizing the area, commercial ownership of evaluation data, and vendor lock-in – a result which led to a lively debate around innovation and how solutions could be developed if there was no commercial incentive in place.

It could be argued that while the UK has taken the lead on impact and been busy experimenting with the concept, the rest of the higher education world has been catching up with a number different takes on how to recognize and reward research that has a demonstrable benefit. All this means that we are yet to see the full ‘impact of impact,’ and certainly, we at Cabells are looking carefully at what potential new metrics could aid this transition. Someone at the event said that bibliometrics should be “transparent, robust and reproducible,” and this sounds like a good guiding principle for whatever research is being evaluated.

Growth of predatory publishing shows no sign of slowing

This week the Cabells Journal Blacklist has hit 13,000 titles, and while the number itself is not that significant, its continued rate of growth shows that the problem of predatory publishing shows no sign of abating. In his latest post, Simon Linacre shares a case study of what a predatory journal looks like and why their continued growth should concern us all.


Firstly, a warning: this post will share a link to a journal that Cabells has identified as predatory in nature, and as such, you should take precautions before giving it a click. This is because there is evidence to show that some predatory journal websites, whether it is by accident or design, contain malware that can infect your computers and its networked systems. So, if you do click on it, please don’t share any information as it could infect your hardware.

Welcome to the dark world of predatory publishing.

Despite the risks, it is useful to look at a specific predatory journal to gain some insight into how they operate and what they contain. The example we are using is the International Journal of Science Technology & Management, which appears to be based in India and has been publishing several issues annually since 2012, and includes hundreds of articles freely accessible as pdfs. This particular journal has one of the highest numbers of breaches of our Blacklist criteria, some of which are included below to help explain why the journal is predatory:

  1. Editors do not actually exist or are deceased. The journal does not name an Editor or Editors but has a huge list of names and affiliations, many of which do not actually exist or are listed without their knowledge.
  2. The journal’s website does not have a clearly stated peer review policy. The journal states it is “refereed”, but there is no evidence this occurs.
  3. Falsely claims indexing in well-known databases (especially SCOPUS, DOAJ, JCR, and Cabells). This is a key indicator of predatory journals, and can be easily checked – this particular journal claims it is indexed by Cabells (this is categorically untrue), listed by DOAJ (also false) and has an Impact Factor of 2.012 (most definitely incorrect).
  4. The website does not identify a physical address for the publisher or gives a fake address. Sometimes an address will be given that is the same address as 8,459 other businesses, which is remarkable in that it turns out to be a small terraced house in suburban England. In this example, there is an address you can find after some searching, but the address is spelled incorrectly and the location in India is also home to dozens of other journals and conferences the publisher operates, but no offices.
  5. The publisher or journal’s website seems too focused on the payment of fees. Many predatory publishers charge the going rate of $1,000+ to publish in them, but this journal ‘only’ charges $60 (plus $20 if you require a certificate). This may seem a bargain to some, but authors are being ripped off even at this low price.

There are many other problems with the journal, not least that the quality of articles published in it would embarrass any high school student, let alone an academic. However, while the desire and ease of publishing in such journals persists, Cabells will have to increase its Journal Blacklist by many more thousands to keep pace with demand.

Predatory publishing from A to Z

During 2019, Cabells published on its Twitter feed (@CabellsPublish) at least one of its 70+ criteria for including a journal on the Cabells Journal Blacklist, generating great interest among its followers. For 2020, Simon Linacre highlights a new initiative below where Cabells will publish its A-Z of predatory publishing each week to help authors identify and police predatory publishing behavior.


This week a professor I know well approached me for some advice. He had been approached by a conference to present a plenary address on his research area but had been asked to pay the delegate fee. Something didn’t seem quite right, so knowing I had some knowledge in this area he asked me for some guidance. Having spent considerable time looking at predatory journals, it did not take long to notice signs of predatory activity: direct commissioning strategy from unknown source; website covering hundreds of conferences; conferences covering very wide subject areas; unfamiliar conference organizers; guaranteed publication in unknown journal; evidence online of other researchers questioning the conference and its organizers’ legitimacy.

Welcome to ‘C for Conference’ in Cabells’ A-Z of predatory publishing.

From Monday 17 February, Cabells will be publishing some quick hints and tips to help authors, researchers and information professionals find their way through the morass of misinformation produced by predatory publishers and conference providers. This will include links to helpful advice, as well as the established criteria Cabells uses to judge if a journal should be included in its Journal Blacklist. In addition, we will be including examples of predatory behavior from the 12,000+ journals currently listed on our database so that authors can see what predatory behavior looks like.

So, here is a sneak preview of the first entry: ‘A is for American’. The USA is a highly likely source of predatory journal activity, as the country lends credence to any claim of legitimacy a journal may adopt to hoodwink authors into submitting articles to them. In the Cabells Journal Blacklist there are over 1,900 journals that include the name ‘American’ in their titles or publisher name. In comparison, just 308 Scopus-indexed journals start with the word ‘American’. So for example, the American Journal of Social Issues and Humanities purports to be published from the USA, but this cannot be verified, and it has 11 violations of Journal Blacklist criteria, including the use of a fake ISSN number and complete lack of any editor or editorial board member listed on the journal’s website (see image).

‘A’ also stands for ‘Avoid at all costs’.

Please keep an eye out for the tweets and other blog posts related to this series, which we will use from time to time to dig deeper into understanding more about predatory journal and conference behavior.

Look before you leap!

A recent paper published in Nature has provided a tool for researchers to use to check the publication integrity of a given article. Simon Linacre looks at this welcome support for researchers, and how it raises questions about the research/publication divide.

Earlier this month, Nature published a well-received comment piece by an international group of authors entitled ‘Check for publication integrity before misconduct’ (Grey et al, 2020). The authors wanted to create a tool to enable researchers to spot potential problems with articles before they got too invested in the research, citing a number of recent examples of misconduct. The tool they came up with is a checklist called REAPPRAISED, which uses each letter to identify an area – such as plagiarism or statistics and data – that researchers should check as part of their workflow.
 
As a general rule for researchers, and as a handy mnemonic, the tool seems to work well, and undoubtedly authors using this as part of their research should avoid the potential pitfalls of using poorly researched and published work. Perhaps we at Cabells would argue that an extra ‘P’ should be added for ‘Predatory’, and the checks researchers should make to ensure the journals they are using and intend to publish in are legitimate. To do this comprehensively, we would recommend using our own criteria for the Cabells Journal Blacklist as a guide, and of course, using the database itself where possible.
 
The guidelines also raise a fundamental question for researchers and publishers alike as to where research ends and publishing starts. For many involved in academia and scholarly communications, the two worlds are inextricably linked and overlap, but are nevertheless different. Faculty members of universities do their research thing and write articles to submit to journals; publishers manage the submission process and publish the best articles for other academics to read and in turn use in their future research. 
 
Journal editors seem to sit at the nexus of these two areas as they tend to be academics themselves while working for the publisher, and as such have feet in both camps. But while they are knowledgeable about the research that has been done and may actively research themselves, as editor their role is one performed on behalf of the publisher, and ultimately decides which articles are good enough to be recorded in their publication; the proverbial gatekeeper.
 
What the REAPPRAISED tool suggests, however, is that for authors the notional research/publishing divide is not a two-stage process, but rather a continuum. Only if authors embark on research intent on fully appraising themselves of all aspects of publishing integrity can they guarantee the integrity of their own research, and in turn this includes how and where that research is published. Rather than a two-step process, authors can better ensure the quality of their research AND publications by including all publishing processes as part of their own research workflow. By doing this, and using tools such as REAPPRAISED and Cabells Journal Blacklist along the way, authors can better take control of their academic careers.


Think globally, act now

The great and the good of world business, finance, and politics met this week in the small Swiss resort of Davos, pledging to enact change and make a real difference to how the world works. But what is so different this time? Simon Linacre reports on his first visit to the World Economic Forum, and how business schools can play a pivotal role in changing the system.


It was 50 years ago when Dr. Klaus Schwab first invited business leaders to the small mountain retreat known as Davos, and since then it has grown into THE conference at which to see and be seen. Just over 3,000 lucky individuals are invited, with even fewer gaining the “access all areas” accreditation that gets you into sessions with the likes of Donald Trump, Greta Thunberg, or Prince Charles. The whole performance is surreal, with limousines whisking delegates the shortest of distances through the traffic-clogged streets, and slightly bewildered-looking skiers and snowboarders look on.

From start to finish, there was a noticeable tension in the air. Security is high level, with airport-standard checks at hotels and conference centers and armed guards at every turn. There is also conflict around the critical issue of climate change – while President Trump declares the issue to be exaggerated, a huge sign has been carved into the snow for all those arriving by helicopter and train to see: ‘ACT ON CLIMATE’:

climate
Photo by Simon Linacre

There also seems to be a conflict in how to deal with climate change and other major issues facing business and management today, and these can be broadly put into two camps. One believes that compromise is the answer, and big business seems to have largely chosen this path in Davos, with everyone seeking to state their environmental credentials or how they are pursuing one of the key phrases of the event, ‘stakeholder capitalism’. An approach first espoused by Dr. Straub fully 50 years earlier at the inaugural event.

The other camp believes that the answer can only depend on change. And not just change, but radical change. An example of this was the launch of the Positive Impact Rating (PIR) in Davos, which is an attempt to rate business schools for students and by students. Over 3,000 of them were surveyed – the results can be seen at www.PositiveImpactRating.org – where 30 business schools were rated as either ‘progressing’ (Level 3) or ‘transforming’ (Level 4) in terms of societal responsibility and impact.  Many of the business school deans and business leaders present were in favor of such an approach, believing that if business schools are to have any credibility in a society where sustainable development goals (SDGs), climate change, and social responsibility play an increasingly important role, the time to change and act is now. PIR is part of a wave of organizations such as Corporate Knights, the UN Global Compact and PRME that recognize and promote progressive business and education practices that are now becoming mainstream.

google crop

This approach is not without its critics, with some existing rating providers and business school leaders cautioning against too much change lest consistency and quality be ignored completely. These voices seem increasingly isolated and anachronistic, however, and there was a feeling that with a deadline of 2030 being set as the deadline for turning things around, business schools have to decide now whether they choose the path of compromise or change. If they are to remain relevant, it seems the latter has to be the right direction to take.

A New Year’s resolution worth keeping: Say “NO” to spam

Recent studies have shown the huge impact that spam emails from predatory journals have on academics’ workflows. Simon Linacre argues that, far from being harmless, they contribute to a wider malaise in academic life.


If I said I have a New Year’s Resolution that could save everyone who reads this blog hundreds of dollars in time and effort, as well as enrich everyone’s lives, would you be interested in joining me? There is no catch, no trick, but there is a small degree of effort involved. And it is quite simple – just open up every email unsolicited email you receive and either block it or unsubscribe. Your life will improve as a result, guaranteed.
 
But will such a straightforward, if humdrum, task really make such savings? Well, two recent studies show that the total cost to academia of spam emails is vast. Firstly, this week’s Times Higher Education (THE) reports on a new study that estimates the time wasted on opening and deleting spam emails, typically ones from predatory journals, is equal to $1.1bn – and this rises to over $2bn when all spam email is included
 
They arrive at this figure using the following methodology: take an average figure for the number of targeted spam emails academics receive each day from a number of prior studies (which is around five); estimate that each academic spends five seconds dealing with every email; assume the average academic earns $50 an hour; multiply by the number of academics in the world according to the United Nations. It may sound a bit like a back-of-a-napkin calculation, but for many academics, the number of emails and time to sift through them may seem significantly undercooked.
 
Another study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) looked more specifically at the impact of emails received from predatory journal publishers by career development grant awardees. This study found that academic spam emails (or ASEs) were a significant distraction for academics and that there was an urgent need to mitigate the problem. The results from a survey of grant awardees showed that almost 90% had a spam filter turned on, but around half said they received up to 10 spam emails a day, with fully 30% estimating they received between 11 and 20. 
 
Some unsolicited emails may of course be legitimate, and can be blocked, while others are a result of individuals at some stage signing up to receive emails, usually to gain access to something or when making a purchase. Emails from law-abiding sources such as these can be stopped – it just takes a little time. As can those purchases from Amazon, Gap or Ebay where we have used our work email only to suffer a permanent slew of special offers (don’t worry, we’ve all been there). In these cases, our New Year’s Resolution can indeed help cut down the time spent on email and make more time for more meaningful pursuits.
 
However, as the THE piece points out, there is very little academics can currently do to stem the tide of spam from predatory journals. All we can do is become more savvy in identifying them quickly, choose not to open them and delete straight away. And in the meantime, hope that someone invents a spam filter that genuinely screens ASEs out and doesn’t send important emails from your Dean to your ‘junk’ folder.

Beware of publishers bearing gifts

In the penultimate post of 2019, Simon Linacre looks at the recent publication of a new definition of predatory publishing and challenges whether such a definition is fit for purpose for those who really need it – authors


In this season of glad tidings and good cheer, it is worth reflecting that not everyone who approaches academic researchers bearing gifts are necessarily Father Christmas. Indeed, the seasonal messages popping into their inboxes at this time of year may offer opportunities to publish that seem too good to miss, but in reality, they could easily be a nightmare before Christmas.
 
Predatory publishers are the very opposite of Santa Claus. They will come into your house, eat your mince pies, but rather than leave you presents they will steal your most precious possession – your intellectual property. Publishing an article in a predatory journal could ruin an academic’s career, and it is very hard to undo once it has been done. Interestingly, one of the most popular case studies this year on COPE’s website is on what to do if you are unable to retract an article from a predatory journal in order to publish it in a legitimate one. 
 
Cabells has added over two thousand journals to its Journals Blacklist in 2019 and will reach 13,000 in total in the New Year. Identifying a predatory journal can be tricky, which is why they are often so successful in duping authors; yet defining exactly what a predatory journal is can be fraught with difficulty. In addition, some commentators do not like the term – from an academic perspective ‘predatory’ is hard to define, while others think it is too narrow. ‘Deceptive publishing’ has been put forward, but this, in turn, could be seen as too broad.
 
Cabells uses over 70 criteria to identify titles for inclusion in its Journals Blacklist and widens the net to encompass deceptive, fraudulent and/or predatory journals. Defining what characterizes these journals in just a sentence or two is hard, but this is what a group of academics has done following a meeting in Ottowa, Canada earlier in 2019 on the topic of predatory publishing. The output of this meeting was the following definition:
 
Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterized by false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial and publication practices, a lack of transparency, and/or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices.” (Grudniewicz et al, 2019)
 
The definition is presented as part of a comment piece published in Nature last week and came from a consensus reached at the Ottowa meeting. It is a pity that Cabells was not invited to the event and given the opportunity to contribute. As it is, the definition and accompanying explanation has been met with puzzlement in the Twittersphere, with a number of eminent Open Access advocates saying it allows almost any publisher to be described as predatory. For it to be relevant, it will need to be adopted and used by researchers globally as a test for any journal they are thinking of submitting to. Only time will tell if this will be the case.


From all of us at Cabells, we wish everyone a joyous holiday season and a healthy New Year. Our next blog will be published on January 15, 2020.

Will academia lead the way?

Universities are usually expected to have all the answers – they are full of clever people after all. But sometimes, they need some help to figure out specific problems. Simon Linacre attended a conference recently where the questions being asked of higher education are no less than solving the problems of climate change, poverty, clean water supply and over a dozen more similar issues. How can academic institutions respond?


Most people will be aware of the United Nations and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which they adopted to solve 17 of the world’s biggest problems by 2030. Solving the climate change crisis by that date has perhaps attracted the most attention, but all of the goals present significant challenges to global society.

Universities are very much at the heart of this debate, and there seems to be an expectation that because of the position they have in facilitating research, they will unlock the key to solving these major problems. And so far they seem to have taken up the challenge with some gusto, with new research centers and funding opportunities appearing all the time for those academics aiming to contribute to these global targets in some way. What seems to be missing, however, is that many academics don’t seem to have received the memo on what they should be researching.
 
Following several conversations at conferences and with senior management at a number of universities, the two themes that are repeated when it comes to existing research programs is that there is a problem with both ‘culture and capabilities’. By culture, university hierarchies report that their faculty members are still as curious and keen to do research as ever, but they are not as interested when they are told to focus their energies on certain topics. And when they do, they lack the motivation or incentives to ensure the outcomes of their research lie in real-world impact. For the academic, impact still means a smallish number with three decimal places – ie, the Impact Factor.

In addition, when it comes to the capability of undertaking the kind of research that is likely to contribute to moving forward the SDGs, academics have not had any training, guidance, or support in what to do. In the UK, for example, where understanding and exhibiting impact is further forward than anywhere else in the world thanks to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), there still seem to be major issues with academics being focused on research that will get published rather than research that will change things. In one conversation, while I was referring to research outcomes as real-world benefits, an academic was talking about the quality of journals in which research would be published. Both are legitimate research outcomes, but publication is still way ahead in terms of cultural expectations. And internal incentives are in reality far behind the overarching aims stated by governments and research organizations.

Perhaps we are being too optimistic to expect the grinding gears of academia to move more smoothly towards a major culture change, and perhaps the small gains that are being made and the work done in the public space by the likes of Greta Thunberg will ultimately be enough to enable real change. But when the stakes are so high and the benefits are so great, maybe our expectations should weigh heavily on academia, as they are probably the people best placed to solve the world’s problems after all.

GBSN: Measuring the Impact of Business Schools

Business schools and the MBAs they teach have been reinvented on a regular basis almost since they began life early in the 20th century. However, Simon Linacre suggests that as the Global Business School Network meets for its annual conference in Lisbon this week, calls for a new approach might just be followed through


Another day, another business school conference. As a veteran of at least a dozen or so such events, then it is hard not to be a little cynical when reading about the conference theme set out on the website. Business schools need to change? Check. New programs being promoted? Check. Social running club at 7am on the first morning? Oh, that’s actually quite different.

The Global Business School Network (GBSN) is quite different. With a mission to “partner with business schools, industry, foundations, and aid agencies to improve access to quality, locally relevant management education for the developing world”, it’s focus is very much on a sustainable future rather than on shiny new MBAs for the privileged few who can afford them. As such, the theme of ‘Measuring the Impact of Business Schools’ is more than simply an on-trend marketing slogan, but rather a statement of purpose.

But despite its undoubted sincerity, can such an objective be achieved? The reason it just might is that it is very much aligned with a changing mood in business education. A recent report in The Economist referred to the development of a ‘New Capitalism’, where greed is no longer good and sustainability the imperative rather than simply growth. Evidence can be seen not just in the numerous business school deans being quoted in the piece, but in wider moves such as the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s recent pivot to adopt the Happiness Index as a metric for national development. The times they are a-changin’, as someone once said.

Ultimately, such changes may be as much to do with the bottom line rather than more altruistic motives. Recruitment in the US to MBAs is down, with students apparently becoming more demanding when it comes to what is being taught, with a focus on sustainability and wider impact at the top of the list. The mantra ‘doing well by doing good’ is not a new one, but perhaps we are entering an era where that shifts from just another strapline to becoming a true aphorism for change.

Cabells is supporting the GBSN event by hosting a session on research Impact for the Developing World. There are no preconceived ideas or solutions, just that the existing notions of impact are changing, and that each school needs to be laser-focused on investing in impact in the most relevant way for its own mission and purpose. Whatever business schools can therefore learn about measuring their impact will mean that the conference’s theme actually means something for once.