Book review – Gaming the Metrics: Misconduct and Manipulation in Academic Research

The issues of gaming metrics and predatory publishing undoubtedly go hand-in-hand, outputs from the same system that requires academic researchers the world over to sing for their supper in some form or other. However, the two practices are often treated separately, almost as if there was no link at all, so editors Biagioli and Lippman are to be congratulated in bringing them together under the same roof in the shape of their book Gaming the Metrics: Misconduct and Manipulation in Academic Research (MIT Press, 2020).

The book is a collection of chapters that cover the whole gamut of wrongheaded – or just plain wrong – publication decisions on behalf of authors the word over on where to publish the fruits of their research. This ‘submission decision’ is unenviable, as it inevitably shapes academic careers to a greater or lesser degree. The main reason why authors make poor decisions is laid firmly at the doors of a variety of ‘publish or perish’ systems which seek to quantify the outputs from authors with a view to… well, the reason why outputs are quantified is never really explained. However, the reason why such quantification should be a non-starter is well-argued by Michael Power in Chapter 3, as well as Barbara M. Kehm (Ch. 6) in terms of the ever-popular university rankings. Even peer review comes under attack from Paul Wouters (Ch. 4), but as with the other areas any solutions are either absent, or in the case of Wouters proffered with minimal detail or real-world context.

Once into the book, any author would quickly realize that their decision to publish is fraught with difficulty with worrying about predatory publishers lurking on the internet to entice their articles and APCs from them. As such, any would be author would be well advised to heed the call ‘Caveat scriptor’ and read this book in advance of sending off their manuscript to any journals.

That said, there is also a case for advising ‘caveat lector’ before would-be authors read the book, as there are other areas where additional context would greatly help in addressing the problems of gaming metrics and academic misconduct. When it comes to predatory journals, there is a good deal of useful information included in several of the later chapters, especially the case studies in Chapters 7 and 15 which detail a suspiciously prolific Czech author and sting operation, respectively.

Indeed, these cases provide the context that is perhaps the single biggest failing of the book, which through its narrow academic lens doesn’t quite capture the wider picture of why gaming metrics and the scholarly communications system as a whole is ethically wrong, both for those who perpetrate it and arguably the architects of the systems. As with many academic texts that seek to tackle societal problems, the unwillingness to get dirt under the fingernails in the pursuit of understanding what’s really going on simply distances the reader from the problem at hand.

As a result, after reading Gaming the Metrics, one is like to simply shrug one’s shoulders in apathy about the plight of authors and their institutions, whereas a great deal more impact might have been achieved if the approach had been less academic and included more case studies and insights into the negative impact resulting from predatory publishing practices. After all, the problem with gaming the system is that, for those who suffer, it is anything but a game.

Gaming the Metrics: Misconduct and Manipulation in Academic Research, edited by Mario Biagioli and Alexandra Lippman (published Feb. 21 2020, MIT Press USA) ISBN: 978-0262537933.