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Researchers decry ‘pay to publish’ system — but don’t want it to stop

South African incentive programme has attracted criticism for encouraging unethical behaviour.

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Studio shot of a pile of magazines.

South Africa’s publication-incentive scheme offers cash rewards when researchers publish journal papers.Credit: Shutterstock

A survey of nearly 1,000 academic researchers in South Africa suggests that the majority are in favour of keeping a government scheme that offers cash rewards for publishing research papers in accredited journals, even though they agree that this can promote unethical practices.

The publication-incentive programme — which awards payments when researchers publish journal articles, conference proceedings and book chapters — is the country’s largest single pool of research funding, worth an estimated 2.4 billion South African rand (US$160 million) each year.

Under the scheme, researchers can receive about 120,000 rand per published article. The subsidies were initially implemented in 2005 to drive academic output, and it worked: South Africa’s overall research output rose from 4,063 articles in 2005 to 25,371 in 2018.

Inforgraphic: Paper money. Bar charts showing the results of a survey of South African academics concerning publication rewards.

Source: Elsie Breet, Jan Botha, Lyn Horn, Leslie Swartz.

But the system has attracted criticism. Some researchers say that it promotes publishing in predatory journals, which charge fees but typically do not provide peer review or other quality checks, and that it encourages the ‘salami slicing’ of research to produce multiple papers from a study rather than one high-quality article. The incentive scheme came under scrutiny after a 2017 study1 found that between 2005 and 2014, the government had paid up to 300 million rand in subsidies for articles published in predatory journals, which had somehow found their way onto the government’s list of approved publications.

Lyn Horn, a bioethicist and director of the office of research integrity at the University of Cape Town, was part of the team that conducted the latest survey. She says that she realized there was a problem with research subsidies when she spoke to early-career researchers. These researchers talked about “pressure to publish what was often described as the ‘the least publishable unit’, so as to maximize the number of publications from a particular research project, basically in order to maximize subsidy”, she says.

Contradictory results

Horn presented the survey of 967 South African academics on 24 November at a conference run by the Global Research Council — an organization made up of science and engineering funding agencies. More than two-thirds of the respondents agreed that incentives enticed researchers to salami-slice their research, and more than half agreed that they led to inappropriate author attribution.

But 68% of respondents thought that South Africa should keep its incentive system (see ‘Paper money’).

One reason for this apparent contradiction is a general shortage of funds, says David Hedding, a geologist at the University of South Africa in Pretoria who also researches publishing trends in South Africa. “With the current crunch in research funding, [incentives] will become even more important for researchers,” he says. The Department of Science and Innovation, the country’s major research funder, saw its budget slashed by 16% this year, following the pandemic-related economic downturn — continuing a long-running funding squeeze.

Hedding and others think that the scheme needs tighter regulation. The way in which the subsidies are distributed leaves the system open to exploitation: the government gives the funds to the authors’ universities, which have different policies to allocate the money. Some put the money into a central competitive research kitty, whereas others give up to 70% of the subsidy to the individual researcher. Of the researchers polled, 59% agreed that direct payments to authors might encourage unethical behaviour.

References

  1. 1.

    Mouton, J. & Valentine, A. S. Afr. J. Sci. 113, 2017-0010 (2020).

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