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Publication incentives ‘reward supply without consideration for demand’

Education scholars call for overhaul of South Africa’s ‘pay-for-papers’ policies

South Africa’s incentive system for publications needs to be overhauled to reduce the “perverse” incentives it creates, like promoting quantity over quality, a paper has argued.

The paper, published on 14 August in the journal Education as Change, was penned by two researchers from Rhodes University, Evelyn Muthama and Sioux McKenna. They examined publication incentives and policies at historically disadvantaged universities as part of a larger project examining research constraints at these institutions. 

“At present, the funding formula rewards the supply of publications without any consideration of the demand for knowledge,” they write.

The national higher education department pays subsidies to universities for publications in order to increase the country’s overall output. Papers must be published in an accredited list of journals to be eligible for funding. Some universities, in turn, use this funding to pay researchers directly into their personal bank accounts as rewards for publications. 

In the universities they studied, Muthama and McKenna found that South Africa’s incentive system puts quantity before quality, leaves universities vulnerable to predatory publishers, and breeds resentment among younger researchers who have to do the “drudge work” such as lecturing and administration while universities protect senior researchers to publish more.

“There needs to be more nuance in such a system and […] institutions need to be wary about the extent to which a focus on payments reduces publications to their exchange value,” they write.

One person interviewed by Muthama and McKenna admitted that researchers “churn” out papers to journals “that will take anything”. 

Another told them that getting subsidy money trumped the desire to publish in journals with high impact factors: “Whether you are publishing in a journal that has high impact factors or low, you see, here we don’t care about that. What we care [about] is whether that journal gives the university money.”

However, Muthama and McKenna advocate against “blaming individual academics who make poor choices” or chastising universities that tailor their policies according to publication pressures and the lure of incentives. They prefer to see the Department of Higher Education and Training overhaul its system to focus on knowledge dissemination rather than overall publication counts.