(Translation of “O Qualis e o silêncio dos pesquisadores brasileiros”, April 1)
While in Brazil the scientific community virtually ignores the presence of more than 200 academic journals of suspicious reputation that were accepted in Qualis Periódicos, discussions outside of the country have already begun on this database that serves to guide researchers, professors and Brazilian graduate students to choose scientific publications for their work.
It all started last week when the academic librarian Jeffrey Beall, professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, in the US, sent to a mailing list links to some of my recent posts on the acceptance of these publications by the federal agency CAPES (Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel).
The Beall’s message has generated discussions and also suggestions of experts on the subject of Open Access scientific communication. I will present these suggestions as they have been assessed by CAPES.
The Qualis covers about 30 thousand titles, according to CAPES. Its rating levels A1, A2, B1, B2, B3, B4, B5 and C are also used in selection processes for hiring and promotion and on individual and institutional assessments for scholarships and research grants.
Predatory journals are academic journals published by companies operating, without scientific rigor, an important scientific communication initiative that came up with the internet. This is the Open Access (OA), the editorial model of publishing articles in open access, based on the charging of fees from authors or funding by scientific institutions.
Both in the OA as in the traditional model maintained by annual subscriptions or fees per downloaded article from the Internet, reputable journals take months or even over a year to review and accept articles, or reject them.
Predatory publishers not only reduce to a few weeks the interval between submission and acceptance of articles, but are also less selective and rigorous in this process.
It is Important to emphasize that good studies have also been published in predatory journals. But this only aggravates the problem because it means that salaries of researchers, their working time and resources to research eventually become articles dropped in discredited publications and even considered “academic garbage” by the international scientific community. In Brazil, most of the money involved in this activity comes from the taxpayers.
In the interviews that I conducted, scientists of high national and international prestige said that the inclusion of the so-called predatory journals in the Qualis was a serious flaw by CAPES. But almost all of them asked not to be identified.
Earlier in this investigation, what intrigued me was the fact that I had selected researchers not only with good curricula, but also that had already taken authentic positions, critical and firm on issues surrounding science in Brazil.
The total of journals listed in my post “Brazilian graduate programs accept 201 ‘predatory’ journals” (Mar/09/2015) corresponds to 0.67% of the total of 30 thousand titles. That would be no cause for such concern. [This information was updated in the post “Brazilian graduate system counts now 235 predatory publishers” (April 3).]
The size of the trouble, however, started to become clear soon after. Although this percentage of predatory journals in the QUALIS is small, it shows an undesirable vulnerability of this database. In addition, this problem started to show a connection with other aberrations, such as making “slot machines scientific events” in conditions even anecdotal and embarrassing.
Another distortion that I found was the “serial makeup” of papers presented at conferences, as if they were articles approved by a peer review journal. And it happened at an event of UNICAMP, one of the best Brazilian universities, together with University of Sao Paulo, present in the ranking of the best in the world of Times Higher Education.
To complicate matters, my investigation of predatory journals in the Qualis revealed another oddity that hits this database that can harm reputable publications: the same journal can be classified into different levels of quality. This variation would not be problematic if it were restricted to similar quality levels and it involved areas of very different specialties.
It turns out that there are variations ranging from the worst and lowest level of classification —applicable only to publications with extreme deficiencies— to the highest relating to standards of excellence. And, what is worse, from very nearby areas of specialties. (“The ‘quantum’ evaluation of scientific journals in Brazil”, Mar/16/2015).
As we saw above, the vulnerability and the inconsistency of the QUALIS database indicates that the problem is greater than the presence of predatory journals. After creating Qualis in 1998, there was growth of Brazilian scholarly works, which in the prestigious database Web of Science almost quadrupled from 2000 to 2013.
However, the quality indicators of these publications show stagnation in the same period. Worse, these indicators increased in a few research institutions of large quantity production. This mathematically means that the rest of the national production did not stalled, but fell in quality.
Tip of the iceberg
In the same period, curricula have been filled based on this quantitative growth unmatched in quality. This influenced not only hiring and promotion, including wage —all through competitions— but also evaluations of individual and institutional productivity, scholarship awards and research grants.
The almost absolute silence of Brazilian researchers in relation to predatory journals is due not only to the complicity or the risk of embarrassment with those who use this type of publication. The biggest problem is the holes that they reveal in the Qualis.
These holes expose an important part of the performance evaluation system as a whole. And, based on this system, in recent years, not only academic careers and reputations were built, but also investments were made and institutional priorities were established.
By removing the predatory journals from Qualis certainly could result in many complaints and protests. This would lead CAPES and other institutions to stop counting the articles published in these journals.
But I believe that in one way or another this is what eventually will happen. And it will be much faster if the defense of these journals depend on the publishers themselves. (I often have difficulty using their own arguments as a defense or contraditory).
I believe that the removal of the predatory journals will happen despite this silence of almost all Brazilian researchers. Many of the coordinators and assistant coordinators of the 48 advisory committees of CAPES are respected researchers in terms of academic excellence and reputation for seriousness. I personally know some who certainly will not accept this mockery.
But I do not believe in a reformulation that takes our national graduate system to fight tolerance with low-quality journals. It is too large the contingent that was formed in recent years, grew and acquired labor rights, using weak and discredited publications. And all this happened within our Brazilian tradition to bet on growth in the number with the promise of a further increase in quality that never happens.
Due to these reasons and others, you can understand very well why some famous researchers were not willing to give interviews and arrange another confrontation in life. Their problem was messing with a “wasps’ nest”. The famous ” Epitaph for M” by Berthold Brecht (1898-1956) illustrates what could be this struggle.*
I escaped the sharks
Slew the tigers
And was eaten up
By the bugs.**
I understand them. I myself have often said that the most exhausting is not to face lions, but the flocks of hyenas. Fortunately some Brazilian researchers are already moving from concern to outrage.
* Den Haien entrann ich
Die Tiger erlegte ich
Aufgefressen wurde ich
Von den Wanzen.
** Translation quoted from “Brecht Today: Classic or Challenge”, Klaus Volker, Theatre Journal, Volume 39, Number 4, Page 425, 1987, The Johns Hopkins University Press.