An open letter to the Serbian science ministry – coinciding with the new government’s first 100 days in office – and an accompanying petition signed by 850 scientists so far, makes for pretty dim reading on the state of research ethics in Serbia.
The systematic and apparently state-endorsed practice of artificially boosting one’s ratings in the national evaluation system, which drives promotions and helps set salaries, has led to a range of abuses that are promoting mediocrity while driving scientific talent out of the country, says the letter, published in late October.
The authors say that the offenses that have proliferated over the last decade, and which are being “systematically hidden” under what the letter says are bad policies set by the science ministry, include:
- family-run journals publishing papers exclusively for “gaining profit”
- “citation cartels” citing unrelated papers from the same journals to artificially boost their impact factors
- adding authors who had not contributed to the paper as a matter of “clientelism and fealty”
- duplication — aka “self-plagiarism” — tolerated on a “massive scale”
- student plagiarism “in full bloom” and conducted uninterruptedly
- regulations that encourage misconduct; articles that publish “compilations of general knowledge or offer trivial findings” with no impact on scientific literature and no chance of practical application
- publicly funded projects treated as “state secrets” – not even titles or abstract are made publicly available, and
- doctoral students forming their own evaluation committees.
Most of the evidence for such activities comes from investigations by the Centre for Evaluation in Education and Science (CEON/CEES), which published a report late last year that showed that up to 11% of articles in journals listed in Serbian citation indeks SCIndeks, contained plagiarized or self-plagiarized (duplicated) passages. Indeed, the open letter says that
A certain number of researchers systematically publish plagiarized articles … Self-plagiarism is being tolerated on a mass scale.
It also says Serbian authors have been publishing their work in predatory journals with increasing intensity, and the ministry uses such articles in rating the researchers. It names two predatory journals from Bosnia and Herzegovina that publish work in bad English (with frequent grammatical and stylistic mistakes in titles and abstracts), have no ‘doi’ numbers, and often carry plagiarized articles. They charge contributors up to 1,000 Euros per article and the money goes to the editor’s personal account, it says. The two journals exchange an
unnaturally large number of citations although they cover distant fields of science.
In one of the predatory journals, the articles from Serbia have larger number of authors than articles from other countries, it says, because of the practice of adding the names of people who did not actually contribute to the work.
The letter estimates than in 2012, in the two journals alone, Serbian scientists will have spent 200,000 Euros of public money to publish their articles: a sum that is similar to the total budget of all of Serbia’s domestic scientific journals. Public money is being used first to publish questionable work in predatory journals, and then to increase scientists’ salaries after their ratings are boosted by these publications, it says.
Duplication also increases individuals’ incomes, as the ministry funds the same article through support for conferences, publishing conference proceedings, and finally for publishing the same work in a journal.
Apart from excess production of bad quality papers to boost individuals’ salaries, there is also a trend of setting up new domestic journals, “even by the smallest research units” that probably do not conduct any peer review.
Meanwhile, many of the individuals in the ministry’s scientific committees, which evaluate and categorize the domestic journals’ status, have a conflict of interest: they evaluate journals they edit or publishers that they manage. This results in journals getting a high ranking without deserving it, and ramps up the points of authors who publish there. This is also unfair to editors who try hard to raise the quality of their journals in legitimate ways, yet often do not get funding since they lack lobbyists on the scientific committees.
The letter goes on to make several demands, including re-evaluating journals to identify those that abuse the system and remove them from the ministry’s rankings; setting up a national office for the integrity of science as well as ombudsmen at universities; and establishing legislation to protect whistleblowers. It also makes further suggestions to set up a national database of PhD theses, make all publicly funded articles open access, and set up a regional base of peer reviewers.
The ministry responded to the letter early last month, acknowledging that “there are problems and some irregularities in the overall system of evaluating research and researchers” but saying it was working on several policies that would improve the situation, including valuation of work published in domestic journals and categorization of such journals.