The need for serious scientific, academic and scholarly publishing

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The Indian Express has carried since 19 July 2018, a 3-part series on the thousands of fake academic and scientific journals that are published by Indians but have, to some extent, a global reach. In a country rife with piracy and counterfeiting, one is compelled to again remind our publisher and printer readers that this is an issue that concerns them.

Academic and scholarly journals are an important aspect of science and the search for truth itself. Without going into the various systems of truth, let me just say that it was books of science and philosophy that spread European movable type printing around the world from the 15th century onwards and not just the spread of religion and Bible printing.

Our own languages and scripts have also over the years been formalized by mechanical and technological production and mass reproduction — typewriters for out scripts that used dead keys allowing the attachment of matras, metal type that required 400 elements for typesetting languages such as Hindi or the modern and more flexible digital creation of signs and shapes that are joined together by software.

It is a great irony, and perhaps even tragedy, that the same technology that has allowed our vernacular newspapers to thrive over the past 40 years has not led in the main, to the publishing or production of serious vernacular academic or scientific journals so far. However, the Internet, a technology that came after print, may yet in fact engender genuine scientific publishing in India and even in our now healthy languages thanks to smart cellphones.

The Indian publishing landscape has always suffered because for many years its best scientists, researchers and engineers only published in journals abroad. The IITs particularly ignored this important responsibility by refusing to create the culture of scientific publishing of research papers that are reviewed by peers and that can be experimentally reproduced or repudiated in labs by researchers anywhere. (Notably, IIM Ahmedabad from its inception did create a scholarly publishing culture.)

Partly because of our inactivity, global scientific and academic publishing enjoyed the benefits of Indians publishing abroad so much so that at one time, one out of every eight referees for any mathematics journal in the world was a mathematician of Indian origin. Our STM typesetting industry also thrived with doctorates working as editors and proofreaders for journals across the world.

The Internet, like any other technology, has been a double-edged sword for scientific publishing. In the beginning when journals had become very expensive to print and distribute, it seemed like a blessing and of course it made outsourcing and even science more global and accessible. But even in the early days of the Internet when journals began to be put on the Internet, problems arose.

Scientists and researchers freed from the static printed page (for which they had to a pay a page rate of something like US$ 15 to 30 even when their contributions had been peer reviewed and accepted for publication) got the idea that with Internet access their results could be more dynamic — in other words, re-edited and revised. Of course, this to a large extent undermined the 300- to 400-year-old tradition of scientific argument and peer reviewed scientific journals.

The next wonderful thing about the Internet was digital subscription and access to journals  — librarians around the world were able to pay and support up to date science journals without having to create the shelves for and monitor the whereabouts of journals. Then came open access journals so that individual subscriptions that ranged from US$ 300 to US$ 1000 for perhaps four quarterly issue of a journal were greatly reduced and often to zero.

Now with many unscrupulous fake academic publishers across India having been exposed by The Indian Express, together with an international group of investigative journalists, it is clear that scholarly publishing skills need to be developed and enforced with rigorous scientific review and ethics. This is a time to not only clean up one of the opportunistic misuses of the Internet and digital technology but also a time to get serious about creating a rational scientific and ethical discourse. There is value in knowledge, patents and copyrights. Why devalue the good scientists and scholars by not investing in rigorous academic and scientific publishing?

Naresh Khanna, editor@ippgroup.in