Why do scholars publish in bad journals? Or are they not bad journals? An editorial in Nigerian GUARDIAN: EDITORIAL/OPINION Monday, February 21, 2005 examines the issue:
Low quality of academic journals
RECENTLY the National Universities Commission (NUC) lamented what it described as "the low quality of academic journals being dished out by university academics." The Commission apparently sampled a collection of curriculum vitae of Nigerian academics and was dismayed to discover that at least 23 per cent of the articles cited therein were published in sub-standard journals.
According to the Commission's findings, about 90 per cent of the articles in every issue of a journal are authored by the faculty staff with a few from friends in other universities to create a semblance of spread. In fact, in some instances, lamented the Commission's Executive Secretary, Professor Peter Okebukola, "the entire review, editorial and publishing processes are conducted within the confines of the bedroom of a self-appointed editor-in-chief". In essence, the journals in question are produced not necessarily to advance knowledge but to secure promotion.
The practice elevates undeserving academics to senior positions; it raises mediocrity over excellence and threatens the integrity of academics who work hard to raise standards. This has created a situation in which academics already in positions of seniority cannot lay claim to a single article in an international journal but have published all their papers in "road-side journals". If unchecked, the Executive Secretary warned, the proliferation of sub-standard journals could erode the credibility of the whole educational system.
Unfortunately, the Commission has not revealed the parameters it used in separating "sub-standard" from "standard" journals. It is also silent on the time-line it used in determining the sub-standard journals. How far back in time did the sampling go? Is this a recent phenomenon or has it been in existence since university education began in the country? Does the sampling cover all universities-federal, state and private? Does it cover all faculties and departments? Is the distinction between sub-standard and standard based on domiciliation, that is, whether the journals are published locally or overseas? These questions are germane and we would have wished that the Commission made its assessment parameters available to the public.
Universities are the fountainhead of knowledge, the centres of scholarly research and teaching. Academics, along with their students, are the tools through which universities advance the frontiers of knowledge. Academics perform their duties through research and disseminate the results of their research through teaching and publishing. Academics are expected to be fully engaged in research at the cutting edge of theory and praxis. Their research should not only involve critical analysis of substantive issues, it should also offer solutions to society's immediate and long-term problems. Their research should feed directly into the material they teach their students; it should be disseminated to their peers and the international community through publication in scholarly journals, working papers, textbooks, newsletters, research notes and presentations at conferences and workshops.
However, for academics to discharge their responsibilities professionally and qualitatively the environment in which they operate should be conducive to the pursuit of knowledge. Academics should not work under extraneous circumstances, restrictions or coercion. Universities should be adequately funded. Academic research, writing and teaching should be unfettered and should not be constrained or impeded by preconceptions of any kind. Academics should have the tools and the freedom to do their work.
Academic freedom is a necessary precondition for the proper performance of the educational responsibilities of academics. This is why, throughout the world, academic freedom serves as the operational idiom of university administration. The concept is instituted as a right to allow academics the freedom "to investigate their respective fields of knowledge and express their views without fear of restraint or dismissal from office."
The pay-off is that as the medium through which society, nay humanity, advances the frontiers of knowledge, academics will exhibit competence; their research and publications will reflect excellence and meet the highest standards of professional integrity. Their performance and progress will be devoid of extraneous considerations such as nepotism, sycophancy, political or religious affiliations.
Unfortunately, the situation in Nigerian universities, to say the least, is not conducive to the attainment of academic excellence. The nation's educational sector, including the universities, is hopelessly under-funded. Facilities are inadequate or dilapidated. Libraries lack the latest books and scholarly journals. Classrooms are not conducive to teaching.
Academics teach large classes yet lack the audio-visual and information technology tools to perform effectively. They are overburdened with teaching responsibilities which are totally out of proportion to their responsibilities as researchers and teachers. Huge and impossible to manage student-teacher ratios, one academic teaching as many as 1,000 or more students at a time, leave little room for meaningful research. It is not surprising that no university in Nigeria, in fact in Africa, was counted among the 200 best universities in the world. Even the autonomy bill, which the National Assembly passed months ago, is yet to see the light of day. In the circumstances, the NUC should not be surprised at the existence of sub-standard journals. It is a reflection of the decay in the nation's tertiary education system.
Still, there is a case to be made against the situation in academia and the attitude of academics themselves. It used to be that in times past, university faculties automatically retained their best products by co-opting them into the academia. That sadly is no longer the case. The academic profession is no longer attractive to the best brains. The best and the brightest have followed the brain-drain train to work in more edifying and fulfilling institutions. Those who are left behind are consumed by the need to meet the demands of everyday living and are therefore distracted from pursuing the fundamentals of their professional calling. Some are not adequately trained to excel as academics; being mediocre in quality they cannot rise to the level of excellence which will allow their articles to pass the necessary peer review process for international journals. Yet, as the axiom goes, they have to publish or perish, so they publish in what the NUC has characterised as sub-standard journals.
They also explore extraneous circumstances to influence Faculty and Senate Appointments and Promotion boards. They get promoted even when they do not merit it and in the process contribute to instituting mediocrity in our university system. The problem then is not that of the government alone; academics will do well to sanitise the mechanisms for elevation and advancement in our universities. They should channel their energies towards research and contribute qualitatively to advancing the frontiers of knowledge.
Granted that Nigerian academics operate in a difficult environment, but that is not enough since the university system cannot exist as an island of adequacy in a country enmeshed in poverty and want. Like other operators in other sectors of our society academics should see their calling as a challenge of development. Some among them do in fact compete with the best in the world, in spite of the difficult circumstances in which they work. The others should emulate them and make excellence their operational idiom. Those who cannot cope would do well to leave academia and utilise their talents in other areas.