Over the past two weeks or so, newspapers in Vietnam have put predatory journals in spotlight. Central to the issue is 36 out of 50 candidates for national professorship promotion found to have published in predatory journals . This realization has sparked a huge public outcry in Vietnam, where scholars are highly revered.
A newspaper headline ‘screaming’ that 37/50 candidates for professorship promotion have published their work in predatory outlets.
In Vietnam, universities are not allowed to confer the title of professor to academic staff. The conferring of professorial title is done through a Soviet-style centralized system, whereby applicants submit their dossier to the so called “The State Council for Professorship” (I know it is a funny name). The dossier is then assessed by a discipline-specific panel which consists of 8–10 full professors. The assessment is heavily relied on the number of publications. According to the most recent guidelines, the number of peer-reviewed publications required for an associate professor and a full professor is 3 and 5, respectively. Applicant meets the criteria is then ‘recognized’ as ‘professor’ lifelong nationally. Then, the applicant needs to formally apply for a professorial position at the applicant’s university. There is no interview. In other words, the key task of the State Council for Professorship is to decide whether an applicant is worthy of professorship; the appointment of professorship is left to university.
There are only two ranks of professor in Vietnam: associate professor and full professor. There is no assistant professor. So, a fresh PhD graduate with absolutely no postdoc training can apply for recognition as an associate professor. It is a strange system but it does exist. As a result, the number of professors and associate professors in Vietnam has swelled to more than 15,000 in recent years.
Erosion of respect
In this year round, there were 50 applicants for professorial promotion (eg associate professor and full professor) in medicine. The applicants have been assessed by the review panel, and all have received a nod for a formal recognition from the Minister of Education and Training. However, since the publication of the list of candidates in the Council’s website, there have been a number of anonymous allegations that 16 of the 50 approved candidates did not met the criteria, because they had published in predatory journals!
Professor Nguyen Ngoc Chau, a biologist and a friend of mine, has in his own time meticulously examined the allegations and found that the allegations were true. Indeed, all 16 candidates have published in predatory / questionable journals, and all have used those publications as the basis for their promotion.
The popular media smelled a rort in the system. All prominent national newspapers dwelved into the affair, and they discovered an additional 20 candidates who had accumulated their academic credential based on predatory publications. So, in total, 36 out of 50 candidates have published their work in predatory journals. The actual number may be higher, but that remains to be assessed. Remember that the 36 candidates have been recommended by the State Council to be recognized as ‘professor’.
The failure of the State Council has many important implications. Vietnam is a country with a very long history of respecting education and revering scholars. It is thus not surprising that the affair has hurt the public’s feeling. The implication is that the national system of assessment has failed to identify appropriate candidates. More importantly, this system might have promoted wrong people in the past. The public was outraged that such senior and respected professors could commit unethical behavior in research and publication. After all, the public has come to the realization that the professors are like “emperor without clothes”. Most newspapers angrily accused the professors of being “lie” and “outright fraud”, and they called for sanction.
At the center of the affair is predatory publication. It is not easy to explain what is a predatory journal to colleagues who have limited experience in academic publication. Every explanation raises more questions, and it is clear that a universal definition is nearly impossible. Fortunately, a recent gathering of leading scholars and publishers has come to a consensus definition. The definition states that “Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterized by false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial and publication practices, a lack of transparency, and/or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices.” . That is a good start.
Let’s recap the definition: Predatory journals are outlets that masquerade as legitimate scientific journals publishing papers without peer-review while charging hefty fees. These outlets prioritize money over scientific quality, and that prioritization compromises their publication ethics that ultimately makes their science murky.
Vietnam’s academics are under pressure to publish, but there are no categorical guidelines as what constitute being a “peer-reviewed publication”. The vacuum of guidelines has created a wonderful opportunity for predatory journals to fill in the need of publication. In a previous analysis, I found more than 1000 publications from Vietnam in predatory outlets. I raised the issue in a Tuoi Tre’s article, but my concern has fallen on deaf ears.
However, the fact that so many candidates for professorship have published in predatory outlets has received public attention. Over the past week, I have been approached by many newspapers to comment on the issue. My recommendations to the State Council for Professorship are as follows:
First, the Council should consider only publications from legitimate journals or publishers. Legitimate journals are those sponsored or managed by legitimate professional and/or scientific societies. Legitimate academic publishers include, among others, Elsevier, Springer-Nature, Sage, Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Routledge, Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Academic Press.
Second, the Council should consider only original papers as a basis for promotion. At present, a case report or a review paper is counted equivalent to an original publication. As a result, there are many candidates who have published a lot of reviews and case reports, but very very few original papers, but they are still recognized as ‘professor’. To me, that is a loop hole that needs to be closed.
Third, the Council should consider the candidate’s role in a publication. At present, the candidate’s contribution to a publication is averaged out by the number of authors in the publication. By this rule, if the publication has 5 authors, then the candidate’s score is 1/5 even if the candidate is the driver of the research project. It is utterly unfair. I propose that the Council considers only first-authored or correspondence-authored papers first, and then co-authored papers subsequently.
Fourth, journal prestige should be included as a criterion of assessment. At present, a publication in the Lancet is counted as equivalent to a publication in a specialty journal or even a local Vietnamese journal. That simple assessment is obviously not fair and needs to be rectified.
Fifth, the Council should focus on research quality and impact rather than quantity of publications. The best way to evaluate the quality of a publication is to read it, but this is not quite feasible for a large pool of candidates. Perhaps, the journal impact factor (JIF) can be used as an indirect indicator of research quality. Yes, I know that JIF is a flawed metric, but it is still a useful measure for practical evaluation of academic publication. The impact of a publication can be assessed by its non-self citations.
At present, the Council pre-determines a specific number of publications (eg 3 for associate professors or 5 for full professors), and I think it is not a sensible approach, because the number of publications does not tell us about research quality and impact.
Now, the Hirsch index (H-index) is the individual level metric that captures both the quantity and citation impact of an individual’s publications. Thus, I strong recommend the Council uses the H-index as a basis for identifying suitable candidate for professorship promotion. The following table may serve as a reference of H-index for various academic ranks.
Ref: Diamond et al. Gender Differences in Publication Productivity, Academic Rank, and Career Duration Among U.S. Academic Gastroenterology Faculty. Acad Med. 2016;91:1158–1163.
I think the most pressing thing is publication ethics. As far as I know, Vietnam’s universities do not have any policy on peer-reviewed publication, let alone publication ethics. And, it is the lack of institutional policy that has driven academics to publish in predatory outlets. Therefore, universities must develop ethical codes of publication that are in line with the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) .
I believe that by adopting the above recommendations Vietnam will gradually build up a strong academic community. I hope that my recommendations this time will not fall onto deaf ears. :-)
 “Predatory publication” is the term coined by Jeff Beall (an academic librarian from the University of Colorado) in 2010. He came up with the term after watching the phenomenal growth of this industry and the plea of scientists around the world for his advice. Eventually, Beall developed a list of predatory journals according to his criteria, and this list has been enormously helpful to million of scientists worldwide. However, due to continual legal threats, he had to close the list, and in the mean time, predatory publication has been thriving.
 Wager E. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE): Objectives and achievements 1997–2012. Presse Med. 2012;41(9 Pt 1):861–6.