Perverse Incentives and the Political Economy of South African Academic Journal Publishing

Amongst the items usually under discussion in academia are peer review and the alleged unreasonable profits made by multinational publishing firms.1 Allied to these are issues of open access. Finally, the question of predatory journals that prey on the ‘publish or perish’ syndrome is a growing concern. These four topics background more specific concerns addressed here regarding the issue of incentive-seeking by South African universities, enabled by the unique economics of academic journal publishing in South Africa. This uniqueness is illustrated in the final section which draws on the textured experience of a number of editors and production editors based in South Africa who have commented, some multiple times, on earlier drafts of this analysis. My conclusion is that the business of academic journal publishing has, as a consequence of the way in which research is funded from the public purse, become the business of subsidising aspects of the business of education.

South African universities earn substantial rewards from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) when their affiliates (academics, students and honorary appointments) publish in the journals that comprise ‘the DHET-accredited list’. The benefit of this DHET incentive mechanism has been a significantly increased publication output and amplified productivity, through encouraging more academics to engage in research and publication.

However, the negative outcome is that this system drives many universities to become rent-seeking, or at minimum, engage in the pursuit of perverse incentives. Rent-seeking is:

The process whereby organisations or individuals expend resources to obtain actions from state institutions that allow these actors to earn ‘rents’ in excess of what they would earn in the hypothetical scenario of a competitive market.

Allied to my use of rent-seeking is the term ‘perverse incentive’, that is, an unintended and sometimes undesirable outcome that contravenes the intention of the incentive’s designers, in this case the state’s policymakers. Incentive payments for publication in journals is unique to South Africa.

The hard data identifying incentive-seeking behaviour with regard to (1) universities, (2) specific journals and (3) even specific authors, has been summated in omnibus quantitative surveys conducted by the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST, Stellenbosch University) for the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf). My analysis draws directly on this hard data.

Incentive-seeking behaviour involves effort by private interests to capture excess rent/surplus by influencing the state’s use of its power. Social harm is thereby caused in two main ways, the first of which is through distortion in the allocation of resources, the details of which depend on what precisely the rent-seeking concerns. The second is through the costs incurred by those private (in our case, public universities) interests in seeking to secure this outcome. DHET’s financial incentive scheme encourages publication through the way that resources are transferred to universities. This incentive occurs in the state’s generation of a new form of ‘surplus’ – one that typifies the knowledge economy in which information becomes an intangible commercial good – that can be pursued by researchers.

The rules for accessing that surplus are weak, as will become evident below. The use of extrinsic incentives, however, leads to rent-seeking behaviour at lower levels. The publication churn in predatory or low quality journals is one response to the incentive. Another is the policy adopted by some institutions to allocate a portion of the incentive directly to individuals as taxable income. Anecdotal evidence further reveals corrupt agreements by some individuals who have deliberately published in known predatory, but nevertheless accredited titles, like the Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences. >> Click here to download the extract and keep reading

By Keyan G. Tomaselli
Originally Published in the Junctures 20 December 2019