A year of blogging: the most popular posts of 2020

A new year always brings with it a spur to reflection: looking back, taking stock, and looking forward. So to start with, has this blog done what I’d hoped – and how might it do better?

My main hopes in continuing the blog have always been to share my own work, and to engage in dialogue, on topics that interest me. I was intrigued, then, to find that the two most popular posts of 2020 were something on predatory publishing that I published some years ago, and an open question about holistic evaluation that I didn’t answer.

These are interestiing themes, but my main focus is on adult learning (including its history) and social capital. As you can see, both of these topics attracted reasonable numbers of readers, as did an old post on the EU’s Erasmus scheme which found new readers this year after the UK government announced that it would no longer take part.

As a writer, I’m more than satisfied with the numbers who read these posts, and I only hope you found them useful. No one knows how many people read the average academic paper, but it’s widely believed that the numbers are very small indeed, and far smaller than those of you who check out my blog. And I get far more feedback, both through the comments section and via social media, than for any of my more academic publications.

I’m also struck by how international this readership is. The vast majority of you are based in the world’s richest countries, but quite a few of you come from middle income countries where English is a second or third language. Brazil looks particularly strong: obrigado!

In fact, thank you all for taking time out in 2020 to read this blog. I hope you continue to find it useful, and send me your feedback in the year ahead. My best wishes to you for 2021, and may it be happier, more productive, and healthier than the last twelve months.

How progressive is Progressive Academic Publishing?

New Picture

I recently read a paper by two academics on the governance of lifelong learning – an important topic, that has been widely debated in western nations but not nearly so widely studied in the very different African context. The authors are academics from Botswana, and their paper examines the challenges and potential of promoting a complex field like lifelong learning in their own country.

I enjoyed the paper, and tweeted a link to it. I was, though, concerned about the journal in which it appeared, and about the pricing practices of its publisher, Progressive Academic Publishing. The journal is called the European Journal of Research and Reflection in Educational Sciences, and a glance at its content suggests that the papers appear in a very basic format. It is hard to see what value is added, other than giving the papers a volume and issue number for the journal.

New Picture2

All journals published by Progressive Academic Publishing are open access, meaning that the contents can be read for free online. And the website claims that they are peer reviewed, though I’m not sure what that actually means. You won’t be surprised to learn that EJRRES, like all other journals from the same publisher, charges an author processing fee of $90 or over per paper, which for African academics is a hefty sum.

I wouldn’t mind knowing more about this journal and the high quality standards it claims to maintain. The editor-in-chief is said to be a Dr. Elizabeth Kilbride from the UK; I’ve tried a Google search, and found no academics with that name in the UK, though there is one lab technician at a Scottish university. One other UK person, from Coventry University, is said to be on the editorial board, but finding him on Coventry’s website proved beyond my abilities. The company’s postal address is on a business park just off the M42. It was included by Jeffrey Beall in his list of predatory publishers.

Of course, none of this necessarily tells us anything about the quality of individual papers appearing in Progressive Academic Publishing’s journals. But it does help me answer one of my own questions about this type of journal: who writes for them? And if it is academics from Africa who choose this way of reaching an audience, what does this tell us about the opportunities they have for publishing in more established and – frankly – reputable journals?


Unattractive journal author services from “International Research Promotion”

Another day, and another crop of emails inviting me to give someone money to help me publish.This latest one is signed by a Dr P. Saha of International Research Promotion. As you can see, Dr Saha is offering to check my papers for plagiarism (thanks for that!), arrange peer review reports (authored by whom exactly?), format my papers to journal requirements, and translate my papers.


New Picture (1)

You won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve tried to check International Research Promotion out. They say that they have a head office in London, in premises that are also apparently used by 53 other companies, and which are said to be run as a commercial mail-drop service. They also claim offices in Toronto (again, in premises advertised as a mail-drop address) and in “Hooghly, West Bengal, India”, which is an administrative district and not an address.

I won’t be calling on their services, and I wouldn’t advise any other academic to do so either. They are offering nothing that you cannot organise for yourself, and probably a lot more effectively – just ask colleagues, or your university research office, if in doubt. And although I do not know whether or not the two bodies are connected, they share most of their name with the International Research Promotion Council, which Jeffrey Beall thinks is a ‘scam’.



Who or what is “Anthrologia”?

An email tells me that I have a subscription to a journal called Anthrologia. I’ve never heard of it before, so I checked out Beall’s List of Predatory Journals, and found that it wasn’t mentioned, which it would have been if it were seriously dodgy.


Image from Wikimedia Commons

So I had a quick look at its website (you’ll find a link here), to find out who publishes it and what it aims to do. First of all, Anthrologia styles itself as a networking organisation for academic researchers in what it calls ‘the soft sciences’. Its particular focus is on inter-regional networking between Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, and it claims to have over 200,000 ‘members’.

Second, it is based in the unit for Communication and Cultural Innovation and Support, University of Malaya, a highly reputably institution, and lists a number of well-regarded bodies among its supporters, including the social science departments of several prestigious western universities. Third, it does not charge members to belong, nor does it seem to charge authors to publish their work.

No doubt Anthrologia forms part of the University of Malaya’s strategy for raising its visibility and status, but that seems to me a reasonable goal. After all, researchers who decide to become involved will hardly be unaware of the tendency of universities to seek prestige.

Taken together, anyway, this information suggests to me that Anthrologia is a kosher outfit, and not an attempt to diddle the unwary out of their money. This being so, why did the organisation behind it take the rather bizarre decision to send people unsolicited emails that look like spam, and that invite us to read or write for their journal? Surely they are aware that we are all on our guard for dodgy journals and iffy learned societies?


A dodgy journal and my brush with celebrity

From the Wikipedia entry for Miley Cyrus

From the Wikipedia entry for Miley Cyrus

I just had an email from Miley Cyrus. Or to be more precise, the email came from someone calling themselves “Mili Cyrus”.

At the bottom was the signature of one Dr. Kathleen M. Everling, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Tyler, inviting me to contribute to a journal of which she is editor. I won’t be writing for the Journal of Education and Human Development, whose publication processing fee for a research paper is 200 $US, and is published by a body calling itself the American Research Institute for Policy Development.

This email could be kosher, but it looks to me like another bunch of chancers who are taking advantage of – and probably damaging – the open access movement. I’ve blogged on this topic before. But I thank Mili Cyrus, whoever you are, for allowing me to post an entirely off-topic image of the qeeun of twerking.

A legal requirement for open access?

Last Thursday, the German state of Baden-Württemberg approved a new law on higher education. It covers quite a number of areas, from access to degree study to an Ombudsman system for doctoral research students, but it is the section on open access publishing that has attracted far the most attention.

Under the new law, universities are required to support their researchers in exercising their right to a non-commercial reproduction of their work after a period of one year. As the publishers do not accept that researchers have any such ‘right’, it is entirely unsurprising that they are bitterly critical of this provision.

Theresia Bauer, the Green Party minister who guided the law through parliament, argues that open access is desirable in principle as a way of informing public opinion. She also cites more practical grounds: the public already pay for the research, and the rising price of journal subscriptions means that even university libraries struggle to pay once more for the published findings.

Conservative opposition politicians have supported the publishers, arguing that it contravenes copyright law. Some prominent academics have even argued that the requirement to make their publicationsavailable in an institutional is an attack on academic freedom.

Mercedes-Benz-welt, Stuttgart

Mercedes-Benz-Welt, Stuttgart

You might not know much about Baden-Württemberg, but that doesn’t make it a minor backwater. It has nearly 11m inhabitants and its capital, Stuttgart, is home to some of Germany’s best-known quality car manufacturers. It could serve as a model of the successful, dynamic city-region, with a high density of researchers among its population. The state also houses a thriving wine industry and the beer is pretty good too (I once enjoyed a pint – yes, a pint – in a bar that claimed to have been Hegel’s regular when he was a student).

If Baden-Württemberg chose to declare independence from the rest of the federal republic, it would be one of Europe’s most prosperous and attractive countries. So I am starting to wonder what would happen if the Scottish Government adopted a similar principle, and insisted that all academics in publicly funded universities in Scotland should similarly make their work available online.

If Holyrood were to reach such a decision, they would find themselves in open conflict with the UK Government, which has opted for the far more publisher-friendly model of ‘gold open access’. Picking fights with Westminster is what Alex Salmond likes best, so long as he is on a winning wicket. In this case, I am pretty sure that he would find widespread support for ‘green open access’, both in the research community and among the wider public who pay for our research.



A decidedly odd thing we do in academic publishing

I’ve been reading a book called Space, Place and Inclusive Learning. The title is slightly misleading, as most of the chapters are about initial education in schools and universities, but the book is an interesting illustration of how concepts of space and place are helping to inform educational research.

It is a sign of our digital times that the ten chapters originally appeared as a special double issue of a journal. Nothing wrong with that: one consequence of digitisation is that you can produce the same material in different formats for little extra cost, and presumably the publisher is hoping to sell a few more copies of the journal by repackaging it as a ‘book’, while editors and authors get to add an extra output to their CVs.

But here’s the thing. Right at the start of the ‘book’ are two pages asking readers who cite the chapters to ‘use the original page numbering for each article’, along with the standard referencing for the original journal. My guess is that this is about bibliometrics: it may be convenient for your career to get two separate publications from the same paper, but it is decidedly inconvenient if the result is to split the citations between them and thus reduce the impact ranking of your work.

I suspect that most readers who cite the material will please themselves as to how they reference the chapters. But in a digital world of academic publishing, it is ironic that anyone should try to control how other academics cite their work. In the case of this ‘book’, it is doubly ironic in that its central theme is to do with space and place – and triply ironic in that there isn’t a chapter on the digital spaces of online learning.

My entry in Who’s Who

This morning, I opened a letter asking me to confirm my proposed entry in Who’s Who. It comprised six lines, with a mixture of contact details, website, and job title. I had to correct any errors, then sign, date and return the form, to an address in Berlin.

This is, of course, another dodgy ‘publisher’, targeting academics and presumably businesses. On the letter head, the word’s Who’s Who are in capitals; below that, in very small print indeed, is the qualifier: In (European) Commerce and Industry. And in very, very small print it emerges that there is a charge of €399, and that the signed form confirming my details is deemed to be a formal order for this service.

Right at the very bottom of the letter are the company’s contact details and – ominously – the ‘Venue of Litigation’. I tried searching for the company – Buchvertrieb Wockel – but could not find a website. Their address is shared with a hairdresser and a Chinese restaurant.

Why I’m not writing a chapter about lifelong learning

I’ve just rejected an invitation to write an entry for the International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences. The editors wanted me to write 5,000 words covering life course approaches to education and learning. It’s an easy enough task, and it is important to ensure that our field is well represented in multi-disciplinary collections like this, so normally I’d have been happy to get on with the job.

Earlier this year, I joined a growing group of academics who are taking action against commercial publishers who block public access to research. Elsevier, who are publishing this Encyclopedia, are a particular focus of attention because they have so actively lobbied governments, especially in the USA, to enact legislation blocking the free exchange of information. They also charge exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions to individual journals, then offer discounts to libraries who buy ‘bundles’ of journals (many of which they do now want).

This is an enormously profitable business. In 2010, Elsevier reported a profit margin of 36% on revenues of $3.2 billion. Very little of this makes its way back to academics or their universities. Like most people, I never expected to make money from academic publishing, so let me be very clear that I am not boycotting Elsevier because I want a fatter slice of the pie.

The first edition of this Encyclopedia is still available, apparently, at the price of €7,360. Elsevier offered me a fee of $100 for my chapter – just 2 cents a word, or 1 cent after tax (and we could write pages about that as well).

There’s nothing wrong with making a living. But academic research is largely funded from the public purse – yet commercial publishers ensure that the public never get to see most of it, except in the garbled form of a press report. According to the specimen contract, Elsevier allow authors ‘the right to post the Contribution on a secure network (not accessible to the public) within your institution’.

Note that qualification – not accessible to the public. In short, those who have paid for my research. I find this abhorrent, and that is why I am a supporter of open access publishing, which makes academic research available online. It isn’t the answer to all our prayers, and it doesn’t resolve the problems of ensuring that our research is understood and accessible. That is another challenge. In the meantime, I’m supporting the Cost of Knowledge movement, and encourage others to do likewise.

For details of the Cost of Knowledge boycott, see: http://thecostofknowledge.com/