The academic community in India has been left shocked by the University Grants Commission’s decision last week to drop 4,305 journals from its list of over 38,000 officially approved publications. The move has dealt a blow to the future of researchers and college and university teachers. According to University Grants Commission regulations, researchers need one or two publications in approved journals in order to submit their theses, and the appointments and promotions of academics also depend on the journals they publish in.

Coming from an institution whose reason for existence, other than financing, is the maintenance of academic standards of universities and colleges in the country, the arbitrary manner in which this exercise has been conducted is disturbing.

Changing UGC regulations

The University Grants Commission’s master list of acceptable journals is of relatively recent origin. In its earlier regulations of 2010, the relevant departments in universities could determine which journals were publication-worthy, which they did with greater knowledge of the concerned discipline than an institution like the University Grants Commission, which has a broad brief.

But in July 2016, the higher education regulator introduced new regulations laying down the eligibility of academics for appointment and promotion. These were followed in January 2017 by the publication of a list of 32,000-odd journals in which academics who wished to be considered for appointment and promotion could publish. The route of making it to the list of approved journals was diverse, from inclusion in a known citation index, such as the Indian Citation Index, to being recommended by university departments. This created an inbuilt imbalance in favour of the citation indexes, as journals listed in them walked in, without being subject to the more rigorous criteria for assessment for journals sent in for inclusion by university departments.

As many as 4,102 journals out of the 4,305 rejected journals are those sent in for inclusion by university departments. Also, journals in the arts and humanities and social sciences were assessed by the same criteria as were journals in the sciences, an evidently questionable practice, given the different disciplinary requirements.

The ostensible purpose of the review of journals, which was carried out by a Standing Committee on Notification of Journals, is to check predatory, fake or questionable journals. Predatory journals are low-quality journals that have no editorial standards or peer review system, but publish papers of those who pay them money. The University Grants Commission claims that it re-examined the journals in question on the basis of complaints about their quality, unfounded claims and lack of adequate publication information. The committee claims that it examined the publishing practices of the journals with respect to rules of submission of manuscripts, charges for publication if any, the peer review process and so on. However, on a closer examination of the list, the exercise appears to have been somewhat arbitrary, careless, inexact, and lacking in transparency. One indicator is that, at best, only 10 predatory journals have been excluded, others remain, with one estimate putting the figure at 35.

There are 191 journals that have been suspended pending further evaluation. These include the Review of Development and Change, published by the Madras Institute of Development Studies, the journal of National University of Educational Planning and Administration and the journal of the Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata.

Researchers hit hard

The University Grants Commission’s decision to slash the list of officially approved journals will have an impact on the career prospects of academics already reeling under the Academic Performance Indicators system of judging eligibility for posts, which includes a category assessing them on papers they have published. “Not only me, but many of my colleagues in History, are feeling anxious, apprehensive and agitated, with this sudden decision of the UGC,” said Sudha Tiwari, one such researcher.

There is also consternation among research scholars who have published in these journals and now find they cannot submit their theses or dissertations. Shubneet, a scholar who intends to submit his thesis this semester, has published in a journal dropped from the list. “Such arbitrary decisions generate uncertainty among research scholars like us,” he said. This comes on top of other measures such as the imposition of the requirement of Academic Performance Indicators points and the National Eligibility Test even for ad hoc jobs.

Arbitrary exclusion

Some of the journals for which there is no apparent justification for exclusion are: Proceedings of Bihar History Congress, Proceedings of South Indian History Congress, Proceedings of Andhra Pradesh History Congress, Proceedings of Rajasthan History Congress, Aligarh Journal of Linguistics and Pragati, Anushilan, Shodh Pravaha, published by Benares Hindu University, Harvard Asia Pacific Review, Journal of the Oxford Centre of Buddhist Studies, journals from NCERT and the Indian Council of Historical Research, journal of the Department of Commerce, University of Delhi; and Critical Ethnic Studies by University of Minnesota Press. It seems that an extremely respected journal, Bengal Past and Present, has been rejected for not meeting the basic criterion of a website with details of its editors. The Economic and Political Weekly, Web Exclusives, which stands removed too, carries articles of equal merit as the print version, and distinguishing between them is specious. The removal of regional publications such as Navneet Samarpan and Parivartanacha Vaatsaru, further restricts an area already limited in its reach and scope. This would mean the further sidelining of scholars already at the margins of global and national platforms of research, with possibly an adverse impact on research issues of exploitation and discrimination along lines of class, caste and gender.

The deletion of the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress from the list of journals was contested by R Mahalakshmi, secretary of the Indian History Congress, who said: “A rigorous process of selection of papers is carried out, after a double review process by the sectional presidents every year and thereafter senior scholars in the field, with only the best few being published in the Proceedings.”

Saurabh Bajpai, an assistant professor at the University of Delhi, who has published a paper in the Proceedings, lamented, “I do not know if I will have the requisite points now for a permanent position.”

The entire issue of approval or rejection of journals from an officially decreed list highlights the dubious nature of an academic system in which a single centralised agency dictates pedagogical practices, curriculum, assessment models and now even research. It is not surprising that the journals shown the door are often those located away from the Centre, coming out of universities and independent minded professional organisations, rather than from mega corporate global publishing houses.