How did Mbulaheni Maguvhe become a UNISA Professor?

Belinda Bozzoli on the problems with the SABC chairperson's publication record

After a dismal showing before the special Parliamentary Committee investigating the SABC, many were puzzled that the Chair of this vitally important and deeply troubled state owned enterprise appeared to be so out of touch.  Mbulaheni Maguvhe, who is described as a Professor of Inclusive Education on the UNISA website, appeared not to grasp many of the questions put to him, or indeed to have any clear idea of the shenanigans in the SABC.

Was he deeply disingenuous, some asked? Or had he, perhaps lacking the sharpness of intellect normally required in a Board Chair, become a mere pawn in the hands of other, shrewder minds? If the latter, how was it that he had been awarded the title of Professor by a leading University?

A look at his publications, freely available on the UNISA website or through those staples of academic research assessment, “Google Scholar” and “Publish or Perish”, as well as to his CV submitted to Parliament before his appointment, only heightens the confusion. To explain why this is, some exposition of the operations of the arcane world of academic appointments and promotions is needed before going any further.

The rank of “Professor” (and Associate Professor – one rank lower) is granted to academics who have, over several years, excelled in the two main dimensions of their jobs – teaching and research. The higher you go up on the promotions ladder the more important research becomes as an indicator of your achievements. Excellence in teaching, while obviously necessary, is not considered sufficient to warrant promotion to a Professorship.

Academics are not meant simply to reproduce and convey knowledge to others; they are also meant to create new knowledge, to “advance the frontiers of knowledge”, so to speak, and must do so through doing the best possible research, and making their work available to the wider academic world through publication.

A substantive research record is expected. This research must be original, honest, replicable where appropriate, and well-articulated. These qualities need to be assessed by other academics, and so everything an academic publishes needs to be “peer reviewed” before it is placed before a wider, and ever-critical academic audience; and published by a reputable publisher. When a promotions or appointment committee examines an academic CV, these are the qualities it looks for.

The one thing an academic should not do, then, is publish in places where peer review is inadequate, and the publisher is not reputable. This automatically discredits the research concerned, and raises questions about its originality, honesty, replicability, and quality of articulation. Any committee worth its salt knows this well.

The publishing academic needs to plan carefully where to display his or her research achievements. For example, the Academy of Science of South Africa has warned local academics and Universities about one weakness in our local research landscape – the tendency to publish only in journals published and edited within a local, University department.

Such journals, it is said, have flourished, and multiplied, and are often inward-looking, parochial and tainted with patronage. Easy pickings for a lazy academic. Selection committees usually expect some indication on the part of its Professorial candidates that they have ventured intellectually beyond their own local universe.

However there lies a second, greater danger - what has, on the international landscape, become known as the “Predatory Journal”. These are by now a well-known hazard in the field of academic publishing, and academics regularly circulate warnings about them. Run as rackets, they pretend respectability through plausible websites , but in reality they pester academics for articles, fail to peer review them, charge for publication, and basically make money out of academics whose ambition exceeds their ability.

Selection committees that fall for these publications are likely to be naïve, or worse. One of the most reputable critics of these journals, Jeffrey Beall, describes the practices of these publishers in detail on his blog. They have also been described on Wikipedia as having the following characteristics:

Accepting articles quickly with little or no peer review or quality control,[24] including hoax and nonsensical papers.[10][25][26]

Notifying academics of article fees only after papers are accepted.[24]

Aggressively campaigning for academics to submit articles or serve on editorial boards.[17]

Listing academics as members of editorial boards without their permission,[1][27] and not allowing academics to resign from editorial boards.[1][28]

Appointing fake academics to editorial boards.[29]

Mimicking the name or web site style of more established journals.[28]

Misleading claims about the publishing operation, such as a false location.[1]

Improper use of ISSNs.[1]

Fake[30][31] or non-existent impact factors.

Two predatory publishers are of interest here: the Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, and KRE Enterprises. The Mediterranean Journal has long been exposed as predatory. Articles in Times Live, the Mail & Guardian, The Conversation and others, reported widespread concerns about this journal, its host publisher (which has its headquarters in a carpark somewhere in Rome, but appears to be actually run out of Albania), and the many Unisa academics using it as an outlet during 2014 and 2015.

This expose and others led to the Department of Higher Education and Training, and several Universities to issue warnings to academic staff about taking care to avoid such journals. For example, soon afterwards, the Stellenbosch University Research Office issued the following notice to academics:

We would like to bring to your attention the recent correspondence as received from the Department of Higher Education & Training (DHET). According to this the journal  Mediterranean Journal of Social Science, has been removed from the list of accredited journals and specifically the IBSS (International Bibliography of Social Sciences) index. Articles published in it since the 2013-output year will not receive subsidy or internal incentive funding. ProQuest, who is the custodian of IBSS, has removed this journal as well as all other journals published by the Mediterranean Center of Social & Education Research from all their databases. ProQuest has also undertaken to investigate all publishers listed on the Beall list of so-called predatory publishers in order to identify similar practices(.

Researchers are urged to ensure that, regardless of the accreditation status of a journal, it adheres to sound publishing principles before submitting papers for publication.

But a second predatory enterprise appears to have taken hold here. A prominent publishing enterprise which clearly and unambiguously falls into this category is Kamra-Raj Enterprises (also known as KRE).  It has been on Beall’s list for several years, and clearly conforms to the description of a certain type of predatory publisher.

As Beall describes this type, they begin operations with a large “fleet” of journals, often using a common template to quickly create each journal’s home page; they provide insufficient or no information about author fees, later sending a “surprise” invoice to the author; they do not allow search engines to ‘crawl” their content; and they may even lock their PDFs, making it difficult to check for plagiarism.

KRE publishing (its very thin and unconvincing website can be found here) claims to be based in New Delhi, publishes a “fleet” of journals and is popular amongst authors from developing country destinations - the majority of authors publishing in its journals are from Nigeria and India, with South Africa coming a close third.  (As Beall says, predatory fleets of journals often are indeed geared towards getting authors from developing countries to publish with them, sometimes with “vanity” fake European addresses.

Vanity Presses also engage in similar scams, writing to academics offering to publish their dissertations as “books” which they do without scrutiny, and then charging them for it.

Returning to Prof Maguvhe’s publications: from his CV, Unisa and Publish or Perish, he has 13 clearly identified publications in journals, the majority of them co-authored. He claims, in the CV, that he has an academic book, “Teaching Biology to Blind Learners”, published in Germany in 2009 by VDM Publishers. A book would normally be considered a pre-requisite for a scholar in the social sciences. The book does not appear on any of the other websites.

Of the 13 journal publications, 3 are with the Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences (and these still appear on the Unisa website, despite the widespread discrediting of this journal). Two of these are in the same issue, which is highly unusual in the normal course of events, but which is characteristic of predatory journal practices. And 3 appear in KRE publications – the Anthropologist (2) and Disability in Context (1), both highly dubious journals.

Nearly half of his publications, therefore, are in predatory journals.

A further four, incidentally, are in journals which could be described as fitting the Academy of Sciences description of local and parochial, but that pales into insignificance in comparison with the six that are deeply dubious in every way.

Furthermore the claimed “book” is said to be published by VDM Publishers, Germany, which is, according to Jeffrey Beall, a “Vanity Press” of sorts. This is his description of it and another similar publisher:

Two special cases: the academic publishers LapLambert/VDM and Nova Science

These are NOT vanity publishers in the traditional sense because they don’t charge authors for their services, but neither do they offer the level of editorial oversight that a reputable University Press would. They are problematic for both authors and librarians.

Academics are most likely to encounter the German publisher VDM via an email solicitation to “publish” their Master’s or PhD thesis from Lambert Academic Press or LAPLambert, but they also publish scores of non-peer-reviewed academic writing, including undergraduate papers. Many universities are wise to this publisher and explicitly state that publishing with LAP will not count toward your publication record.

The puzzle then is how a selection committee was persuaded that this was an adequate research record for professorial status. We know now as a fact that

- Prof Maguvhe’s contains several publications in discredited journals

- Prof Maguvhe’s claimed book is published by a disreputable publisher and does not appear on any standard search engines for academic assessment

- Prof Maguvhe falls short of most of the requirements for Professorial standing.

Does this mean that Unisa is less than careful about its assessment of its academic applicants for jobs and promotions? And does it mean that the SABC was misled by Unisa’s willingness to accept this flawed CV as of Professorial quality?

Professor Maguvhe’s appointment to the position of Board Chair was surely influenced by the general perception that persons of Professorial standing have demonstrated their intellectual stature to the satisfaction of the University. From the publications appearing on the public record, this is not the case for Maguvhe.

Belinda Bozzoli