Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

Leuven University Library, interior view

King’s London, bogus science, author mills, and predatory publishers

About this post: This is a weekly roundup of blog posts, online articles and other content about Higher Education, language teaching and learning and academic writing that appeared online in December 2015.

There are a number of misconceptions about academic and scientific worlds, and the round-up of stories from this week’s academic journalism seeks to address some of them. The first one is that the people running the universities know what they are doing (hmmm!). The second story questions the veracity of the science that is reported to the public. The third one, focussing on academic fraud, challenges assumptions of honesty in scientific publishing; and the last story invites us to reflect on the costs of disseminating academic knowledge.

King’s College London no longer a college?

A bizarre story that made the rounds this week concerned the plan, by King’s College London (KCL), to rebrand itself as King’s London. This unusual decision was apparently prompted by a concern that people outside the UK might be misled by the word College into thinking that KCL was not a bona fide university. According to Times Higher Education, the redesign, which set the university back by around £300,000, has not been well received:

Various commenters […] also criticised the wisdom of removing the college moniker, with Reece Warren claiming that “King’s London sounds like more like an aftershave than a credible university”. Martijn Wallage agreed, stating that “the proposed new name lacks a noun to indicate that this is a university”. Reehan Aslam claimed that “Kings London sounds more like a train station than a world renowned university”.

In light of the backlash, KCL appear to be reconsidering the plan.

More to read: Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University, has made some interesting remarks on the decision. Not a long time ago, Trinity College Dublin also decided that the word “college” was confusing potential students, and briefly considered rebranding themselves as “Trinity College, the University of Dublin”. Von Prondzynski has some choice comments on that plan as well.

On bogus science

In last week’s Cross Check (published by Scientific American) John Horgan lists a number of insights that he wishes his teachers would give him, if he were starting his career today. Among them is the following reminder:

Researchers competing for grants, fame, glory and tenure often—indeed usually–make exaggerated or false claims, which scientific journals and other media vying for readers eagerly disseminate. The more popular a field is, the more likely its peer-reviewed propositions are to be erroneous. […] Science doesn’t need more public-relations flaks. It needs tough, informed critics, who seek to distinguish bogus from legitimate claims, who ask, Whom does this idea or innovation really benefit?

Peer reviews for sale?

There are lots of dirty little secrets in academic publishing: predatory journals, spamferences, author mills, pseudometrics, and more. Recently, there was news about researchers “peer reviewing” their own manuscripts, and if you thought that was low, you are in for a surprise. According to a statement by the Committee On Publication Ethics (COPE), predatory operations have now began to sell peer reviews:

…[I]nvestigations at several journals suggests that some agencies are selling services, ranging from authorship of pre-written manuscripts to providing fabricated contact details for peer reviewers during the submission process and then supplying reviews from these fabricated addresses. Some of these peer reviewer accounts have the names of seemingly real researchers but with email addresses that differ from those from their institutions or associated with their previous publications, others appear to be completely fictitious. We are unclear how far authors  of the submitted manuscripts are aware that the reviewer names and email addresses provided by these agencies are fraudulent. However, given the seriousness and potential scale of the investigation findings, we believe that the scientific integrity of manuscripts submitted via these agencies is significantly undermined.

More to read: Coverage of fraud in academic publishing is very extensive, and increasing. Here’s another story on journal paper mills in China, which appeared in Slate this week.

How much is your library paying for journal access?

Ted Bergstrom, an economist at the University of California Santa Barbara, and one of the founders of the website, published an interesting article on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog on how much academic publishers charge libraries for access to their journals. Some key insights include: (a) for-profit publishers, (e.g., Elsevier, Wiley, Taylor & Francis) charge three to ten times more per citation than non-profit publishers do; (b) prices vary widely, and inexplicably, between universities; (c) research-intensive universities pay considerably more money for journal access than universities and colleges that focus on teaching. Here’s an extract that discusses why this is so (emphasis mine):

Profit-maximizing publishers will attempt to sell access to each buyer for a price  close to the most that buyer is willing to pay. Thus journal sales becomes a guessing game in which publishers try to set each buyer’s price just a little below that buyer’s maximum willingness to pay. In the early days of online publishing, publishers had a reliable clue of a library’s willingness to pay for their list of journals. This clue is the amount that a library spent on paper journals in the late 1990s, before internet publishing became the standard.  In the initial Big Deal contracts,  publishers simply calculated the total amount that each library had been spending on paper subscriptions. They then offered universities 5-year contracts that started with a price 10-15% greater than their expenditure on paper and with a 7% annual increase. For this price, the university would continue to receive the paper subscriptions it had in the past and would have electronic access to the publisher’s entire list. In the absence of hard bargaining on the university’s part, this contract would be renewed at the end of 5 years with new 5-year contracts with annual price increases on the order of 5%.

More to read: Information about the pricing of academic journals is notoriously hard to collect, partly because of confidentiality clauses in the contracts between publishers and libraries. Timothy Gowers, has documented an extensive campaign to collect such information in his blog.

This post was originally published on 21st December 2014 as part of the ‘Recently Read‘ section of my blog ( It was last revised (layout changes) in April 2020. The featured image is by Marja Ligterink @ Flickr, who is generously sharing it with a Creative commons CC BY-NC license.






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