We represent a group of academic staff members from the Institute of Communication Studies and Journalism at the Faculty of Social Sciences (hereinafter ICSJ or Institute) who has recently initiated a debate over the nature of academic publishing practices and research ethics at our institution. The Head of the ICSJ, Dr. Alice Němcová Tejkalová, along with the members of the Institute Management Group, have accused us of generating myths and rumours in order to damage the reputation of the Institute. Consequently, some of us have been targeted with activities which we perceive as threatening and intimidating professional persecution. Below we present the key turning points of the case in order to prove that all our critique has been driven by an attempt to challenge and fight dirty practices in academic publishing and defend the basic ethical principles of disseminating research outputs.
1. Background of the case: predatory journals
In the spring of 2015, our group members registered a growing number of publication items returned by some colleagues to the RIV submission. RIV points scheme (i.e. Czech equivalent of the REF UK) represents a local tool for boosting publication rates and is part of a strategy to drive up research production. It is a government incentive system which works by funding universities for published outputs. The RIV points serve also as a tool for academic promotions, and financial awards are being given to academics who have made a contribution, both nationally and internationally. The largest number of publications was submitted by Dr. Wadim Strielkowski, at that point a junior lecturer at the Institute. His publication list returned in 2014 generated serious concerns: it included dozens of research articles in international journals. A majority of these were published in outlets of questionable quality and origins (predatory scholarly open-access journals). His many monographs were either published at his own expense or by the vanity press Lambert Academic Publishing. (The incomplete list of publications for the year 2015 shows a continuation of this publishing strategy.)
Fig. 1. Cover of one of Dr. Strielkowski’s monographs
Not only must Dr. Strielkowski have been financially rewarded for these outputs, which can be seen as wasting taxpayers’ money, but also the question remains as to which extent the Institute subsidised his publications in outlets which charge authors for having their work published. Some other staff members of the Institute have also followed these practices, often in publications co-authored by Dr. Strielkowski.
Dr. Irena Reifová, at that point Head of Research and member of the Institute Management Group, referred to these questionable practices at Institute meetings in April and May 2015. Neither the Head of the Institute nor the Management took any concrete initiative to deal with the issue except for a rather general and vague statement regarding ‘publishing rules and regulations’. Reifová resigned from her post in the Management Group in protest of the inappropriate treatment and playing down of predatory publishing. In order to protect the academic reputation of the Institute, our group filed a complaint to Head of Institute Dr. Alice Němcová Tejkalová on 15 June 2015, copied to the Dean and Vice-Dean for Research of the Faculty, to convince her to take specific action in relation to the respective publishing practices.
In the process of gathering detailed information to document the complaint, we have found even more serious issues. For instance, Dr. Strielkowski’s texts included full chapters copied from a book written by an author named Emily Welkins (see below), and his publication list included items published twice under similar titles by different groups of co-authors but without appropriate reference (self-plagiarism); he also co-authored a journal article which included unreferenced parts of an MA thesis (ghost authorship).
2. The Emily Welkins case and the silencing of the critique of questionable publishing practices
In her response to our complaint, Dr. Němcová Tejkalová disclaimed the charge of self-plagiarism and ghost authorship with the argument that “the authors of the respective texts admitted their authorship”. She framed the complaint as a way of putting her under “inadequate pressure” incompatible with the Code of Ethics at Charles University. Nonetheless, in her response to the case of chapters by Emily Welkins copied by Dr. Strielkowski, she confirmed that ‘Emily Welkins’ stood in for a non-existing fictitious identity constructed by Dr. Strielkowski, referring to Emily Welkins as Dr. Strielkowski’s “registered pseudonym”.
In fact, Welkins had co-authored several of Strielkowski’s texts, and he presented her name as being affiliated with prestigious academic institutions (University of Strasbourg or University of Cambridge). These practices were most likely intended to generate a legitimisation of Strielkowski’s research outputs, to upgrade the reputation of predatory outlets, and to possibly increase his citation index.
Fig. 2. Headers of articles signed by both Dr. Strielkowski and Emily Welkins, with the latter affiliated to University of Cambridge (top) and University of Strasbourg (bottom)
On 19 August 2015 Němcová Tejkalová issued “Publishing Rules at the ICSJ”, to a large extent based on the (unacknowledged) evidence we had provided in order to document the complaint of June 2015. In an accompanying letter addressing all staff members of the Institute, she rejected any troublesome issues regarding publishing practices. She concluded that anyone who claimed otherwise “is not telling the truth and will be held liable for discrediting the reputation of the ICSJ”. In our view, this was yet another example of practices incompatible with the principles of academic freedom.
However, in spite of these declarations, we registered a number of cover-ups and attempts to conceal evidence of the (implicated) predatory publications, including those by Dr. Němcová Tejkalová herself. In fact, she deleted two publication outputs published in outlets we had identified as predatory on her official staff profile. Both texts can be accessed here and here; the link to ‚Journal of language and Literature‘ and the DOI registration no longer exists.
Fig. 3. Official staff profile webpage of the head of ICJS in June 2015 and October 2015 (click to enlarge)
What is more, Emily Welkins or her affiliations have been withdrawn from some of the online publications.
Fig. 4. An article by Dr. Strielkowski and Emily Welkins before and after the removal of the University of Strasbourg affiliation (click to enlarge)
Our group asked for a personal meeting with the Head of ICSJ, which took place on 25 August 2015. Despite our continuing insistence on defining the case within the framework of fundamental ethical principles of academic performance, she argued that Strielkowski’s practices cannot be legally defined as fraud and thus are not punishable. Given the lack of initiative on the side of the Institute’s Head and its management, our group filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission of Charles University on 2 September 2015 (decision pending).
3. Discreet departure of Dr. Strielkowski and the future of Dr. Václav Štětka and his team
Dr. Strielkowski left his full-time post at the ICSJ in October 2015. No explanation was given and the Institute management issued no official statement regarding his academic performance. He is still teaching as a part-time lecturer at the Department of Marketing Communication and Public Relations (JJB251 Tourism marketing). The Head of the ICSJ, Dr. Alice Němcová Tejkalová, held a meeting with one of the pro-active members of our group – Dr. Václav Štětka – on 23 October 2015. She announced her decision not to extend his employment contract which is to expire on 31 December 2015.
Dr. Štětka leads PolCoRe, the only formally established research team at the Institute. The team has made significant contributions towards the development of research culture at the Institute and the Faculty in terms of designing fundable projects, and delivering research outputs of the highest standards of excellence both nationally and internationally. His departure would represent a direct threat to the very existence of this research unit. Dr. Němcová Tejkalová has not provided any meaningful explanation for her decision except for her statement on Facebook. There she argues with vaguely defined ‘potentials and needs’ of the Institute and current financial situation. We maintain that the decision not to extend Dr. Štětka’s employment contract is to be interpreted as yet another step towards silencing the critique of the questionable publishing practices at the Institute of Communication Studies and Journalism at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University.
We strongly object to any practices leading towards the violation of academic freedom.
We urge the management of the ICSJ to revise its decision regarding the employment of Dr. Václav Štětka.
We urge the management of the ICSJ to acknowledge and explicitly condemn questionable and unethical academic practices which harm the reputation of the Institute, the Faculty and Charles University both domestically and internationally.
ICSJ staff members, as signed in the original post: