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Good practices

Rewards for publishing lead to distortions in South Africa

A survey of 967 researchers from South Africa arrived at an ambiguous conclusion. Nearly 70% of respondents advocated maintaining a government program that offers cash rewards to researchers for publishing papers in journals—with each article published worth around 120,000 rand, equivalent to R$40,000. Some universities pool these funds to spend on scientific research, while others allocate up to 70% of the amount directly to the researchers.

Despite the widespread approval of the program, 59% of respondents agreed that it encourages unethical practices. Two thirds said the system encourages “salami publication,” when research results are sliced in order to maximize the number of articles published from one study, thus increasing the number of financial rewards received. More than half stated that it encourages irregular or inappropriate allocation of authorship.

According to Lyn Horn, director of the office of research integrity at the University of Cape Town and part of the team that conducted the survey, the pressure is felt particularly strongly by researchers in the early stages of their careers. She told the journal Nature that young scientists are encouraged to find ways to transform their results into as many papers as possible, diving the results into what are known as “the smallest publishable units.” The results of the survey were published in November at a conference of the Global Research Council, an organization created in 2012 to encourage cooperation between funding agencies around the world and to foster good management practices.

The program, established by the South African government in 2005, is attributed to a major rise in the country’s scientific production, which increased from 4,063 articles in the year it began to 25,371 in 2018. But not all of these papers are legitimate. A 2017 study found that the government had awarded up to 300 million rand for articles published in predatory journals (titles that publish manuscripts for a fee, without conducting a genuine peer review).

David Hedding, a geologist at the University of South Africa in Pretoria who did not participate in the survey, attributes the contradiction in its results to science funding problems in the country. “With the current crunch in research funding, these incentives will become even more important for researchers,” he told the journal Nature. The Department of Science and Innovation, the country’s main source of research funding, saw its budget cut by 16% in 2020 due to the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 294).

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