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The Indian ISSN conundrum

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Current Science , VOL. 112, NO. 3, 452 10 February  2017 | Opinion | G Mahesh |

The International Standards Serial Number (ISSN), the unique identifier for serials or periodicals, is similar to the ISBN for books and monographs, and DOI for online documents. The ISSN International Centre in Paris governs he ISSN activities through a network of national libraries or national institutions in 89countries.In India, the National Science Library at the CSIR-National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources (NISCAIR) is he ISSN National Centre. In the last few years, the Indian National Centre has been flooded with requests for more SSNs than it can actually handle. Figure 1 gives the growth in the number of ISSNs assigned ever since the centre ame into being in 1986. A steep growth in the ISSNs can be seen inthe last few years. One of the reasons for the phenomenal increase in the number of journals seeking ISSNs is because of UGC’s ‘minimum qualifications for appointments of teachers and other academic staff in universities and colleges and measures for the maintenance of standards in higher education 2010’ wherein Academic Performance Indicators (API) for tenure promotions for teachers working in universities and colleges give points forarticles published in ISSN journals1,2.This has been reticulated in a whitepaper prepared by the ISSN National Centre in 2012 (ref. 3). Further by 2010,buoyed by the success of open access journals such as PLoS ONE, hundreds of APC (article processing charge)-based open access journals have mushroomed. Coincidentally, UGC’s API came as a godsend to those individuals and publishers in India who were already toying with the idea of APC-based open access journals. With points to be cored for publishing papers, reams of ‘research ‘papers continue to be produced that make way into the many new nd soon-to-be launched APC-based journals. Many publishers who evidently know nothing about journals continue o literally capitalize on the opportunity, by charging a slow as Rs 1000 for publishing an article. In sheer desperation or API scores and driven by other academic compulsions.  unsuspecting authors continue to fall  prey to such journals.  The level of ignorance of some nou-veau publishers can be gauged by the fact that immediately after obtaining ISSN for a new journal, they also want an impact factor! There have been numerous instances where basic plagiarism check of articles in the proposed first issues of journals failed. We also encounter journals with fictitious editorial board members and bizarre journal titles. The UGC API unwittingly indicating ISSN as a ‘quality’ criterion not only attracted callous and opportunistic publishers but also a few researchers and faculty members who have found it easier to bring out an ‘international journal’ rather than publishing articles in already well-established journals.

The pertinent question that easily arises is why are ISSNs being assigned to such questionable journals?

According to the ISSN inclusion criteria laid down by the ISSN International Centre, Paris all that are required for inclusion of a serial in the ISSN Registry are: there should be content related to a subject, there should be editorial responsibility, a consistent title and a valid  URL. Actually, these are the only criteria required to ‘uniquely identify a serial’, which in any case is the essence of ISSN.

The point is, ISSN is not an indicator of  quality. However, in its endeavour to keep questionable journals at bay, the Indian ISSN Centre has been taking some steps such as carrying out plagiarism checks which clearly is  utside the scope of the prescribed ISSN inclusion criteria. Plagiarism and other quality checks of journal articles are editorial and publisher responsibilities. Unfortunately, the desperation for ISSNs is such that if an ISSN application is turned down for valid shortcomings whatsoever, the editor or publisher reapplies after ‘taking care’ of the shortcomings and are persistent till such time the ISSN is obtained. Quite a few times, non-assignment of ISSNs on legitimate grounds has been countered with not so polite responses including complaints to the ISSN International Centre and higher offices in the government machinery. Now after an ISSN is assigned, the Centre has little control over what is published in the journal. The ISSN National Centre is not a regulatory or monitoring authority of scholarly journals. As per ISSN guidelines, the Centre can suppress  an ISSN only if it subsequently comes to light that misleading information has been provided by a publisher at the time of applying for ISSN. The Centre does receive emails complaining about plagiarized articles published in a  journal which we duly forward to editor  or publisher of the journal. The unenviable situation of the ISSN  Indian National Centre in handling questionable journals has been exhaustively  documented in the white paper and  shared with the authorities including the  ISSN International Centre, Paris3.  The International Centre recognizes the  issues plaguing the Indian Centre and has  stood with the Centre’s decision of not  assigning ISSNs to many journals.

In recent months, the National Centre  has made it mandatory for the print serials  applying for ISSN to first register the  serial with the Registrar of Newspapers  in India (RNI). The Office of RNI coordinates  with the licensing wing of the  police department to verify the identity  of the publishers. This step assures that the publisher’s address given at the time  of applying is verified through the RNI  process. Further, plagiarism check of randomly picked articles is being carried out and in the event of plagiarism being  detected, ISSN is denied. The Centre  now also insists that complete addresses of editorial board members are to be given. Owing to these measures put in place, there has been some check on the  number of ISSNs assigned. In 2014,  2015 and 2016, the numbers of ISSNs  assigned are 2928, 2464 and 1100  (approx.) respectively.

While print-ISSNs are relatively easier  to handle, it is the e-ISSN requests for  online journals that are difficult to manage. An online journal can be easily  launched with just a computer and internet  connection. There have been instances  of online journa l websites disappearing  or vital details such as title and publisher  address on websites being changed after  the online journal has procedurally received  the e-ISSN. With online content being amenable to changes, it is extremely  difficult to monitor the e-journals. It comes as no surprise that many Indian  journals appear on the Beall’s list of predatory journals5.  The University Grants Commission is also aware of the situation and it will be  in the interest of academic and research  fraternity that ISSN is removed from the API criteria. The problem does not seem  to be just with journals. With points to be scored for organizing and attending conferences,  seminars, workshops and so on, it looks like the numbers of such events  have also spiralled over the years.  –   G. Mahesh is in the CSIR-National Institute  of Science Communication and  Information Resources, 14-Satsang Vihar  Marg, New Delhi 110 067, India .

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