Interview with Professor Johann Mouton

Johann Mouton was a second-year philosophy student when he read Plato’s Dialogues, focusing particularly on the philosopher’s considerations of the nature of truth, and the difference between truthful knowledge and opinion. Since then, my life’s work has been about knowledge production and research, he says. Since joining Stellenbosch University 25 years ago, I’ve been exploring issues related to research quality, relevance and impact.

These issues have become increasingly relevant in South Africa, where the past two decades have witnessed an explosion in scientific research and in metrics and measures to assess that research.

Unfortunately, the focus on those metrics and measures has led to some perverse consequences, both ethically and quantitatively, that have had a huge negative impact in Africa, Mouton says. The best example is predatory publishing, where some of the basic norms and rules of science are violated. Instead of searching for truthful knowledge, some people intentionally deceive and generate publications that don’t conform to the quality practices of peer review. In fact, one of the drivers of academic science, ‘publish or perish,’ has become a driver of predatory publishing here.

South Africa has a unique incentive system whereby universities are subsidized in part by the number of publications that are published annually. The more we publish, the more money we get, in addition to any grant from the government, Mouton says. This incentive means that when I publish a paper under my university affiliation, my institution gets the equivalent of about $7,000-$8,000 for that paper. Multiply that by thousands and we’re talking about a significant amount of money. And when the emphasis is on ‘publish as much as you can,’ for some people, quality goes out the window.

In 2017, Mouton coauthored an article, The extent of South African authored articles in predatory journals, that takes a deep dive into this phenomenon and its consequences.

As a member of the ICSR Advisory Board, Mouton is looking forward to tackling predatory publishing and related concerns that impact scientific research in Africa, including misuse of standard measures and metrics such as journal impact factors and the H index. We’ve seen a huge increase in doctoral students and staff who don’t necessarily have a good understanding of these issues. I’m hoping the Advisory Board can fast track knowledge about responsible research and innovation, as well as research integrity, to help inform the next generation of scientists and academics.

The need is vital, Mouton says, based on his team’s four-year study of 6,000 African scientists under the age of 40. Gender and age discrimination, as well as lack of funding, emerged as key barriers to young scientists’ careers. Scientists in Ghana told us via Skype interviews that they can’t compete academically because they can’t go to conferences. The money goes to senior researchers there, and metrics are used to deny less experienced investigators the funding they need to continue their work. That’s when metrics and data become more than a purely academic matter. The impact is far greater. And the consequences are even more severe for young women academics.

Beyond these issues, Mouton also anticipates working with the board on efforts to raise the visibility of papers published in local scholarly journals in Africa, which he finds highly relevant, but largely invisible.

African science has grown to constitute about 2.8 percent of the world’s contributions, Mouton says. That’s not insignificant, but it still does not reflect much of the scholarship that happens in these countries, which is published in local journals. We really need to address this area.

Portrait of-prof Johann Mouton | Elsevier

Johann Mouton is a professor and director of the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University and the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Scientometrics and STI Policy. He is on the editorial board of five international journals, has edited or co-edited nine books, and published 90+ peer-reviewed journal articles and other publications. In 2012, he was elected to the Council of the Academy of Science of South Africa. He received his doctorate in literature and philosophy at Rand Afrikaans University.