On 22 April 2020, a twenty-five-year-old academician who holds an M.A. in English Literature from Dibrugarh University in the Indian state of Assam, was elated to get the good news. A “research manuscript”, titled ‘Globalization and COVID-19 as Cataclysm’, he’d sent to a “reputed German publisher” the previous week was accepted for publication and the publisher digitally launched the title on its website with surprising promptness.
As the jubilant early career academician shared the news on his Facebook profile, the remote, nondescript village in Assam’s Golaghat district he hails from drew significant local media attention with reporters rushing in to interview the young researcher.
He enthusiastically told the reporters that his book’s going to be translated into seven major European languages.
The “German publisher” that published his book is LAP Lambert Academic Publishing. It is part of an enormous publishing group called VDM, registered in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 2002 but now headquartered in Riga, Latvia, with their editors based out of Moldova, Latvia, Mauritius and Brazil. The group publishes 78 imprints and 27 subsidiary houses in English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Russian.
It indeed appeared to be a fairy-tale start for an aspiring researcher-academic who is freshly out of university.
And it inspired other early-career academics.
Bikash Bhattacharya, an early career chemist with a fresh PhD from Bapuji Mahatma Gandhi State University in the Indian state of Meghalaya, approached LAP Lambert with his first book project—an academic monograph in the chemical sciences. On 18 May 2020, just two days after he had uploaded the manuscript on the company’s content submission system, Jaysen Chengebroyam, a Mauritian acquisitions editor for LAP Lambert, responded with an astonishingly short email asking if the cover page he’d attached in the email would be fit to go with the book.
“Whoa! The manuscript’s been accepted,” Bhattacharya was surprised.
But it should have been promptly rejected. Any acquisitions editor with an academic press commissioning titles in chemical sciences would have laughed off the manuscript as utter nonsense—because it’s meaningless, ludicrous; it’s a spoof manuscript concocted by this correspondent.
Bapuji Mahatma Gandhi State University doesn’t exist; Bhattacharya isn’t a chemistry PhD either.
The manuscript we sent to LAP Lambert for publication is a 116-page mumbo-jumbo consisting of randomly picked up Wikipedia texts on number theory, proton transfer mechanism, and polymer assembled under the title ‘Computational Studies of Proton Transfer through Polymer: A Dynamic Functional Theory’.
LAP Lambert acquisitions editor Chengebroyam—who, according to his LinkedIn profile, has a BA in Mass Communications from Curtin University in Australia—failed to understand that it’s a bogus manuscript and promptly accepted it for publication without getting it evaluated by experts of the discipline.
On 19 May, Chengebroyam sent another email in which he said:
..while going through the final verification of your book, we found there were some issues with the file as the table of contents is incomplete and the pagination is missing.
We could fix these issues but since it is not within our frame of work, I wonder if you will agree to purchase a minimum of 10 copies of your book during the special book launch offer.
Do you agree that we correct these issues and in return, you order some copies of your book?
Three more emails followed within a week, each more aggressive in soliciting us to order 10 copies of the book in return for correcting pagination—we responded to none, though.
This was a clear sign of a predatory publisher.
“A predatory publisher deviates from best editorial/publication practices, prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and use indiscriminate and aggressive solicitation practices,” Professor Bhushan Patwardhan—the chairman of the Consortium for Academic Research and Ethics (CARE) Empowered Committee (EC) of University Grants Commission (UGC), the highest statutory body charged with coordination, determination and maintenance of standards of higher education in India—writes in a recent commentary, co-authored with Gautam S Desiraju of Indian Institute of Science (IISC), in Current Science.
Finally, on 25 June, Chengebroyam informs that the book’s been resealed, once again with a reminder that the author could order the book at a 15% discount. It has since been catalogued on LAP Lambert website and listed on Amazon for sale and the price is tagged at a staggering $55.58 USD.
Nevertheless, he was generous enough to send a digital author copy of the book. From the author copy, it’s clear that they didn’t do basic proofreading and copy-editing before publishing the manuscript—texts on several pages are broken.
As a matter of fact, LAP Lambert doesn’t practice proofreading and copy-editing. The first line in the blurb of the early career academician’s book—a forty-page compilation a major part of which is filled with lists of past epidemics—is riddled with grammatical errors. It reads: “The book is about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).”
VDM’s CEO, Thorsten Ohm admitted in an interview with Slate in 2014 that they don’t have a policy of proofreading. “There’s no selection process, there’s no editing—the thesis is essentially published unchanged but called a book,” he said.
Dr. Müller doesn’t need “a fucking shit peer review” either
LAP Lambert’s founder and CEO Dr. Wolfgang Philipp Müller, in a video, titled ‘Why Classical Publishers Hate Us’, up on the company’s website, says that they don’t peer-review manuscripts before publication because these manuscripts come from students, researchers, and faculty members of universities, who reach these positions by dint of the qualifications they’ve earned or already possessed.
Dr. Müller is unabashedly in favour of disseminating unvetted research.
In fact, until 2013, LAP Lambert—and its parent company Omniscriptum—published Wikipedia articles/entries as ‘books’.
But peer-review is an integral component to academic book publishing.
“Peer review is the foundation upon which all quality academic book publishing is built. Though many aspects of the peer review process of books remain opaque to authors, a rigorous evaluation is an indispensable component of the art of academic publishing,” Shaun Vigil, an acquisitions editor at Temple University Press, says.
The two primary types of academic book publishers—commercial and university presses—equally emphasize peer-reviewing the book proposals and manuscripts they acquire. Commercial academic publishers like Sage, Bloomsbury, Wiley, Palgrave McMillan, and Routledge clearly consider the peer review system as central to selecting academic manuscripts. University presses have even more rigorous systems of peer-review for the books they publish.
The Acquisitions Editorial Committee of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP or AUPresses) have articulated a set of best practices that comprise “a rigorous process of peer review” because peer review plays an“essential role in developing and validating high quality scholarly publications.”
Similarly, the National Scholarly Book Publishers’ Forum of South Africa (NSBPF) in 2017 published a manual on best practices of peer review of scholarly books. South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) requires full manuscripts to be peer-reviewed before offering subsidy to publish scholarly titles.
“For a book to be counted as a research publication, it requires to go through peer review. When I list a book as a research publication in my tenure file, I have to submit evidence that the book went through a peer review. The only way you can bypass this is when you have letters from top scholars in your field attesting the quality of your work,” says Amit Rahul Baishya, an associate professor of postcolonial literatures and cultural studies at the University of Oklahoma, Norman in the United States. “If I write for a popular magazine, I will mention that it’s a non-peer reviewed publication.”
“Any press that do not send manuscripts out for review and do not copy-edit manuscripts is not an academic press”, says Tanya Maria Golash-Boza, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced.
Manabendra Saharia, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, too thinks peer-review is an integral part of any academic publishing. “Doing away with peer-review would mean opening the floodgate for unvetted science. There’s no science without peer review.”
“A fox in the henhouse”
Librarian Jeffrey Beall’s list of potential predatory publisher terms LAP Lambert a vanity press—a publisher that doesn’t have a policy of peer-review and quality control.
But the problem with LAP Lambert is that they pose as a traditional publisher, and not as a vanity press.
“They do not seek upfront publishing fees, which is why they can convincingly present themselves as a real publisher,” a senior academic at Tezpur University who’d previously published with LAP Lambert says.
LAP Lambert has been described as ‘an academic author mill’ by Victoria Strauss of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).
An author mill turns the basic publishing equation on its head. Instead of selectively acquiring a limited catalogue of books and seeking to sell large numbers of every title, as traditional publishers do, an author mill acquires a large catalogue of writers, expecting to sell only a few books from each.
“Author mills protect their profits by doing everything on the cheap, with minimal or non-existent editing, interior and cover design that’s straight-from-template, and no meaningful marketing or distribution, resulting in tiny sales for the average author mill book…Because author mills are typically deceptive in the way they present themselves, many writers believe they are signing up with real publishers..” a SFWA blog post says.
On its website, LAP Lambert state that they follow a print-to-order (PTO) model—something traditional academic publishers are not known to do. As such, they would print a physical copy of a book only when someone orders a copy of that title.
How, then, does the company make profit?
“By stockpiling the rights to a huge variety of works, automating the entire publishing process, and printing books only if they’re purchased at marked-up prices, the company can cut overhead to a negligible amount and generate significant profits, even if they sell few copies,” journalist Joseph Stromberg in his 2014 article in Slate writes, providing a description that makes LAP Lambert look like a perfect example of an author mill.
He has further described in great detail how the process of publishing with LAP Lambert looks like, which is identical to what we have experienced while publishing our spoof manuscript with the company.
There are several other reasons why many consider the company’s strategy to be predatory. The group actively promote themselves as a German company, with its online bookstore named morebooks.de—“de.” is the country code top-level domain (ccTLD) for the Federal Republic of Germany (Deutschland). In reality, LAP Lambert has little to do with Germany. The manuscript we sent out to them has been published from a Mauritius address, whereas the author agreement says “all future disputes have to be resolved in a court of the Republic of Latvia under Latvian law”.
All these characteristics—prioritizing self-interest at the expense of scholarship, false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial/publication practices, lack of transparency, use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices—make LAP Lambert a perfect fit for the definition of a “predatory publisher” as outlined by India’s University Grants Commission (UGC) in its latest policies to curb the menace of “predatory/dubious/ questionable journals or publishers.”
Over a dozen universities from across the globe have issued cautionary advices against publishing with LAP Lambert. These notices can be found here (University of Pittsburgh, the United States), here (Arizona State University, the United States), here (Michigan Technological University), here (University of Massachusetts Amherst, the United States), here(University of Saskatchewan, the United States) and here (University of Nebraska, the United States), here (University of Stavanger, Norway), here (Graduate Institute of Geneva, Switzerland), here (University of Waterloo, Canada), here(University of Lorraine, France), here (Delft university of technology, the Netherlands), here (Strathmore University, Kenya), here (University of Witwatersrand, South Africa), here (University of Otago, New Zealand), here (Charles Stuart University, Australia), here (Charles Darwin University, Australia), here (James Cook University, Australia) and here(Bond University, Australia).
“But here in India, plenty of academics affiliated with the country’s top-notch institutions are still publishing with this company. It’s become a fox in the hen house,” the Tezpur University academic, who published a book with the company back in 2010, says.
Multiple faculty members affiliated with the various departments of all ten Institutes of Eminence (IoE) and all the top ten Higher Education Institutes in India, at Institutes of National Importance (INI) such as All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi and Nagpur, in several IITs, IIMs and IISERs and at all the four UGC-CARE linked universities have published with LAP Lambert—and many still list these titles as legitimate academic research publications in their CVs and their institutions’ websites.
Are gatekeepers in dirt?
In 2017, UGC established the Center for Publication Ethics (COPE) and subsequently came up with a UGC-CARE Reference List of Quality Journals as part of its efforts to curb the menace of predatory journals. The primary focus of this exercise has been directed at gatekeeping against hundreds of thousands of predatory journals that’s lurking on the internet to prey upon early career academics pressed under ‘publish or perish culture’ and naive senior researchers.
The UGC-Consortium for Academic and Research Ethics (CARE) project based at Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU) that was announced on 28 November, 2018, has been dubbed “a quality mandate for Indian Academia.” One of the project’s stated purpose is “to prevent publications in predatory/ dubious / sub-standard journals, which reflect adversely and tarnish the image of Indian academia.” In order to supervise the functioning of UGC-CARE, an Empowered Committee (UGC-CARE EC) has been formed, four “UGC-CARE Universities” have been selected as collaborators and a UGC Cell for Journal Analysis has been set up.
The issue of academic books, however, largely remained outside the ambit of this project.
We have found that three members of the UGC-CARE Empowered Committee, including Prof. Bhushan Patwardhan, the chairman of the committee and vice-chairman of UGC and also NAAC General Council member, Dr. Subhada Nagarkar, Communications and Public Engagement Officer (CPE) of UGC Cell for Journal Analysis, and Prof. Parimal Vyas, a member of the committee and vice-chancellor of M S University of Baroda, are LAP Lambert authors. This itself may not be problematic, but what raises red flags is that professor Patwardhan lists in his CV, available on the website of SPPU, two co-authored LAP Lambert titles, from 2013 and 2014, as “peer-reviewed books”. Similarly, while professor Vyas doesn’t mention his co-authored LAP Lambert title in his CV, nine LAP Lambert books have been included in the list of research outputs in the 68th Annual Report 2016-2017 of M S University of Baroda, of which Vyas was and still remains the VC. Nagarkar, who is an assistant professor of library and information science at SSPU in addition to being associated with UGC Cell for Journal Analysis, on the other hand, lists her 2010 co-authored title on fungal species information for LAP Lambert in her CV available on the SSPU website.
Emails sent to Patwardhan, Nagargar and Vyas asking for comments remain unanswered.
Prof. Avinash Chandra Pandey, a current NAAC general council member, formerly with the University of Allahabad and now the Director of Inter University Accelerator Centre (IUAC) in Delhi, has also co-authored multiple LAP Lambert titles. Prof. Rakesh Bhatnagar, former VC of Benaras Hindu University and NAAC General Council member, too has published a book with LAP Lambert in 2018. Previously, Science Chronicle reported that professor Pandey had used manipulated, duplicated images in his papers, and an The Indian Express investigation found that professor Bhatnagar had earlier published in predatory journals.
Pandey and Bhatnagar now seem to have surreptitiously dropped their LAP Lambert books from the list of publications in their profiles.
As alarms are being raised across the globe regarding Dr Müller’s enormous printing machine for over a decade now, India’s four UGC-CARE universities—Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), University of Hyderabad, M S University of Baroda and Tezpur University—tasked with checking the penetration of predatory publishers into Indian academia, has failed to note that LAP Lambert’s publishing model has no semblance of an academic press.
A senior professor at the School of Environmental Sciences at JNU lists LAP Lambert titles as peer reviewed publications. An assistant professor at Special Centre for Nanoscience, JNU, also mentions her 2010 LAP Lambert book as peer reviewed. A faculty publication list issued by JNU in 2012 featured several LAP Lambert titles. A senior member of University of Hyderabad’s economics department has listed several LAP Lambert titles as research outputs. In 2011, when LAP Lambert acquired an M.Phil. thesis of a young scholar at the University of Hyderabad, The New India Express covered the news in a positive note as the publisher was thought to be a reputed German academic press. As late as 6 March, 2017, the official Facebook account of University of Hyderabad posted a congratulatory message when LAP Lambert published the PhD thesis of one of the university’s retired officers. Similarly, Tezpur University’s department of business administration lists several LAP Lambert and VDM titles in a list of faculty members’ research outputs. In 2019, Tezpur University included in its prospectus one LAP Lambert title, authored by a faculty member in the Department of English, showcasing the university’s research outputs.
So, are the gatekeepers themselves in dirt?
“It may well have been the case that many of these senior academics may have been unknowing victims of a surreal academic author mill. But the issue at stake here is that persons and institutions in charge of tackling the menace of predatory publishers are failing to take note of a widely exposed scam publisher like LAP Lambert. It does not augur well for India’s fight against the highly adaptable predatory publishers,” an early-career academic at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi says.
Yet there are signs galore that many Indian academics may be using this author mill as an easy cog to advance their careers.
“Any academic sincere about the ethics of research knows that the moment a publication dodges peer review and editorial oversight, it’s no longer a platform to publish academic research,” says Golash-Boza.
When you know your book’s not peer-reviewed, why would you put it up as a scholarly publication?
Internal documents from Dr. Harisingh Gour University, a central university in Madhya Pradesh, show that in 2017 twelve LAP Lambert titles were evaluated by the University Level Books Expert Committee as “Category-1a International Publications”—this category carried the highest weightage among all book publications—in recruiting and promoting to the posts of associate professors and professors in various departments, ranging from law to microbiology.
In 2018, Central University of Karnataka’s Social Work department considered five LAP Lambert titles in calculating Academic Performance Indicator (API) while recruiting an associate professor.
UGC regulations, 2010 stated that books published by “International Publishers with an established peer review system” would be considered in counting API, carrying 50 points for solely authored books, whereas such books published by “National Publishers” would carry 25 points.
Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that UGC regulations 2010 clearly mentioned the requirement of “an established system of peer review” for books published by international publishers, LAP Lambert titles—which do not go through any sort of review, not even proofreading—continued to be evaluated in calculating API for recruitment in universities and colleges.
Though LAP Lambert has little to do with Germany and is based in Latvia and Mauritius, the titles they publish—that is, they digitally launch—are passed off as books that have been published in Germany, which lends great credence and prestige to the author-academic in developing countries like India.
For example, in a recommendation letter written in 2017 by three professors proposing a senior colleague at NSHM Knowledge Campus, Kolkata for a fellowship at National Academy of Sciences, India, the recommenders made a special mention of LAP Lambert as one of the “prestigious banners” where the colleague’s research findings had been published.
While India claims to be tightening the noose around predatory journals, the 2018 Draft UGC Regulations—in a curious deviation from UGC regulations, 2010—no longer explicitly mention the need of “an established system of peer review” for books published by “International Publishers”.
It appears that the Dr. Müllers of the world will have another free run.