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Straight Talk: India must make drastic cutbacks in academic research to ensure quality

Is research the only way to ensure the quality of Indian academia? Dr. Pushkar argues otherwise.
BY Pushkar |   19-09-2018


In a recent article, Philip G. Altbach and Hans de Wit argue that “too much [is] being published” leading to a “crisis in academic publishing.” For them, the fault lies with “most academic institutions [which] want to resemble the universities at the top of the academic pecking order.” The only solution they see is “drastic cutbacks” in scholarly publishing.

It is hard to disagree that there is too much being published across all disciplines. It is perhaps also fair to agree that much of it may be quite useless, based on, for example, the lack of citations for most publications and gender bias in citations.

The argument that there is too much being published holds true for India as well, even though the country’s research output is low by international comparisons. India’s higher education administrators, notably the main higher education regulator the University Grants Commission (UGC), actually faces a curious challenge. They must find ways to simultaneously limit and promote research. This needs some explaining.

India’s research output has improvedover the years but remains low in global terms. The causes for this are many but perhaps the most important one is the absence of a publishing or research culture. Most of the country’s universities, including the internationally well-regarded Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), have traditionally been teaching-focused institutions with only a relatively small number of faculty inclined towards research and publishing. Careers were not determined by whether or not one published. Things have started to change since world university rankings became increasingly popular and India’s best universities fared poorly in them. Now, faculty at premier institutions is expected to publish regularly and career progress depends increasingly on research and publications.

While India’s research output undoubtedly needs to improve in terms of both quantity and quality, higher education administrators must simultaneously limit the quantity of research. Much of the ‘quantity’ comes from ‘forced’ research and publishing. The introduction of the Academic Performance Indicators (API) in 2010 called for teachers across India’s vast higher education sector, irrespective of expertise, interest or experience in research, to either publish or suffer the consequences. This was bad policy. The teachers chose the first option, to plagiarise and/or fabricate work and/or publish in predatory journals. This option became so popular that India has become the world centre for predatory journals. Now the government is trying to control and regulate this kind of research and publishing by tweaking the API. It must immediately make research and publishing optional, except perhaps for faculty at the country’s top 50 or 100 institutions.

The reason why the UGC also pushed the cause of research – other than to improve India’s research output so that its universities would perform better in world university rankings - is due to the belief that doing research is good for teaching. In opposition to that, Altbach and de Wit refer to Ernest L. Boyer’s book Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities for the professoriate (1990) in which he reasoned that most academics need to only keep abreast of research trends and current thinking in their fields but need not produce new knowledge. Or, as I explained elsewhere, the difference between doing research and keeping-abreast of new research is an important one, and “it is not necessary…to be doing research in order to be or become a better teacher.”

Unlike in Western countries, where too much publishing is due to academic institutions trying to imitate and resemble the top research universities, in India, the publishing crisis is brought upon by the government’s policy of making research compulsory across all of India’s vast higher education sector, without taking into account the nature of institutions, the quality of faculty or the lack of basic facilities for research.  

The Indian government must immediately make research and publishing optional for all teachers except for those at teaching-cum-research institutions and research centres. This will limit or may even nearly end publishing in predatory journals. The UGC needs to understand that India’s research output is not low or of poor quality because teachers in far-flung areas of the country at obscure institutions are not publishing; it is low because researchers at premier research centres and at teaching-cum-research institutions such as IITs and central universities are not doing enough research and publishing.

Pushkar is Director, The International Centre Goa (ICG). He tweets at @PushHigherEd. The views expressed here are personal.



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