Personal Musings

This blog is intended to be just a jumble of thoughts that hit me and need not necessarily mean anything.

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Location: Kerala, India

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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Predation of researchers and their research potential

Before you continue, please read themotivation for writing this post: the article  written by Sambit Dash. As usual, nothing i say is against the author per se. Again, this is a topic i am not usually vocal about, but i thought i will share a few thoughts. I may be more wrong than right.
That's it for the disclaimer part.

What is observed

It seems that there is now literature(Seethaathy,SG; Santhosh Kumar,JU;Hareesha,AS, 2016) to prove that Indians ace in publishing in predatory journals(a.k.a paid journals). We now have numbers as well. Over 51% of papers published in such journals of poor quality is by Indians. The short conclusion by the authors: publication pressure and lack of monitoring are the main culprits for this fall in quality. If numbers is all you want, there is one more older article(Gupta, BM; Dhawan,SM, 2008) that talks about publishing count and all. Here is a pdf presentation about status of science and technology research in India, presumably from 2013. This post is to break this myth that numbers matter much when it comes to quality.

Let me state up front that I am not going to bring data from publisher's sites. I am only going to use all information I have gathered from personal communication over the last 15 years with various people to present the ideas. So, sorry. No reference for data.

Whipping a tortoise won't make it run fast

In the good old days, researchers--the people who actually grind it out in the labs/field, collecting all the data with sheer hard work, and publishing it--never had to worry about where they published. Most people used to publish their research work according to their budget in places where they deemed fit according to their understanding. During those times, doing PhD under a good place under a a great guide/supervisor/mentor is all that mattered. This was also the time when teachers(lecturers, readers, professors) taught in class. Research scholars were self-motivated by default to do Ph D. There was no necessity to do research, and hence whatever research used to happen used to be of good quality. This was the era when the word of the guide was enough to award a Ph D degree, teaching professions didn't demand publication count, and people with M.Sc could work in pharma labs and still make a decent living.

Then, the Government of India(GoI), started having ideas. GoI suddenly thought that research in India is not that great. There were only a handful of universities that were having good research work. Naturally, someone wanted to know how good our researchers are doing.  Here enters the bureaucracy.

The easiest to way to say how good something is is by picking something quantitative and comparing based on that. So, the babus asked the question: how much research is happening in India. No one had any real clue about what is happening where. In fact, the way our universities worked was really simple: somehow get some money allocated, spend the money allocated, ask for more money. If you lived in any university environment in any part of India, chances are that you have absolutely no idea what work is happening in the rest of the university. If you knew some good work, it's because that work came in the news somewhere. In fact for some interdisciplinary research, it was not uncommon to have two scholars working in different departments publishing papers in the same field but not knowing about it till they bump into each other later outside the university. So, when people wanted to quantify, they just asked the question: how many papers have you published in international journals.

GoI suddenly gave people a magical formula: publish in an International journal and you get branded as good researchers. The more you publish, the better researcher you become. Probably, that wasn't enough of a motivation, but the babus fixed what to measure. This PIB Note(Reply to Rajya Sabha by Minister of Science and Technology, Shri S Jaipal Reddy) basically explains what they have been doing and what's wrong with the whole exercise.

Another enlightened mind thought that Indians are not publishing because they are not suitably motivated. So, they just made PhD mandatory for getting an professor post. You know the way things work in India. There were some loopholes left for some extremely important people without PhD to get a promotion because, as you guessed it, they have worked too much for the university and obviously we cant expect a veteran to register for a PhD degree now. Looking at the way things stood, they just made it mandatory for even Assistant Professor posts to be filled by only people with PhD. (I am consciously omitting the currently-doing-PhD-part for brevity).

Now, what does PhD and teaching posts have got to do with quality publications? If you thought that this question is weird, it's OK. You will be among the 99.9999% of the people who naturally map research publication with professors in some university lab(wearing a white coat surrounded by test tubes). No one, especially in India, knows that most people don't teach in some university after getting a PhD. Even rarer people have heard about companies where they do research. Yes, I am talking about commercial entities who actually recruit people to solve real problems given to them by industry. And, NO, most of their recruits are usually smart graduates or post-graduates or graduates with years of experience.Do they publish research papers? Yes. But companies are more interested in patents than in papers. Patents have commercial value, peer-reviewed technical articles/papers don't have (unless it's a market-research company which can sell white papers to make money.) Of course, the babus in the ministry didn't know that research happened in lots of places.

So, the accountants in the ministry rightly argued that to manufacture more papers, we need more factories. Obviously, as making new factories(aka universities) is tough, we will just stack more machinery(aka professors) in existing factories. Then it dawned on them that most machinery are just outdated and not making papers as they first thought. Obviously, replacing them with machinery that can mass produce papers will be anti-labour. So, it's enough to mandate that all new machinery will enter job after they produce a few papers, and they will get career progression only if they continue to produce papers. (My apologies, if I unknowingly hurt anyone by using the analogy of machines.)

Another event happened in the meantime. The sudden demand for Indian engineers in software industry flooded the education market. IT/ITeS industry was happy about recruiting any engineering graduate. When they still had shortage, they started recruiting any graduate. This naturally resulted in the huge demand for teaching faculty. Private colleges started to crop up every where. When a college crops up, it has to be staffed by qualified teachers. That means, the overall demand for qualified teachers started rising. Basically, the government realized that if all the staff in all the colleges were mandated to come up with papers if they had to get a job, obviously the number of publications will increase.

Their logic was undeniable. And, like the VIKI of Asimov's 'I, Robot', the babus started giving more and more focus to numbers.

Apples from Peach tree

The rules were changed to give researchers in universities more incentives to publish papers. OK, let me be a bit more frank and open here. All existing and aspiring teachers were given the ultimaum: get a PhD degree by publishing journal papers or you won't get a job or promotions. They might as well have said: publish or kill yourselves. Leaving the dramatizations aside, the babus started truly believing that a change of rule will change the results. The final table with numbers will magically change by this "smart" rule they introduced. (How I wish they were taught about "process for the sake of process" in their training years.)

To quote from the script of Kung Fu Panda(2008)
 Oogway[points at peach tree]: Look at this tree, Shifu. I cannot make it blossom when it suits me, nor make it bear fruit before its time. 
Shifu: But there are things we *can* control. [kicks the tree so that peaches fallShifu: I can control when the fruit will fall! [he slices a peach and throws the pit to the groundShifu: I can control where to plant the seed! That is no illusion, Master! Oogway: Ah, yes. But no matter what you do, that seed will grow to be a peach tree. You may wish for an apple or an orange, but you will get a peach. 
The Shifu in the decision-making bodies think that quantity and quality of publications will magically improve because they are in control. But the truth is: you can't get apple from a peach tree. The good publications aren't going to come because the new rules demand publications.

Predators, please eat us

Publication count became important. The babus wanted an accounting entry. So, naturally, people started asking ways to mark the check box in this new laundry list. So, people started asking: how do we publish research papers.

It so happens that to publish a research paper, you need to have data. And, making authentic data takes time. But, unfortunately, in the mad rush to complete the course, meet family commitments, check answer scripts, do office politics to get the next increment, and umpteen other issues, the only thing that a typical researcher doesn't have is time.

Obviously, can't these teachers call some students and get some experimental work done by the students.

No. The students that we have in our classes are practically good for nothing. We never teach them creative thinking or problem evaluation in our written exam focused education system. Unless, you are going to spend time monitoring them, they can't think themselves to do the research work. And, time is what the researcher doesn't have.

The people who genuinely wanted to do research and get publications suddenly encountered a practical difficulty. Necessity is the mother of inventions. Indians invented International Journals. Not exactly invented, but they figured out that the system can be gamed.

"Babus, you want numbers. We will give you numbers," screamed the forced researcher. The enterprising among them spread the word that they know a journal in which publication is easy. No one will reject their paper because of grammar, or of technical rigor.    

More than predatory journals coming to India, the Indian forced researcher tried to get "International" journal started to cater to their needs. The cash-strapped private universities were not far behind. They suddenly found a new income source. Of course, if the Cambridges and MITs can have their own press, why not a poor Indian university.

Straw and the Camel's back

The job of a teaching faculty is to teach student. On top of that, they do the administrative work that the organization will naturally expect from them. And, there is going to be the hundreds of audits that they have to answer to. Probably, they have to spend more time doing paper work than interacting with students. And they have to spend more time monitoring the paper work than they would have spend making those papers in the first place. And, of course, they have to come up with quality publication; nothing less than a SCI-indexed journal.

All this has to be done with no time, no money and absolutely no motivation other than the sharp animal instinct of survival.

The problem with quality research is that it takes a lot of money. To do an experiment, you need quality equipment. If someone tells that there are free tools available, all i can retort is: just because they don't charge fees, would you send your own child to a government school. On top of the resources, we need an environment conducive of research. And, then there is the requirement of free time and a quality support team.

Without these, no amount of rules is going to change anything.

If the higher powers think that they would accept only publications meeting certain metrics, our compelled researchers are smart enough to get a journal meeting those metrics but with relaxed entry criteria.

All that has happened so far is adding one straw at a time atop the camel.

Is there a cure?   

I am among those who strongly believe that no one has the right to complain unless they can also suggest one plausible solution.

Let me first start with the toughest one. We need desperate reforms in our school education. There is already a shift towards outcome based education. Now, we need to change our school system to allow students to learn one skill at a time and move one. Ideally, we should have a set of exams where individual skills are tested, like can student add any two numbers, can a student interpret a graph, can a student identify the correct spelling of words, does the student have a vocabulary of N number of words, etc. The new test system must have provisions to check creativity, problem solving skills, ethics. Most importantly, respect the bell curve. India is a large country. Not all students are going to be good in all the subjects/skills. Some are going to be way above average, some shall be below average. 100% pass is as good as 100% failure. If a student got 100/100 marks, the test is broken.

Stop gobble up and vomit type questions in examinations. None of us are going to know everything when we go to work. There are many things we learn as we work, there are many things that even a person with 30-35 years experience doesn't know. Not all students can memorize tonnes of literature, and most of them are doing well when the have grown up. Once we stop this type of question, we can evaluate students based on their ability to respond to situations.

Start having separate research and teaching posts. Those in research posts can concentrate on guiding project students, students doing MS by Research(we desperately need this degree in every university department). Let those in teaching post be only judged by their teaching, and not by their research.

Change the funding method. The acceptance ratios in good conferences and journals is pretty low. Researchers must be motivated to take risks if they have to perform high quality research work. I am seriously for cheap loans for research and publication-based funding. Basically, let the researcher submit a proposal. If it sounds good(only to eliminate the obviously fake research proposals), give them an  interest concession coupon they can show to a bank. Let the people take loan and do research. Depending on where the work is published, the whole or a part of the loan can be paid by GoI. More than a large grant, most real researchers want working capital, and an assurance that they will at least get back the money they spend. Even those working with government funding roll most of the project money. Money for first project usually comes only when second project is about to get over. The fear of some bill that might get rejected will most likely be ruining their sleep. Even a separate Non banking finance company for the sole purpose of granting research loans is going to be great. Alternatively, GoI could mandate all companies to put some money from their Corporate Social Responsibility(CSR) for underwriting such research. Trust me, many such loans will be defaulted. Researchers don't talk about the hundreds of times they failed. All they can write in their resume is the few times they succeeded.

Predation of researchers and their research potential

To conclude, let's not talk about the quantity or quality of research in India. The average researcher lacks basic resources, adequate funding and time, due to the way we have chosen to measure research. The predatory journals exist because our government policy had created a large market(an estimated Rs. 600 crore market according to some). The skewed policy has resulted in good research never happening. The large number of such papers getting published by mediocre researchers leads to a huge pressure on good researchers to publish in mediocre journals, which in turn promotes more people to publish in mediocre journals. "Publish or perish" is the norm in the world of research. Actually, not only are good researchers expected to publish but their work is also expected to get lots of citations. On top of such an international pressure, the normal researcher doesn't want the pressure of tonnes of junk publications by people forced to do research due to the GoI policy compulsions. Then there is the problem of huge skill deficit. We do not teach students to think because our question papers are meant to improve pass percentage, not testing creativity or problem solving skills. We publish less because our students are not taught to evaluate or create solutions. If we don't create the right kind of environment for research, predatory publications become the last resort to make ends meet. In War and Peace, it's said that the best general just allows the good captains to make the right decisions while making them believe that it was on order passed from above. The publish-or-perish culture is enough of a motivation for those on the top. For those who are not that good in research, it's better to use peer pressure to make them publish than to compel them to publish.

The author is currently working as an Associate Professor in a reputed college. All opinions expressed are personal and in relation to the article published by Sambit Dash. None of the content expressed reflects the opinions of the author's current or previous employers.

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