Monday, June 02, 2014

Academic research in India and top-ranked journal publications

Indian universities, the IITs and the IIMs rank low in international rankings. Everybody knows why: inadequate faculty publications in top-ranked international journals. The solution that many institutions have adopted is to incentivise publications in these journals by making these a condition for confirmation and promotion.

Pulapre Balakrishnan, writing in the Hindu, questions this approach and proposes an alternative:

In July 2013, a group of scientists and publishers issued a statement called the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). While identifying peer-reviewed papers as central to an evaluation of research output, they argued for eliminating the use of journal-based metrics, such as the Journal Impact Factor (JIF) in funding, appointment and promotion considerations. It was recommended that research ought to be assessed on its own merits rather than on the basis of the journal in which it was published. It is significant that among the original signatories of DORA was the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

We need to heed this call. Quantitative scoring based on JIF may wear the garb of objectivity, and cardinality may even bring with it the comfort of transparency to some, but it cannot be a substitute for assessing knowledge creation. The long-standing practice in India had been to have research peer-reviewed and these reports considered by a committee of experts. There should be a return to this practice as it is superior to the points-based system which prejudges content and quality. Finally, in issuing a guideline for assessing research, the UGC must focus exclusively on the researcher’s contribution to knowledge and cease privileging “foreign” publications over “Indian” ones and “international” conferences over “national” ones. 
Balakrishnan does not spell out why precisely we should not insist on publications in top-ranked journals. One important reason that I would venture to put forward is that, at least in the social sciences, it is difficult for Indian researchers, working on Indian problems, to get published in the top journals which are overwhelmingly in the West (mostly, the US). These topics may not be of interest to those journals. Also, publication in a journal requires knowing what topics and approaches are the flavour of the day, networking with journal editors and referees, having the opportunity to have one's working paper critiqued in seminars at leading colleges. Bereft of these advantages, Indian academics face heavy odds. Insisting on A-grade journal publications, in these circumstances, could lead to demoralisation- and faculty not producing anything at all. A classic case of the best becoming the enemy of the good.

That said, what do we make of Balakrishnan's alternative? "Peer-review" within one's own institution can become a farce, an exercise in mutual back-scratching (or back-stabbing). A committee of outside experts is a better idea but, again, these experts must not be constituted by the head of the institution whose faculty is being evaluated. We need an independent body constituted by the government for this purpose. This body must consist of academics with impeccable research credentials. MHRD had proposed setting up a collegium of scholars for making appointments to central universities, IITs and IIMs. Such a body could also be entrusted with the task of reviewing research.

However, we need to be clear about one thing. If we turn our backs on international publications, we must forget about moving up in international rankings as well.

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