Balaram committee has recommended to do away with the current UGC rule requiring PhD students to publish a paper prior to thesis submission. Many institutions have abdicated the responsibility for PhD quality by outsourcing it to journals, says Prof. Balaram. Prof. VijayRaghavan’s alternative solution is to allow students to submit thesis chapters to a preprint server and move on.
If the recommendations of a four-member committee headed by Prof. P. Balaram are accepted by the University Grants Commission (UGC), it will no longer be mandatory for every PhD student in India to publish a paper in a peer-reviewed journal before he/she is awarded the degree. The committee — consisting of two people from the humanities field and two from the sciences — was constituted by the UGC last year.
According to current UGC regulations, a PhD student is required to publish at least one paper in a peer-reviewed journal before thesis submission.
“The committee has recommended that the mandatory requirement of a paper publication in a peer-reviewed journal is not required for awarding the degree,” says Prof. Balaram. “The idea is that individual institutions should have and implement internal standards and should be responsible for the quality of thesis produced.”
Prof. Balaram adds: “We can’t have the UGC regulation-imposed quality. Quality of doctoral work has to be improved by supervisors, examiners and institutions. If they are not bothered then how can any regulation improve quality? Can a circular from Delhi applicable to all institutions improve the quality of work?”
He is of the view that supervisors and institutions have outsourced the responsibility to journals to maintain and improve the quality of doctoral work. “Academic standard has to be maintained by academics. Right now, the problem in India is that many institutions have abdicated the responsibility for PhD quality by outsourcing it to journals,” he notes.
“We can’t make bad institutions good by imposing mandatory requirements or regulations. Students would always find a way to break the regulation,” Prof. Balaram says. That precisely is what happened in India after the UGC made paper publication prior to thesis submission mandatory. The number of predatory journals published in India and the number of papers published in such journal by researchers and students based in India has grown exponentially since 2011. The UGC regulation was announced in June 2009 and notified in the gazette in July 2009.
With the UGC rule, students in good institutions where good quality research is carried out have been publishing in respected journals while those in places where such facilities are not good enough to do publication-worth work still manage to publish in journals which do not look for any novelty in the work. And many respectable publishing houses have such journals and many papers from India get published in such journals.
Predatory journals is another huge problem. Despite the White list created by UGC, which had to be revised a few times to remove predatory journals, it is far easy for both existing and newer titles to score enough points and be included in the White list. The criteria for inclusion are not only vague but also loose. In short, gaming the UGC’s White list is quite easy.
“Once UGC’s Academic Performance Index (API) for recruitment and promotion of faculty and the mandatory requirement for PhD students is done away with then people will automatically lose interest in publishing in predatory journals,” says Prof. Balaram.
Improving quality or research
The Committee is also tasked to look at ways in which UGC can improve research. “Looking at the mandatory rule is one part while looking at improving research forms the other part of the committee’s mandate,” says Prof. Balaram. “But to improve research the basic requirement is more finance.” Now, whether the UGC will have the resources and the will to invest more money in State universities and other institutions to improve the quality of research is a million dollar question.
Prof. K. VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India offers an alternative solution to UGC’s mandatory publication rule in a peer-reviewed journal.
“Should a PhD degree in today’s world need prior publication in the old-school format? The answer is no. Scientific publishing has been undergoing a revolution the past few years, So it is timely to think of how work leading to a PhD degree should be communicated,” Prof. VijayRaghavan says in an email to me.
“One way ahead will be to have the thesis chapters submitted to arXiv or bioarXiv [preprint servers for physics and biology respectively] or some such. Move on. [This will] provide valuable learning on writing up one’s work well. The publications can come in due course, or not,” Prof. VijayRaghavan says. “Postdoc, faculty, funding programmes should use preprints for evaluation and not value them any less than publications.”
Prof. VijayRaghavan is convinced that doing away with the current regulation and offering this alternative will have several advantages. Engineering, the ecological sciences, the humanities each have their own timelines. But the natural sciences and the life sciences in particular are not on the fast-track. It also takes a longer time for a student to get a paper published in natural sciences and life sciences. And till such time the paper gets accepted in a journal the student cannot submit his/her thesis.
Encouraging PhD students to submit their articles to preprint servers will have the valuable effect on getting the training component done with speedily and move on to the next step. “[At the post-doctoral level] too, this route of using the preprint server as the first step should be adopted,” he says.
“This approach has the value that you evaluate the work and not where it is published. It does eventually get peer-reviewed and published, but that process has no impact on your PhD, or postdoc,” VijayRaghavan emphasises.
“The measurement of scientific success and its intertwining with the scientific publishing industry has changed the evaluation in science and scientific publishing,” Prof. VijayRaghavan says. “The large volume of publications and our self-imposed metrics of success has conflated quantisation with measuring quality, and precision with accuracy. How much and where you have published is what is looked at. This must change, bottom-up and top-down.”
He does believe that there can be no escape to some of the so-called purely objective metric independent of the people evaluating, such as ‘impact-factor’. “There will be a broth in the evaluation bowl: Preprints, publications, databases, etc. It’s tough but fair and just. Not just but unfair as now,” he concludes.