Regulator scraps publication requirement for PhD hopefuls

As part of far-reaching changes in eligibility criteria, admissions and evaluation methods for doctoral degrees, India’s higher education regulator has scrapped a rule that requires PhD students to publish an article in a peer-reviewed journal to qualify for a doctoral degree.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) had previously required PhD students to publish at least one article and present two papers at conferences or seminars before they submit their research thesis. Under the latest regulations governing minimum standards and procedures for the award of PhD degrees, announced on 7 November, scholars will no longer be required to do this.

The UGC expects that the withdrawal of the publishing requirement will mean a less challenging research environment for students and universities, as seen in the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), where there has been no such requirement for PhDs.

UGC Chairperson Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar has attempted to allay fears that an end to the rule would affect research quality. “Focusing on high-quality research will lead to publications in good journals, even if it is not mandatory. It will add value when [graduates] apply for employment or post-doctoral opportunities,” he said.

Some academics have pointed out that withdrawal of the requirement is in line with global standards, because publishing a paper before obtaining a doctorate is not mandatory in most countries. However, doing so is considered essential for any good researcher.

A recent UGC study featuring 2,573 research scholars across India’s centrally funded universities and IITs revealed that mandatory publication has not been helpful for maintaining research quality in universities because about three-quarters of the submissions are not in quality Scopus-indexed journals.

Predatory journals

According to some academics and students, the latest change will curb “cash for trash” – the practice of researchers paying to get their papers published in poor quality and so-called ‘predatory’ journals.

India was recently found to be one of the largest users worldwide of predatory, or substandard, journals. In 2018 a study conducted by Bhushan Patwardhan, a professor at the University of Pune, found that 88% of a list of journals approved by the UGC and recommended by universities were substandard or ‘dubious’.

Patwardhan, who is also a former vice-chairman of the UGC, has said the tendency to equate research quality with the number of citations and further connect it to the reputation of a scientist, was a matter of concern.

In an article published this week in the Indian Express newspaper, Patwardhan and K P Mohanan, the chairman of India’s National Accreditation and Assessment Council’s (NAAC) executive committee, said the UGC’s new PhD guidelines addressed only a small part of a bigger problem.

Strengthening research culture

“The real challenge is how to strengthen the research culture in Indian universities. It is expected that any good doctoral research should be a quest for truth, adding to the existing body of knowledge,” they said.

“It should not be done just for the sake of a degree like a PhD to get a job, promotion, recognition, prestige, publications, patents, etc, although these may emerge as natural outcomes.”

A psychology research scholar in New Delhi who requested anonymity told University World News that scholars “often publish their papers in journals that are not adequately peer reviewed and this trend has affected the quality of research work in India”.

She added: “The UGC's move is indeed a sound one. Studies have shown that most doctoral students, instead of sending their papers to reputed journals and waiting for review and revision, get them published in journals of dubious quality just to fulfil the requirement. Many students want to complete their doctoral degrees as soon as possible, rather than spending more time on quality research.”

Some academics argue that the reputation of a researcher and a university depends on the papers published and cited. Funding is also based on publishing and citation indicators. Without the requirement, the responsibility of encouraging research scholars to publish papers in reputed journals now rests with the university research advisory councils and doctoral supervisors.

However, Rajesh Jha, a former member of the Executive Council of Delhi University, questioned how the scrapping of publications of research papers would contribute to improved quality of the PhD. “At one stroke you had introduced [it] and at another stroke you had withdrawn publication of research papers,” he said, referring to the UGC.

Referring to other moves that could arguably lower standards, he said the UGC is “allowing online classes for course work” and “has removed the residency period as well”.

Partha Pratim Ray, a professor in the department of physics at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, said the UGC needed to conduct checks on substandard publications instead of doing away with the mandatory publication of research papers.

He said the move, which will make it easier for researchers to complete their degree, would benefit private universities “who would be making money as the mandatory clause of publication has been scrapped”.

Admission changes

Other changes to the doctorate announced by the UGC include the launch of part-time PhDs aimed at working professionals (IITs already allow such programmes) and changes to eligibility criteria for admissions.

The UGC also amended the rules to allow students graduating with a four-year bachelor’s degree to register for a PhD.

Alongside those students, “we have students having three years of graduation and two years of post-graduation, so there will be two categories of students, which will create another problem,” noted Ray.

In terms of the new rules, anyone with a four-year/eight-semester bachelor’s programme degree with a minimum aggregate of 75% or an equivalent grade will be eligible to register for a PhD. Until now, a masters degree with at least a 55% aggregate was required for doctoral aspirants.

The option to take up a PhD immediately after obtaining a four-year bachelors could lead to an increase in the number of research scholars needing supervision, academics said.

Jha said there may be subjects which allow for doing a PhD part time, but many subjects need “the total presence and total involvement of the student.

“Earlier, there were no UGC regulations for the PhD and universities used to frame their own rules and regulations. Every university has its own system and requirements so this policy of the UGC is not in sync with the basic philosophy of higher education [which] needs a lot of autonomy and much respect for diversity,” Jha added.

According to the latest report of the All India Survey on Higher Education, PhD enrolment in India rose from 126,451 in 2015-16 to 202,550 in 2019-20.