Race to publish: Academics are forced to resort to ‘tricks’

Widespread reforms were introduced in the Pakistani higher education sector in 2001. A core aspect of these reforms was to increase the research output of universities. In practice, this has been interpreted by universities and academics as publishing more and more research papers.

“Ever since these reforms, a greater emphasis has been placed on publishing research papers. The Higher Education Commission [a regulating and overseeing body of higher education in the country] pays a great deal of attention to this activity – it is the main research activity in nearly all universities,” said a dean of a major university in the capital Islamabad.

As is the case in all academic contexts, research publications have become an important indicator of faculty members’ productivity and performance in nearly all universities across the country. This aspect of the reforms has apparently paid dividends and research publications from Pakistani universities have increased by 400%.

The number of research papers published from the country, which were under 1,000 per year before 2001, rose to a little more than 20,000 in 2020, according to data retrieved from the Web of Science.

Gaming the system

However, on the flip side and much to the disadvantage of the quality of research conducted, the policies and measures concerned with research and publications have resulted in a race for ballooning numbers of publications. Both institutions and individual faculty members want to stay in the lead in this race.

‘Another number’, ‘another publication’, ‘another citation’ have become the be-all and end-all of the professional life cycle of a university academic because this is how their performance and productivity is now measured.

“I have to publish. There is no survival without it now. I cannot get my promotion without publishing a certain number of papers now. I am respected and valued only if the list of my publications is long,” said a university professor.

The sad part of this preoccupation with increasing the number of publications has been the tremendous pressure on faculty members to publish no matter what. Some of them are not research savvy, or do not work in an environment that is conducive to research, or do not have access to the funds and facilities that are essential for research.

Yet, they still need to take part in this race to publish and to deal with this they resort to what in the subcontinent is popularly called ‘jugaad’, or tricks and hacks, to increase the number of their publications which essentially qualify as research but constitute academic misconduct.

Sometimes the research is nothing more than the replication of someone else’s research as academics strive to get another paper out before the impending annual performance review and evaluation.

Even where no serious misconduct is involved, the papers published have serious methodology flaws, the peer review process is compromised, and the papers are sent to journals which have an inferior academic standing and a reputation for hasty publishing.

Taking an ‘easier way out’

A seasoned academic from Lahore justified indulging in such instances of misconduct: “Most of our faculty are overloaded with teaching since the majority of the universities are essentially teaching universities. Despite this, their annual performance appraisal includes an element of research output.

“Despite this teaching load, they feel forced to publish as an indicator of their performance. Research and publishing need time which is not there when you have a lot of teaching to do. Thus, they tend to find an easier way out to come out with yet another publication to their and their institution’s credit and get a good annual performance evaluation.”

An assistant professor added: “It is a game of numbers. No one cares what you actually published, but publish you must and that is all that matters. I, personally, do not feel that I am capable enough to publish impactful research. I do not have those skills. I did my PhD but research training was not the strongest part of that PhD. Yes, I am a good teacher and that is what they should judge me for.”

It is apparent therefore that “the game of numbers” has done more damage than good when it comes to the quality and purpose of research. The focus and emphasis on increasing the number of publications was aimed at achieving global visibility for Pakistani universities. This was indeed achieved in terms of statistics, but all this was counterproductive in relation to the real spirit of research which is impact, value and the utility for the community.

Thus, while Pakistan stands 45th globally in terms of research publications, there is little that the country can boast of in terms of the quality and impact of these publications. For example, within the published research output from Pakistan in the area of natural sciences, only 26% of articles are published in top tier journals, compared to a global average of 47%.

Even Bangladesh has a better percentage at 32%. The situation in the fields of engineering and technology, medical and health sciences, agriculture, and social sciences is not very different.

What next?

This situation demands a change of focus and the ditching of the ‘numbers game’ which has achieved only a quantitative improvement, but no qualitative change. The research produced as a result has made no contribution to the upliftment of the Pakistani nation and society.

“This is what happens when you go blindly into a race and impose top-down policies without first making fundamental and foundational changes. The intentions to increase research activities in the country were sincere. We wanted to be globally competitive, but the way they were implemented caused more damage than benefit. This obsession with the numbers game turned doing and publishing research into a mockery, a trivial activity,” said an ex-rector.

To produce research which has global impact, connection and usability in the local community, a paradigm shift is needed not just in the higher education sector but in the entire education system of Pakistan. An emphasis on the number of research publications and linking this number to university academics’ productivity and performance without making certain allowances within the higher education system puts academics in a vulnerable position and this vulnerability forces them to indulge in research misconduct.

There is a need to change from the bottom-up rather than the top-down. For this, the sector needs to strengthen and improve the quality of its research training programmes or the research component of its academic programmes. Universities also need to provide an environment that is conducive to engaging in serious research activities.

“There is a need to differentiate between teaching and research faculty and then to set expectations and performance measures accordingly,” said a department chair of a research-intensive university.

Further, there is also a need to make a paradigm shift in what the higher education system teaches and promotes in the classroom. Currently, the education system as a whole puts a premium on compliance and conformity. Creativity, individuality and independent and critical thinking are seldom encouraged.

The education system is still living and practising according to a vocabulary that is fit for the 19th and 20th centuries. Such a vocabulary is an anomaly when it comes to 21st century needs and demands. The way of thinking that students are conditioned into does not breed the kind of minds needed for research.

In the short term there is not only a need for a change specifically in research and publishing-related policies and practices in universities, but also more broadly and in the long term, there is a need for a change in the whole education system and its pedagogical practices. Only then will it be possible to produce research which not only has the promise of global impact but is also connected to and usable by the communities in which universities are based.

Hamid Ali Khan is an assistant professor of EAP (English for academic purposes) at the school of arts and sciences of the University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan. Hamid holds a Doctor of Education (TESOL) degree from the University of Exeter, United Kingdom.