To reshape the research landscape

leader In terms of sheer volumes of publication output, it is clear that the world is now looking at India as an important contributor to global research.

Research – it is more than just a word we often hear. If you take a look around, from the phones we use to the food we eat to the medicines we take, every aspect of our lives is rooted in research. Research arises out of our natural curiosity about our surroundings and the urge to innovate. The role it plays in our life is undeniably important; it helps us understand and find solutions to complex problems we are facing such as climate change, national security, and health problems. In fact, academic research is the backbone of any country’s advancement. 

In countries that are at the forefront of groundbreaking research, academic institutions play a crucial role in furthering research output. The higher education sector in these science-focused nations is closely entwined with research activities. Beyond the facilities for general education, these academic institutions have thriving research environments that provide students with opportunities and facilitate them to explore their innovative and creative side. 

Are we doing enough?

But this has proved to be the Achilles heel in the country. Despite the legacy left behind by internationally acclaimed researchers such as Srinivasa Ramanujan, C V Raman, Satyendra Nath Bose, and many more, India has lagged behind in becoming a dominant scientific force. To comprehend the reasons behind this, the question we need to address is: Are we doing enough to build our research landscape?  

Time and again, questions have been raised about the research culture of our country. Most Indian institutions have fallen short of graduating from their traditional role of providing education to becoming a fountainhead of new knowledge. The higher education and research sectors tend to operate in isolation. With the lack of a ramp that could help students transition easily from learners to researchers, a career in research is rarely on an Indian student’s mind. Bridging this gap will help our institutions become a rich foundation for research. 

While we might not have been very successful in empowering our institutions, there is a silver lining. India has been deemed to be an emerging global superpower and is making gradual progress in terms of research and development. According to a report published by the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers in October 2018, “India has seen rapid growth in recent years, and now produces 5% of global [research] outputs, ahead of Germany, UK and Japan, each on 4%.” 

In terms of sheer volumes of publication output, it is clear that the world is now looking at India as an important contributor to global research. But when it comes to publication quality, the Indian landscape is marred by rampant issues of plagiarism and questionable journals. 

Unfortunately, India is home to several questionable journals, also referred to as ‘predatory’ journals. Early this year, an Indian news media company discovered that predatory journals with a ‘pay-to-publish’ model operate in India rampantly. These journals are willing to publish a paid piece of ‘scientific’ literature. A predatory journal guarantees quick publication without assessing the quality of the research paper. Usually, unsuspecting authors end up paying fees only to realise that the journal is fake. Even if authors eventually realise the true nature of the journal, it is often impossible to get a publication fee refund or even withdraw the research paper from the bogus journal. That Indian authors fall prey to predatory journals is a reflection of both – the lack of awareness on the part of researchers and the inability of statutory bodies to monitor bogus publishers. 

While most authors who publish in predatory journals do so unwittingly, the immense pressure on Indian researchers to publish frequently and quickly might, in fact, drive some to willingly participate in predatory publishing. In an effort to boost research uptake and output, several medical and academic institutions mandate that their faculty publish a certain number of papers in order to qualify for promotions. In such a scenario, journals that promise a rapid turnaround time to publication are likely to hold an allure for researchers who want a quick ticket to publication.   

Ethical practices

To add to the woes, another serious issue plagues Indian research – plagiarism, which refers to appropriating any published work without giving its owner due credit. Plagiarism is a prevalent problem globally, its roots in India probably lie in the learning and assessment practices that often encourage rote erudition and the lack of awareness among students and researchers regarding ethical publishing practices. 

It is a well-known fact that conducting research involves a huge investment in terms of time, money and resources. So, when researchers bypass ethics and publish papers to boost their CV, all that they achieve is an addition of a bad quality paper to their list of publications. This is in sharp contrast to the spirit of research, which aims to further science and benefit humanity.

Bad publications that are ethically compromised or of low quality can set back the developmental pace of our country. Rampant unethical practices also paint a dismal picture of our research sector and higher education system in the international arena. To emerge as a superpower, we need to make a joint effort that targets all of India’s weaknesses with regard to research and publication. We need to empower our institutions so that bright young minds feel encouraged to find new ways and perspectives to understand the world around us better. 

The only way of increasing the impact of research is making publications ethically sound and credible. Author education regarding ethical publishing practices should be a goal everyone in academia works towards. It is true that research ethics is highly nuanced. So, what could authors do if they fail to find the right guidance on their journey to academic publishing? 

Professional publication support, publication-related training and academic editing services could be the solution to ensure that their research is of the highest quality and is capable of creating an impact. Qualified scientific editors understand the challenges authors face and have a deep understanding of what reputed journals expect from a research paper. 

As an academically inclined nation that has produced some of the world’s brightest minds, we have it in us to unravel the secrets of this universe. As a nation, we have to make every effort to produce good quality research and pave the way for our socio-economic development. Let us all join forces and pledge to improve our research landscape and enable our country to join the ranks of the world’s top scientific powers.

(The author is with Cactus Communications)

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