The quest for excellence will remain unfulfilled so long as our top educational institutions lack the means of entering the global publishing market.
The fact that a few Indian elite academic institutions have now climbed up the ladder in global rankings done by credible international bodies was reported recently with pride in India. While this might be cause for happiness in an otherwise malaise-filled Indian academic ecosystem, Indian educationists need to reflect on how the country can climb further up the ladder.
There are many issues here, for instance those related to governance, incentives and international collaboration. Of direct interest is the question of research publications – journals where Indian scholars publish. Barring a few exceptional individuals in either the physical, natural or social sciences, the average Indian academic is probably guided on the pecking order of journals either by learning from her peers, by referring to standard platforms for journal rankings like Google Scholar’s metrics, or by turning to her own institutionally mandated journal list. For example, I learnt recently that my peers at IIM look to the journal list of the IIM I am employed with (which for better or worse, they might want to adopt or follow). A key question arises here – what should be the approach when looking at the big picture?
Should one rely on peer-endorsed journal lists, turn to lists from independent authorities (such as FT-45, UT Dallas’s list of 24 or the Australian Business Dean’s Council List) or create one’s own list? The answer might seem easily resolvable, but there are other associated issues, like manipulation in institution-created journal lists and questions on the competence of those who create such lists. Plus, like in many other situations in India, conflict of interest issues plague these discussions as well. This can happen when, for example, a senior faculty member is part of such a committee and pushes for the inclusion of a less than reputable journal just because he/she might have published there before and wants to ensure that the benefits associated with such a publications list come their way.
In addition, an argument can also be made that externally-mandated lists are sometimes either too broad and non-aspirational or too ambitious and difficult to surmount, apart from creating the opportunity for research fraud that is rearing its ugly head in Indian academic research.
It is possible that all of these discussions basically miss the larger point. If Indian academic institutions are to scale the ladder of global academic excellence with no less than pole position as the ultimate mission, this is probably the time for more holistic thinking. For example, at the engineering and management schools of India, can the leadership come together to create the IIT Deans Journal List or the IIM Deans Journal list that will be followed by all IITs, IIMs and peer engineering and management institutions? This might reduce the grouse against heterogeneous mandates for academic research excellence from one institution to the other, though they are all branded under the same acronym.
This might also be the right time to constitute a high level academic panel of repute and credibility in India which will deliberate and implement a path on how to accomplish a critical step in this context: Creating a batch of homegrown, credible Indian academic journals of repute across the social, natural and physical science spaces where not just Indians in India publish, but also global scholars of repute from all around the world. Is it wishful thinking to want an Indian Journal of Political Economy to mirror and compete with the Journal of Political Economy, creating new knowledge and re-establishing respect for domestic Indian excellence in research around the world?
Admittedly, this is easier said than done. The global market for academic publishing is currently an oligopoly, where the likes of Elsevier and respected presses from the University of Chicago or MIT enjoy a dominant position. The Chinese, some allege, are trying to disrupt this market structure – by seeding internationally respected academics of Chinese origin in prestigious editorial boards of globally respected journals with a hope for spinoffs and new journals being created by learning from that experience.
There has also been, some argue, less than successful attempts in a similar vein by the Russians or Japanese earlier. Perhaps it’s time for Indian educational authorities to brainstorm about this more actively with institutional support from the government of India. International journals like the British Medical Journal are already prospecting for India offices, but like the Indian Space Research Organisation has done to the global market for satellite launches with disruptive entry, nothing should prevent us from attempting something similar in the global market for academic publishing in journals, especially when international competitors like BMJ are testing out the Indian market.
An isolated IIT or an Indian Institute of Science climbing year-to-year rankings is one matter. A positive aggregate and structural push beyond these islands of academic excellence towards a civilisational and paradigmatic shift is another. Reflecting on the nature of scientific research, Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Might the timing be ripe for India to leave a tricoloured footprint on those shoulders?
Chirantan Chatterjee is a faculty member at IIM Bangalore. These are his personal views.