A University Grants Commission (UGC)-appointed committee has recommended that it should not be mandatory for PhD students to publish journal articles (in addition to writing their dissertation) in order to earn their doctorates, Nature reported. UGC regulations currently require that:
Ph.D. scholars must publish at least one (1) research paper in refereed journal and make two paper presentations in conferences/seminars before the submission of the dissertation/thesis for adjudication, and produce evidence for the same in the form of presentation certificates and/or reprints.
The larger issue here is the lack of rigorousness and the indifferent quality of PhD programmes at Indian universities which lend to poor quality research. The sorry state of research is widely known and acknowledged. Less than two weeks ago, in a public notice issued on May 21, 2019, the UGC invited proposals from interested parties to conduct a study on ‘The Quality of PhD Theses in Indian Universities’ in order to review and assess the quality of all PhD dissertations submitted at India’s universities – whether central, state, state-private or deemed-to-be universities – over the last 10 years. Clearly, the UGC wants to get a better idea about how bad things are.
PhD programmes at most Indian universities are, despite what some would consider to be stringent UGC regulations, poorly run. The fault lies at several levels, not just with the rules, and not only with the UGC either. University officials, faculty and students have all contributed to diminishing the meaning of research.
Bogus research, whether by PhD students or faculty, is commonplace and used for obtaining PhDs or publishing journal articles (often in fake journals). Offenders are rarely caught and almost never penalised. It is, however, true that the UGC itself has unwittingly magnified some of these problems.
While research fraud has always existed, the problem has become bigger over the last decade. In 2010, in its enthusiasm to improve the research performance of universities, the UGC introduced the Academic Performance Indicators (APIs) in which publishing journal articles was made mandatory for faculty across all kinds of institutions, including teaching-focused colleges.
This led to an explosion in the quantity of bogus research. The UGC is still firefighting the ill-effects of that decision, for example by preparing regulations against plagiarism and by trying to prepare a list of legitimate – as opposed to fake or predatory – journals. Incidentally, India leads the world when it comes to publishing in fake journals.
As with APIs (which applied to faculty), for PhD students, the requirement of publishing a journal article in addition to the dissertation was no doubt introduced to promote research. The requirement also made the PhD programme seem more rigorous. However, by most accounts, what it has done is to promote bogus research. Many PhD students took the path of publishing in fake journals. For others, publishing a journal article simply became an additional burden and delayed obtaining a PhD.
There are reasonable arguments both for and against the requirement for publishing a journal article before completion of the PhD dissertation. In theory, publishing one article – not necessarily in a journal which ranks among the top 10 or 20 in the field – that draws from one’s (ongoing) PhD dissertation does not seem too demanding.
One might add that it should even be expected from students at the best universities in the country. On the other hand, writing the dissertation is the final frontier for PhD students. All else including course work, exams and publishing journal articles is secondary.
It is not only in India that there are disagreements on whether or not PhD students should publish journal articles before completing their PhD dissertation. In North America and elsewhere too, the issue is sometimes a matter of debate, although the broader context is somewhat different. In most cases, publishing journal articles is not mandatory; instead, PhD students are strongly advised by their PhD supervisors and mentors to publish an article or two in academic journals (or obtain an acceptance from them) by the time they defend their PhD dissertation.
However, this is to make their applications sufficiently competitive for faculty positions. In an increasingly tight job market with a shrinking of tenure-track positions over the years, PhD students must push themselves to publish in order to improve their chances of securing a tenure-track faculty position. Furthermore, the culture of publishing is deeply ingrained at research and teaching-cum-research universities and incoming PhD students absorb the informal rules fairly quickly.
Much likes Western universities, the best Indian universities – especially some of the IITs, IIMs and several private universities – expect entry-level faculty i.e. assistant professors to either have published journal articles (or have articles accepted for publication) or (in the case of those from the humanities and social sciences) have obtained a book contract. These institutions are actively seeking and hiring those with PhDs from abroad precisely because they have completed their PhDs at institutions where a culture of publishing is widespread and have usually published journal articles during the course of their PhD programmes.
Therefore, whether or not the UGC gets rid of the journal article requirement, PhDs from Indian universities who are entering the job market minus publications are at a disadvantage. That being said, at the average Indian university, indeed at most Indian universities, faculty appointments are often rigged so such things do not matter at all.
Pushkar is the director at the International Centre Goa. The views expressed here are personal.