We May Soon Find Out How Good Our PhDs Are

A review of recent PhDs will be a useful first step in knowing just how bad things are.

There are occasions, however rare, when the much-maligned University Grants Commission (UGC) deserves our applause. One such occasion is now.

In a public notice issued on May 21, 2019, the UGC has invited proposals from interested parties to conduct a study on ‘The Quality of PhD Theses in Indian Universities’. The objective of this initiative is to review and assess the quality of all PhD dissertations submitted at India’s universities – whether central, state, state-private and deemed-to-be universities – over the last 10 years.

The specific quality-aspects that are to be looked into is open. The notice states that these are to be proposed by the interested parties themselves. Presumably, plagiarism will top the list because it is commonplace in Indian academia and at the same time it is easier to determine due to the widespread use and effectiveness of anti-plagiarism software. Some of the rest, such as manufactured or faked research – whether undertaken in laboratories, libraries or in the field – will surely take longer than the six-month period the UGC has announced for the completion of the study.

But why is this review necessary in the first place?

It is true that the Indian government spends precious little on research. However, it is also true that much of what passes off as research by a very large number of researchers and teachers at our universities is bogus. Plagiarism and other kinds of research fraud are commonplace. Indians lead the world in terms of publishing in fake journals. We know that things are bad because even though the quantity of research has improved somewhat since the introduction of the Academic Performance Indicators (APIs), the quality of our research output remains low. And poor research performance is one of the reasons why India’s universities are lagging in world university rankings.

In this context, the PhD thesis or dissertation is typically the first major research product that a prospective faculty member produces. The quality of a PhD dissertation indicates two basic things. First, and the most obvious, is that it indicates whether the student/researcher is capable of producing good-quality research.

Second (and this is particularly important in India): the review will reveal which universities and university department support genuine research and/or are capable of doing so. In some, or even, many cases, poor quality of PhDs may have more to do with the limitations of a department/university than with an individual’s capability. Institutions can be obstacles to good research. It is a sad fact that a very large number of departments/universities in India do not have the physical infrastructure – such as libraries and laboratories – and the intellectual/academic capabilities – such as suitably-qualified mentors for PhD students – to support research.

This may not be true across all disciplines/departments at a given institution but certainly applies to many. In addition, there are cases where departments/universities are not entirely lacking in these respects but they have given up on genuine research because the benefits of bogus research – whether from plagiarism or publishing in fake journals – are easy and immediate in terms of faculty promotions and other benefits such as a high score on research for departments/universities in national rankings. Of course, the incentives for bogus research are even higher than normal because penalties for plagiarism or other sins are nearly unheard of.

Despite institutional limitations, however, there are still some good quality PhD dissertations that are written and submitted. A review will reveal just how large their numbers are.

Overall, a review of recent PhDs will be a useful first step in knowing just how bad things are or whether they are better than we think in terms of research at our universities.

It is possible that some of those who obtained their PhDs in the last 10 years may have started to worry about being found out because their dissertations are plagiarised or contain manufactured research. There is nothing to fear from this review, however. It appears from the public notice that the UGC’s intentions are simply to find out what has been going on over the past decade.

Further, India’s universities are extremely tolerant towards research fraud. It is rare for plagiarists and other offenders to be punished even when they are caught. Still, it must be admitted that progress – though slow – is being made. Last year, the UGC approved the UGC (Promotion of Academic Integrity and Prevention of Plagiarism in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2018 to address the problem of plagiarism by students, researchers and faculty.

The UGC is to be congratulated for taking the decision to assess the PhDs submitted over the last 10 years, even if it is likely that the review will throw up seriously embarrassing results. According to the All India Survey of Higher Education, in 2010, there were 77,798 students enrolled in Ph.D. programmes. Their numbers had doubled by 2017, when there were 161,412 students in PhD programmes.

While this data represents less than 0.5% of all the students, it will be useful for the government to know whether its strategies for promoting and monitoring research have proved beneficial or not. An increase in student numbers in PhD programmes is not good enough. What matters even more is the quality of their research.

Pushkar is director, The International Centre Goa. The views expressed here are personal.