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The Sciences

Govt Shows Clear Signs of Getting Serious About Ethical Violations in Academia

The National Policy of Academic Ethics, now in the public domain, aims to address problems such as plagiarism, data manipulation and harassment.

In recent years, much has been reported and written about a variety of ethical violations in Indian academia. In matters of research and publications, a series of stories in the Indian Express exposed the flourishing India-based predatory publishing industry. Academics based at Indian colleges, universities and research centres are major contributors to fake journals. Plagiarism and falsified research has also received substantial attention. Reports and analyses of sexual harassment and caste discrimination have also surfaced.

There are now signs that the Indian government wants to address some of these problems.

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In mid-2018, the University Grants Commission (UGC) implemented new regulations to curb and punish plagiarism. The UGC has also been trying hard to prepare a credible master list of legitimate journals. Last November, it acknowledged that while legitimate journals in the sciences, engineering, technology, agriculture and biomedical sciences were adequately covered in SCOPUS and Web of Science (WeB) databases, this was not the case with journals in the social sciences, humanities, arts, culture and Indian knowledge systems. For that reason, the commission established the Consortium for Academic and Research Ethics (CARE) to identify and list legitimate and good quality journals. The ‘UGC-CARE Reference List of Quality Journals’ has now been made available.

Outside the UGC building. Credit: PTI

In mid-2018, the University Grants Commission (UGC) implemented new regulations to curb and punish plagiarism. Photo: PTI

The National Policy of Academic Ethics

Initiatives to curb ethical violations have been taken by other government bodies as well. Around the same time that CARE released its list of quality journals, another document was brought to my attention.

The office of the principal scientific adviser to the Government of India has released the draft National policy on ‘Academic Ethics’. The document “lays down the foundational principles for upholding integrity and ethical practices in an academic environment” and “streamlines the course of action to ensure delivery of justice in case of malpractices.” It will be in the public domain for some time to receive feedback before a final policy document can be approved.

The National Policy of Academic Ethics (NPAE) is only six pages long, but quite broad in its scope. It acknowledges earlier guidelines on ethical scientific conduct laid down by the Indian Academy of Sciences and the Department of Biotechnology and makes it clear that it is concerned with ensuring ethical practices in all academic institutions in the country.

This is not the occasion to discuss all the key observations and recommendations made in the three parts of the NPAE: Introduction; Policy of Ethical Conduct; and Regulatory Norms, but some merit greater attention than others.

The NPAE devotes substantial space to ‘Purity of data’ (pp. 1-2). This is extremely important because there are an increasing number of reports on data manipulation by Indian scientists. In earlier decades, data manipulation was less likely to be detected but in the coming years, with the growing popularity of websites such as Pubpeer, it is likely that that there will be more exposes of data manipulation. NPAE calls out data fraud of such kind to be a “serious offense” that harms the “image of the entire community and country” and recommends “stringent punishment” for deliberate falsification of data. Of course, fabrication and falsification of data is not uncommon in other countries. There has been a massive increase in the number of retracted papers in recent years (also see here). The larger problem in India is the casual attitude to such wrongdoings by academics.

Data fraud is also not limited to scientists. Social scientists too engage in such practices though arguably, the potential damage caused by fraudulent research in the sciences is usually significantly higher than in the social sciences.

Predatory journals and plagiarism

The NPAE also devotes substantial space to publishing in predatory journals and to plagiarism (pp. 2-3). Regarding predatory journals, it is careful to make a distinction with “legitimate open-access journals which may also charge a publication fee.” The distinction is important because there are instances when publications in legitimate journals which charge a publishing fee are discredited on that basis because all predatory journals charge a similar processing fee. The NPAE also calls upon relevant authorities to “take serious note whenever a candidate for any position or award has publications in proven predatory journals.”

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On plagiarism, the document clearly states that any kind of plagiarism including self-plagiarism is unethical and unacceptable. At the same time, it recognises that “the extent of it [plagiarism] can be variable and sometimes it can also be unintentional.” The document states that text-matching software only alerts us that plagiarism may have taken place but that must be “verified by a qualified human being familiar with the area.” In a later section on handling policy violations, the NPAE also recommends corrective and punitive action (p. 5).

The NPAE recommendations on plagiarism are not different from the more detailed UGC Regulations, 2018 on the subject. However, taken together, it is heartening to know that more than one government institution is both recognising the problem and seeking to address it.

These predatory journals, and those who publish in them, tend to be from Asia and Africa. Credit: alexwatkins/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Regarding predatory journals, the NPAE is careful to make a distinction with “legitimate open-access journals which may also charge a publication fee.” Credit: alexwatkins/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Harassment and discrimination

Other than its coverage of research and publications, the NPAE addresses issues such as safety and environment, public interaction and outreach and the role of whistleblowers. However, the last theme that merits mention here is regarding bias and discrimination in academia, including sexual harassment.

In the section on ‘Bias and discrimination’ (p. 3), the document acknowledges that academic communities are enriched by diversity including gender and ethnicity and further that: “There must be no direct or indirect bias or discrimination against any individual based on the above categories.”  The NPAE especially calls for “full and equal participation of women in all academic activities” and for everyone “to support a gender-neutral and supportive environment to achieve this goal.” Finally, it states clearly that:

Sexual misconduct and/or gender-based harassment in the workplace are totally unacceptable. Legal structures and rules regarding how to deal with sexual misconduct must be rigorously followed. There also exist many forms of behaviour which may not amount to harassment in the legal sense but constitute gender-based discrimination. Institutions should strive to ensure that their members do not engage in such actions and should pro-actively sensitize their community on these issues.

While different versions of such recommendations as those made by NPAE already exist at India’s academic institutions, what the document does is refine and extend those recommendations. It also serves another reminder that perhaps the government is – despite what pessimists may believe – committed to bringing about improvements in the academic culture at India’s colleges, universities and research centres. For that to happen however, policy recommendations or even clearly laid out rules and regulations will not be enough. Much will depend on the kind of university leadership that the government permits and their autonomy or insulation from politics.

Pushkar is director, The International Centre Goa. He tweets at @PushHigherEd. The views expressed here are personal.