The Sciences

UGC's New Ethics Course for PhD Students Is Welcome but Not Good Enough

India has developed an unenviable international reputation for research misconduct.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) has announced a new mandatory course for PhD students to familiarise them with ethical issues relevant to conducting and publishing research. In the long term, the course presumably aims to reduce the prevalence of research misconduct, for which India has developed an unenviable reputation.

The coursework the UGC has specified is to be completed before registration, and spans six units with 30 hours of teaching and which are all together worth two credits. It will cover topics such as (but not limited to) scientific conduct, publication ethics, open access publishing and research metrics.

There are many reasons why the Indian scientific community has a poor reputation when it comes to research quality. One of them is that most scientists and students are not very fluent in English, the de facto language of research worldwide, and are inclined to repeat what others have said when they can’t say it themselves. Another is that the education system – aside from notable exceptions at the level of some universities – has downplayed the importance of not plagiarising or not cherry-picking data.

Further, and to echo R. Prasad, science editor at The Hindu, the course is welcome to the extent that it addresses data fabrication and falsification but disappointing because it doesn’t extend to image manipulation.

In 2019, The Hindu reported that a string of papers published by Indian scientists had been flagged on a research discussion platform for including images that had been modified and/or copied from other sources in order to support a result when in fact they didn’t. The scientists that authored these papers, and who were thus responsible for the manipulation, hailed from prestigious national and state-level institutions as well as less prominent places, suggesting that the problem wasn’t affected by access to resources or better working environments but was likely more systemic in nature.

That many of these scientists also hold senior positions in their respective organisations, ergo the image manipulation was intentional and not inadvertent, supports the same conclusion. For example, in 2017, it emerged that V. Ramakrishnan, the director of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Thiruvananthapuram, had published 50 papers from 1984 to 2014 that contained plagiarised text – a charge that Ramakrishnan rejected.

While some people, including administrators and research funders, may only just be waking up to the true extent of the problem, Retraction Watch‘s searchable database of retracted papers suggests Indian scientists have been manipulating images for decades. Elisabeth Bik, a microbiologist and scientific integrity consultant, has also unearthed numerous papers on Twitter and the evaluation platform with problematic images and which had Indian authors.

The course is also limited because it doesn’t discuss, at least on the face of it, the consequences of engaging in unethical practices. Then again, if the corresponding sanctions exist, all institutes must implement them and uniformly so. Currently, very few researchers at various institutes have been appropriately punished for their transgressions, contributing to the widespread idea that, in India, you can plagiarise and flourish. It’s possible that simply ensuring intentional errors will be caught and dealt with, irrespective of who committed them and their stature within an institution, could significantly mitigate the extent of the problem. And if scientific institutions can make a habit of it, the UGC or any other body may have fewer reasons to interfere.

Thus, Prasad writes, “If UGC is serious about teaching research and publication ethics, it should make scientific conduct and publication ethics into two separate courses with sufficient teaching hours or devote more time to teach research ethics and necessarily include image preparation as part of the course.”

But if the course is going to be administered in its current form, then the UGC at least has to commit to two things: first, quantify the problem and maintain the numbers on record, and second, check whether the course achieved its intended outcomes, such as by reducing the number of cases of misconduct, once every five years and modify the course as necessary.