Until now, India’s government, university regulator and higher education institutions have all been casual about addressing research fraud.
Of course, there are rules against plagiarism, publishing in predatory journals or fabricating research – the three main pillars of research fraud in India. And sometimes offenders are caught and punished, such as when Chandra Krishnamurthy was sacked as vice-chancellor of Pondicherry University in 2016 after being found guilty by the University Grants Committee of large-scale plagiarism and misrepresentation of her qualifications.
Many university leaders, administrators and senior academics – even some at prestigious institutions – are known to cheat or to have cheated. But punishment is very much the exception. Offenders usually get away with it, either because they are not found out, are not reported or are not penalised. This means that they typically derive a career benefit from their misconduct, which encourages others to emulate them.
However, there are finally signs that the government is taking greater notice of the endemic nature of research fraud in India and is trying to address the problem.
In early August, the UGC approved a new set of regulations to address the plagiarism plague. While the regulations are well drafted, the challenge will be to make them work, given that much will depend on department heads and university leaders, an unknown number of whom may have risen to their current positions with the aid of fraudulent research. Still, some observers hope that things will change, even if slowly.
Moreover, the tide may also have begun to turn against predatory journals. Only a week or so before the UGC announced its new plagiarism regulations, the Indian Express, one of India’s most respected national dailies, carried a series of stories exposing the flourishing market in India for such journals. These journals, while claiming to carry out peer review, are in practice willing to publish just about anything within 48 hours – in exchange for a fee.
The issue was promptly raised in the Indian parliament where Prakash Javadekar, the Cabinet minister in charge of education, acknowledged that the newspaper revelations were “not a good story” for the country and promised firm action, saying that the government does “not want any predatory journals to exist”.
There is a bit of history behind India’s love affair with predatory journals.
In 2010, the UGC introduced the academic performance indicator in an attempt to boost the quality of Indian university research. The measure was imposed on central universities and central government-funded colleges and was linked to academics’ career advancement.
Unfortunately, it was also adopted by most universities and colleges run by the state governments, which had previously functioned solely as teaching institutions and have woeful infrastructure for research. With that, academics across the country – many of whom lacked basic research training and were already overburdened with teaching and administrative and other responsibilities – found themselves facing the choice of publishing or suffering the consequences.
It took a few years of mayhem before the UGC determined that it should attempt to curb the consequent glut of junk papers in predatory journals by preparing a list of legitimate journals and stipulating that only publication in these would count for the API. Universities were asked to make recommendations for inclusion on the list – a request passed down to each of their departments.
But the resulting list of 38,653 supposedly vetted journals, published in January 2017, still included hundreds of predatory ones. To correct that, the UGC removed 4,303 journals in May “because of poor quality or incorrect or insufficient information or false claims”. However, that list included some legitimate journals. Clearly, much work remains to be done.
Stung by the Indian Express reports, the government has issued a directive that “if any substandard/predatory journals are found to be in the list recommended by the vice-chancellors, that would be held personally against the vice-chancellor concerned”.
Since many vice-chancellors tend to be in their positions because of their proximity to key political leaders and ministers, it is unlikely that such threats will be carried out. Nevertheless, while there will certainly be no quick and easy solutions, it is encouraging that the government appears at least to have acknowledged that research fraud is a problem that needs addressing.
Pushkar is director of the International Centre Goa.