Making publication criteria a key requirement for academic promotion in Pakistan was always going to throw up problems.
First, it took its inevitable toll on teaching, with ambitious scholars becoming more intent on churning out papers. The biggest rewards are reserved for those who publish in so-called high-impact international journals. Such a policy has well-known challenges around its tendency to distort local research priorities and even encourage research misconduct, but at least such journals adhere to basic standards of ethics and professionalism.
However, for those Pakistani researchers unable to meet the publishing criteria of such journals, or who wish to publish locally, there is an alternative. The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan has also included some local journals on its list of those that promotion committees can legitimately take into account. We are not talking about the so-called predatory open access journals that publish virtually anything submitted to them in exchange for a fee. Instead, we are talking about traditional journals, mostly managed by the old, public sector universities, that charge authors, at most, for the cost of printing. Although they do not have impact factors, they are much valued by researchers in Pakistan, especially doctoral students.
Their inclusion on the approved list is intended partly to encourage the growth of a healthy research culture in Pakistan. However, many of them, in truth, have become barriers to achieving that goal owing to their favouritism and lack of transparency and professionalism – all of which is very frustrating for those academics used to being judged on merit and hard work. Hence, while publishing in such journals may appear to be the easier route, it is, in reality, beset with difficulties.
Communication is a major issue. Many local journals do not have websites that are regularly updated, few have online submission systems and some do not even acknowledge the papers that they do receive. If they send out a paper for peer review, their editors never keep authors informed about progress, however much they are prompted. Indeed, authors who attempt to elicit such information are quite likely to receive an automated refusal notice for their troubles.
It doesn’t help that, barring a few exceptions, local journals do not have enough reviewers who are able to respond promptly. Sometimes they even resort to sending the manuscript to a reviewer in an unrelated discipline, which helps no one.
Even if a paper is accepted, many journals never communicate with their authors about subsequent progress in the publication process. On the rare occasions that they answer a query, scholars are assured that their paper will be published in the next issue. But when the next issue arrives, the promised manuscript rarely appears. It may even be rejected, a year or more after submission.
Editors sometimes have legitimate reasons for delays. However, in the case of journals lacking ethics, the most common one is illegitimate: favouritism. Those who can influence local editors thanks to their closeness to those in authority take advantage to get published quickly.
Then there are those journals that, like predatory journals, accept and publish almost anything that is sent to them, without paying due attention to quality of language, research methodology or content.
Although federal and provincial education commissions have taken several constructive steps, they need to do more to get a grip on this situation. Encouraging domestic editors to get experience of working on the editorial board of international journals could help. Acknowledging the workload of university faculty involved in journal management is also important, as is offering the right support to help them carry out these duties. What is the point in taking on responsibilities that one cannot manage? Only those with a genuine interest in this largely unpaid academic role should be permitted to become editors.
Since the establishment of the Higher Education Commission in 2002, Pakistan has been investing in higher education, mainly through research grants and through funding Pakistani scholars to study abroad. However, a thriving knowledge economy also requires a sound academic research publishing system, and its creation must be taken seriously.
Abdur Rehman Cheema is an academic and practitioner based in Islamabad.
Mehvish Riaz is assistant professor at the University of Engineering and Technology Lahore and a Fulbright Fellow.