Improving the quality of doctoral students - is incentivising output the way to go? - IndiaBioscience

A recent memorandum from the Department of Science and Technology suggested incentivizing publications and patents by doctoral research scholars through a monetary reward scheme that would pay up to Rs 50000 for a publication and Rs 100000 for a patent.

In this opinion article, Shambhavi Naik, Research Fellow, Technology and Policy Programme, Takshashila Institution, and Megha, India Alliance Early Career Fellow at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) discuss the implications and possible repercussions of such a policy.

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) recently announced an inter-ministerial committee to improve the quality of doctoral research. This was accompanied by a list of recommendations, one of which is to reward PhD students for publications and patents.

Despite being the target of several policy decisions, students are seldom directly consulted on such matters. We therefore surveyed PhD students about this; of 131 respondents, ~ 56% affirmed that monetising publications and patents would improve the quality of their PhD. In contrast, the very same incentive has been vehemently opposed by faculty and the media. We use our survey to advocate a middle path: acknowledge that students may perform better with incentives, but recognise that papers and patents are not the best way to measure the quality of a PhD.

Publications and patents often take years and are collaborative efforts, not individual student led outcomes. Increase in computational and technological power has pushed up both the number of authors and the amount of data required to publish in well-regarded journals, a fact poignantly quantified by Ron Vale from the University of California, San Francisco.

Our survey echoes this sentiment: for students with a publication (any level of authorship), >55% say it took more than 2 years for the data they generated to be part of an accepted manuscript. Besides, in most scientific research articles, the author list follows a hierarchy, with the student who performed the majority of the work getting first authorship. This point is not addressed in the current recommendations. Will students be rewarded no matter where their name appears in the author-list? Even if it is limited to first authors only, what happens when there are multiple co-authors that equally share first authorship?

Further, the recommendations do not clarify what a “reputable” international or national journal is. There are multiple issues with the routine metric for a “reputable” journal - impact factor (IF). Many scientists agree that IF is a convenient but imprecise benchmark of scientific quality. Also, this favours students from laboratories that are already well-funded and regularly publish in high IF journals; the incentive thus rewards research environment rather than the individual student. It is possible that this would further feed the feeling of injustice that PhD students from resource-poor universities or laboratories already experience.

Furthermore, many factors determine where a manuscript is finally accepted. In the survey, students weighed novel research, technology, writing, supervisor’s reputation and luck more or less equally in determining if a publication is accepted in a reputable journal. It may be argued that none of these parameters is entirely in a students’ control. Therefore, the notion that incentives to publish will improve quality is not easily justified.

A secondary, but important point is also the variability in reward: Rs 50,000 for an international publication vs Rs 20,000 for a national publication. This disparity signals that policymakers themselves believe indigenously peer-reviewed science is not of high quality or competitive to publish in. Which begs the question – why are we funding two tiers of science in the country?

Another way to examine the effectiveness of these recommendations would be to study China’s “cash for publication” policy. While China has significantly increased publication output, this policy has also encouraged scientific malpractice and plagiarism. Notably, such schemes form part of a larger investment by the government into R & D, that reach levels of up to 6% of GDP. In contrast, our spending is just 0.7%. Thus, borrowing policies from China piecemeal may not work for us.

Finally, in linking publications and rewards, we must reflect on the type of signal this sends to our scientific community, not just students. By rewarding publications and patents, we will be assessing scientific research merely by the output of the discovery and not its impact. Because much of science in India is tax-payer funded, should public money be utilised to reward research articles that achieve little in terms of direct public benefit?

Rather than unequivocally disparage the government’s effort to improve the quality of students we argue that we must appreciate this initiative, but tweak how it is executed. Perhaps publications should not be the sole criteria by which the quality of a good PhD student should be assessed. We generated a word cloud based on student comments on what they think are the qualities of a good PhD scholar. As the figure suggests, publications are one facet. Other skills include but are not limited to communication, designing experiments, ability to apply oneself to a problem.

Word-cloud visualizing answers to the question “What do you think indicates “quality” in a doctoral student?”

Rewarding students for such skills at the institutional level as well as in national competitions is not a new thought. The government is already active in this area - for e.g., the science-writing competition recently concluded by Vigyan Prasar (AWSAR).

We envision three broad categories: communication, innovation and entrepreneurship, which would reward skills such as tenacity, problem-solving, ability to self-learn (a biology student who becomes a coder; a mathematician who does bench science), initiating collaborations, extent of literature knowledge etc. Ultimately, we must recognise these skills of doctoral students, as applied to their PhD, have as much to do with quality as patents and publications.

The philosophy of these recommendations resonates with the way such policies are framed - by committees composed of experts at the peak of their career and with vast experience, but in the absence of the target stakeholders. Surely they also need to include the voices of the students and faculty that are directly going to be affected by the recommendations? Inclusion of all stakeholders in these issues will foster a feeling of a community which in the long-term would enable us to elevate the quality of our research.

This article summarises our results from the student survey. We are now undertaking a survey of faculty for their opinion and suggestions for improvement on these recommendations. Hopefully, this would help our policymakers with formulating the recommendations, not just in content but also implementation.

Survey details: We polled PhD students by circulating a link to students via email and social media. Responses between 6/2 – 11/2 were collated for this article. The survey contained 5 questions which can be read here. We are happy to share the raw data upon request.

Do you agree with the views expressed in this article? Please let us know in the comments below.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at
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It is good to see an analytical survey study on the important question that primarily concerns the issue of improving the quality of doctoral research in the country. I agree with most points raised in this analysis. I would like to supplement these (and slightly differ in some respects) points with the following comments.

I think the Murmu Committee’s recommendations are extremely short-sighted. The idea of cash incentives for publications is counter to the spirit of enquiry that drives research.

The distinction between “International” and “National” journals is highly insulting. Such distinction would surely ‘kill’ even good journals published in India. What is published is more important than the name of the journal or the country from where it is published. In any case, the recommendations fail to define what is “reputed”? If the definition of ‘reputed’ relies exclusively or mostly on the so-called ‘impact factor’, the consequences would be serious, one of which is already listed in this article that the ‘incentives’ would get limited to those working in the ‘better-funded elitre’ institutions in the country, while the large majprity of dctoral students in universities and colleges would never be able to compete. In any case, it is well established that in spite of its wide usage, the impact factor metric is beset with severe fallacies when it is used to assess individual researcher’s or institutions’c contributions.

Cash incentives of this kind would start another set of scams, as had happened in China. These, in some ways would parallel the scourge of ‘predatory’ journals that was triggered by UGC’s mandate of minimal number of publications for submission of thesis or for appointment/promotion.

This also applies to mandating of at least one publication six month before the end of fellowship duration With such rules, no student would want to take up novel questions which carry some degree of uncertainty and, therefore, may not result in publication within a certain time-frame. In my own experience, most of my students did not get their first publication before 3-4 years of research: sometimes it took longer. In retrospect, I do not think that they were ‘poor’ or incapable researchers. I believe that the average duration for completing PhD research in most ‘reputed’ life-science related institutions is 5-6 years. Therefore, what we need to evaluate for continuation of fellowship is the quality of question/s being addressed and the grasp that the scholar has acquired in relation to that. Honest assessment is needed rather than filling in some numbers in blanks by busy ‘experts’.

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Thanks for the surveys and this article. No, monetizing of course does not help as already discussed here very well. Instead it instigates an unhealthy competitive streak which might intensify the existing systemic drawbacks in unprecedented manners. If we really want to improve the quality of research in India, we need to build a good culture, a better system first of all.

And to do that, first we need to look closely at our present system and listen more. Does it sound cheerful? No of course! But what are the problems, the recurring complaints, going unheard year after year? We have funds if not enough. But still fellowships are delayed and irregular. Researchers are always agitated and insecure! There is no professional career or personal development guidance for them. Grant application processes are cumbersome. It is a headache for researchers and scientists alike! The communication between grantee and sponsor is minimal. During the fellowship or grant application process, if there is any delay or doubt, it is a painful waiting game. The sponsor office hardly replies and there is no feedback portal. Ask anyone in the corridor, the reply is, “this is our system”. So, if we don’t want to cherish this distressing system, more than new initiatives we need better administration to execute the present schemes efficiently.

And seriously, we need respect for each other. That comprises all including sponsors, scientists, researchers, administrative staff, technical staff and anyone associated to make a discovery come possible. Actually there is no hierarchy there, we need each other. And never forget that a regular monthly salary is as important for a scientist (permanent) as is for a researcher or a research scientist, though the latter is in the so called struggling phase and currently holding a contractual position. In the recent guest editorial of Current Science (Volume 116, No. 2), Sridhar Hannenhalli has truly said that “Scientific progress – it takes a village”. We have to make sure that spirit of fellowship and fairness in the research system. Research will thrive on its own, we won’t have to worry for that :grinning:

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