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Research woes

IN the scientific and academic community, research serves as a dialogue. Its aim is to share and advance knowledge among scholars or those studying a discipline after careful examination of the existing evidence and schools of thought. In this process of knowledge-making, constructive dialogues are produced in the form of dissertations, research articles and scientific essays published in reputed journals internationally.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s research culture leaves much to be desired. There are several indications of why the research produced in the country’s universities is lacking in both original ideas and the development of arguments.

A cursory look at the way dissertations or theses are produced at both the Master’s and PhD levels (not to mention the Bachelor’s level) is revealing in this aspect. In most of the cases, thesis writing is merely an outcome of paraphrasing others’ work. Students and scholars usually take a model thesis or a few research articles and simply replicate them in the Pakistani context. When it comes to evaluating a thesis, experts are invited according to personal likes or dislikes, or on the basis of networking capabilities. The maxim ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’ is apt in this situation.

Secondly, there are many who think that producing more papers is a sign of a robust research culture. In reality, this notion could not be farther from the truth. The increasing frequency of publications has compromised the function of research and also the quality of knowledge in them. Such papers usually carry some heavy citations but they are inoperable in the development and advancement of ideas and arguments. This is also why some scholars like Timothy Fogarty, professor at Case Western Reserve University, US, describe citations as the “currency of academia”.

Research produced in Pakistan is deficient on many levels.

Most of the scholarship produced in this way has a ‘market value’ — both in terms of the number of published papers produced and the citations they contain — to be exchanged for promotions and higher degrees at universities. This has resulted in the propagation of predatory publishing, where publications/ journals charge a fee for publishing research articles/ papers by university lecturers, professors and PhD scholars without proper peer review or academic feedback of their work. In my ongoing research co-authored with two other researchers, 71 per cent of publications by professors in social sciences and humanities, according to the HEC journal ranking system, are found to be ‘predatory’.

In fact, in many HEC-recognised journals, plagiarism, predatory publications, salami slicing ie publishing many articles from a single study, citation manipulation, poor research supervision and ineffective theses evaluation are prevalent practices. Understandably, official acceptance of such damaging research practices has aggravated the already unscrupulous research landscape within the country.

To remedy these ills, there is a need to shift from monograph dissertation (lengthy self-authorship with a large body of citations) to an article-based dissertation model. For example, in Finland and other Nordic countries, universities mostly encourage researchers to opt for articles, except in a few cases where a monograph thesis is needed depending on the nature of the study. This model brings many advantages: articles are peer-reviewed by editors and anonymous reviewers of reputed journals with no article-processing charges; unlike monographs, the articles are visible globally and can also be referred to within a scholarly communication if stored on a national database.

As opposed to the monograph model, publication in such journals takes time due to the rigorous review policy that ensures vigilant academic assessment of research articles. Moreover, the rev­i­e­­ws also help researchers understand where the knowledge in their field is heading, and how and where they can situate themselves in relation to the available pool of knowledge and evidence.

However, such publication in reputed journals requires a re-evaluation of research courses taught at the Master’s and PhD levels in Pakistani universities. The content of most Master’s and PhD research courses is usually a repetition of what the students have already learned at the Bachelor’s level. Instead, the sole aim of such courses should be to develop research competency and skills. For example, what our students lack is the ability to write academically — conference abstracts, research articles, defending their dissertations, research ethics, managing references, accessing journals, critical reading and writing, etc. The courses should be devised to help students develop research knowledge and skills rather than wasting their time in outdated syllabi and practices and poorly structured teaching and assessment policies.

Syed Waqar Ali Shah, "Research woes," Dawn. 2022-02-28.
Keywords: Education , Educational aid , Educational equalization , Educational institutions , Educational law , Educational planning , Educational policy , Research resources , PhD scholars , HEC journal ranking system