In recent months, I have attended a few academic conferences in India and abroad to present my working papers. Most of them were events by top-ranked institutions. Such events are now frequent as they help academicians garner performance scores. For measuring research, the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) looks at criteria like faculty publications, facilities, activities, resource mobilization, consultancy, extension activities and collaboration. But the points on quality seem inadequate. In the events I attended, it was not tough to see why the quality of India’s research output is still largely below-par. I am from the industry myself and not from academics, so that helped me take an outside-in view. Below are my observations on why the quality lags, and suggestions thereof!
While the current performance scores capture if an academician published or presented a paper, it still raises two questions. First, should scores be disproportionately based on reaching a threshold number of citations as a percent of papers published? After all, citations indicate the research’s relevance and applicability. It is now one of the several items in the scoring criteria, but scoring it disproportionately could push quality further. In most paper-presentations I sat through, it was uncanny that the literature-review section included mostly Western names. Not just the West, the ISTI report also rates China 2nd globally in citations vs. India’s 14th; with a higher citation to paper ratio to China. Research quality is one reason why Chinese universities ranked amongst the Top-50 globally as per QS World Rankings. Second, should scores be disproportionately given if a paper is published in only a top-ranked journal or presented in a top-ranked university? Since popular rankings that are used as a benchmark run into several-hundreds, one might expect below-par quality in the lower-ranked ones. I receive spam-emails from such journals and events regularly. Academic performance scorers can learn from corporates on both these questions, wherein managers give a periodic review of their projects to show the key-accounts they cracked as well as the continuity of results from their past projects. That stringency helps push quality.
Every research should have a utility to benefit citizens, if not to justify its grant. Broadly speaking, the motive of any research is to test the hypothesis, contribute insights and ideas to policy-makers to devise solutions or break new-ground with innovations. But after hearing many paper-presentations, the question often arose – what next? Did most discussions end with the presenting/publishing of that paper? Should a conference be made to show what became of the papers presented in its last year’s event, to highlight the on-ground utility that research had? In any case, most papers I heard dealt with correlation and regression of data using fancy statistical software. That is useful, but what next? Did it eventually solve a real-life problem or help in thinking the next-big-thing? Or did it just occupy a few minutes and pages in an event and journal? Should performance scores disproportionately measure the follow-ups done by that researcher to ensure its eventual utility in solving a problem? Measuring long-term utility may be outside the realm of current academic systems, but a nation like India with its specific development situation needs a lot of innovative solutions and support. Otherwise, the crores of grants spent would not yield benefits for citizens. Again, academic scorers can learn from corporates, where people give detailed item-wise utilization and results from their budgets. That helps ensure the utility of that investment.
In most events, the participation of most participants was only for their 20-minute presentations, and rather minimal at other times. Most questions came from the chair or the professors, rather than presenters. Since asking questions means one is critically analyzing new topics which can add value, should scores disproportionately measure the meaningful questions a participant asked and not just if he made a presentation? Another difference in the events I attended was that the host-students at least sat through the presentations at the foreign universities, while they were mostly missing in the Indian events. This is a big worry for building the next-generation of our researchers. Multi-disciplinary conferences are now picking up as problem-solving often needs insights from various perspectives. But with a lesser degree of participation to give feedback, it negates its very objective. Participation is also about external outreach. Based on my interactions, it seemed academicians and industry does not speak to each other as much as they should; more so when initiating research on a new topic. For instance, when a PhD student in a top-ranked Indian public university explained her dissertation – why low-income women who took gold loans didn’t take equities, I held myself from saying had she given me an initial call, she could have saved three years of research and the government three years of grants. Should the interactions a researcher did with industry or policy-makers be measured disproportionately before they start on a new topic?
These are some observations from attending academic events in India and abroad about why our research quality still lags. The observations have been worded as suggestions in order to urge corrective action. One can debate anecdotal evidence as a one-off, but the quality issue does remain. NAAC has made an extensive list of criteria, but it should also tweak some of them. That may reduce the quantity of research, but might improve its quality!
A version of this article was originally published here.