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Enough PhD’s, thank you

Updated Nov 21, 2015 05:37pm
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

When Freeman Dyson suggested we have lunch together at the Princeton University cafeteria on my next visit, I almost fell off my chair. To be invited by this legendary physicist, now 90-plus but sharp as ever, meant more than a banquet especially arranged for me by the Queen of England. Countless kings, queens, and generals have come and gone but only a tiny number of visionaries, Dyson included, actually make history.

Overwhelmed, I was about to blurt “thank you, Dr Dyson” but stopped in time. Else this would have violated an unstated protocol. We theoretical physicists address colleagues by their first name. And so I simply thanked him as Freeman. This avoided a still more serious error. Freeman Dyson does not have a PhD and has never sought or needed one.

Three books and biographies have been written on this PhD-less scientific genius. But, were he to apply to a Pakistani university, at best he might become an assistant professor. I thought of this while suffering through some lectures last week at an international physics conference in Islamabad.

Sadly, the presentations by most Pakistani PhD’s were uninteresting, others were wrong. One was even laughably wrong. Probably the worst was by a professor who was not just a ‘doctor’ but a ‘professor doctor’. This terrible pomposity, borrowed from some German tradition, is now routinely augmented with ‘distinguished professor’, ‘national professor’ and what-not. Like cartoon generals who have won no wars but have medals stuck to oversized chests, Pakistan now has legions of highly paid ignoramus cartoon professors.

Pakistan now has legions of highly paid ignoramus cartoon professors.

But wait, am I not being terribly unfair? Our professors are publishing huge numbers of research papers these days, almost 10 times more than a decade ago. Some produce as many as 40-60 every year (Dyson’s lifetime total is a mere 50). These appear in so-called international journals with high-impact factors, are well-cited, and seemingly fulfil all requirements of high quality. The authors rake in cash prizes, national awards, and the Higher Education Commission (HEC) screams about the post-2002 ‘revolution’ at every opportunity.

But the truth forlornly begs to be heard: there is no actual research behind most of these so-called research papers. The internet has placed at an author’s fingertip vast amounts of literature from which to freely cut and paste, invent data, and plagiarise ideas. Although software checks like Turn-It-In exist, they are next to useless. True, the ideal journal referee is supposed to be a know-all. But in fact he is too hard-pressed to check everything, or may even be complicit. Publishing in fly-by-night journals, or arranging for your paper to be cited, is now a finely developed art form.

Crime in Pakistani academia has overtaken even the legendary bribery of our police departments or the easy corruption of income tax authorities. But dealing with academic heist, now organised and systematised, won’t be easy. Here’s why.

First, knowledge is increasingly specialised and to detect cheating isn’t easy. A molecular biologist might not fairly judge the work of an ethologist, or a plasma physicist that of a string theorist. In principle any academic community must police itself rather than be policed from outside. But the small number of genuine academics in Pakistan means that there are precious few policemen.

Second, a thoughtless government policy that pays by the number of research papers and PhD’s produced allows cheats to get rich. Unable to tell good from bad, the Pakistan Council for Science and Technology actively encourages our professors to pillage public property.

The same dynamics applies to PhD production. The basic subject knowledge of PhD candidates is rarely tested and, if ever, only perfunctorily. Although the referees of a candidate’s thesis are supposed to be impartial, they are often chosen by a supervisor for being cooperative. Of course, the reports can be appropriately doctored when necessary.

Most PhD supervisors never get caught while doctoring. But if by rare chance someone does, he gets little more than a tap on the wrist. A colleague, a former professor of biology at Quaid-i-Azam University, then also the dean, was caught red-handed while faking referee reports for his PhD students. He admitted guilt but was not terminated and retained all retirement benefits. The administration and other colleagues shrugged off the incident; why be strict to one of your own kind? The man moved on to become dean at another university, and then emerged yet again as vice chancellor at still another university.

This ‘kindness’ has put the cancer of corruption into metastasis. Arresting further growth will require a harsh chemotherapy regime. As the very first step, rewarding authors of research papers with cash should be stopped. PCST, as well as other government organisations deliberately fuelling academic corruption, should be closed down and their directors charge-sheeted.

Transparency should be non-negotiable. While it cannot end abuse, it can discourage. So, before the author of a research paper gets any kind of credit, such as for promotion, he must give a presentation that anyone can freely attend. This should be video-recorded and archived for open access on HEC’s website. Whereas HEC’s present chairman privately agreed to my suggestion nearly two years ago, and then publicly on television a year later, I see no signs of implementation.

Still more radical therapy may be needed. As with a driving licence, all PhD degrees (including my own) should be de-recognised every 10 years, and re-recognised only after passing a literacy test in that particular discipline. Administered by some trustable overseas organisation, the written test should be at the level of an undergraduate examination equivalent to that taken by students after their first year of studies at a good foreign university. Will this reduce our current PhD population by 50 per cent? Eighty per cent?

No country becomes wealthy by printing a mountain of paper currency. And no university system becomes better by dishing out substandard PhD degrees, or by accepting vacuous research papers as valid. Instead, the way forward lies in adhering to strict ethical standards, cultivating excellence, rejecting mediocrity, and nurturing a spirit of inquiry and intellectual excitement.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2015