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Higher standards needed

July 13, 2018


AFTER my last article on faculty publications and incentives that have been given in higher education in Pakistan, a number of people emailed me about what they have witnessed or been through.

A student from a university in Lahore wrote that the head of the department where he was studying was asking or forcing a lot of junior faculty, and Master’s-degree and doctoral students, to include his name as an author in any article that they published. Work for the articles was done by the junior faculty or students, but the credit was shared by the senior faculty member as well.

A junior faculty member working at a university in Islamabad wrote about similar issues in her department too. The head of the department as well as the dean of her faculty were acting the same way.

More than two decades ago, when I was in the process of finding a Ph.D supervisor for myself and was going around meeting different professors, one of the latter had told me explicitly that it was his policy not to co-author anything with students in their doctoral work that he had supervised. He said that this was to make sure that the line between the student’s work and collaboration remained clear, and that there would be no ambiguity later. If his former students wanted to work with him after completing their Ph.D degree, they were, of course, welcome to do so as long as there were ideas that excited both sides.

There appears to be pressure on the junior faculty to ensure they remain on the good side of the senior lot.

The case of the experimental sciences is very different. Big experiments are expensive and difficult to set up. They require teams of principal investigators, researchers and students, and it is usually the case that the larger research questions come from the professors, and the doctoral students work on specific issues within the larger problem. In such cases publications tend to, as they should, credit all the main contributors.

The case of the social sciences, humanities and the arts is very different. Though the topic for research might have been decided with help from the supervisor and the latter might have even provided feedback on research design and analysis, the actual research should be undertaken by the student. This is why a doctoral thesis is taken as evidence of a student’s effort.

If the supervisor does more than supervision, it is not the work of the student anymore. But if she/he has just supervised the work, she/he should not be thinking of becoming co-authors in the output unless it is substantially altered and different from the form it was submitted in as a thesis.

The case of co-authorship with junior colleagues is different. From the emails I received, it seems that senior faculty, professors and deans in many universities possess a lot of power over the junior faculty and some of them exploit that to their advantage. The junior faculty, especially at the lecturer and assistant professor level, are vulnerable to the whims of the senior faculty. The senior faculty, especially those who have administrative roles and duties as well, can have a significant impact on the career path and prospects of the junior faculty through teaching and other task assignments, faculty evaluations, promotions, and so on. Keeping this in mind, there would be pressure on the junior faculty to ensure they remain on the good side of the senior lot. If a senior faculty member desired co-authorship in a paper, it would be difficult for a junior member to refuse.

Collaborative work needs encouragement and the senior faculty can provide tremendous opportunities for the junior faculty as well. Seniors can be mentors and can open all sorts of doors for their juniors. Senior faculty members might have lots of ideas to share as well. So, the idea is not, of course, to discourage or dampen enthusiasm for joint and collaborative research. The idea is to be aware of the power dynamics between the senior and junior faculty and to discourage any exploitation of this power dynamics.

If departments have strong traditions of academic freedom and strong systems for monitoring and evaluation, and if administrative posts, eg deans, are considered as such and not as posts in an academic hierarchy, it should be possible to manage collaborations positively and without fear of exploitation. But for many Pakistani university departments, this will require a significant change in the mindset of the people who run them.

The pressure to publish is, as we talked about in the last article as well, tied to incentives that have been set by the Higher Education Commission (HEC). Promotions and access to higher administrative posts are linked to the number of publications in rated/cited journals. A number of readers have pointed out that this pressure is present everywhere and is needed to ensure faculty productivity. The issue is not one of removing this pressure. It is about nuancing and balancing it.

Teaching colleges and universities should be setting more high-powered incentives for teaching excellence and should worry less about the number of research publications. Research universities should not be neglecting teaching completely and should also nuance the publication policy to allow more weight for quality. But to the additional nuance we need to add stronger administrative and monitoring systems.

If advanced students and/or junior faculty members feel pressured to co-author with the senior faculty and if they feel their prospects for promotion and advancement are tied to making and keeping senior faculty members happy, stronger administrative systems are definitely needed to break this expectation and create a more open environment. The HEC, in collaboration with its provincial counterparts, will have to play an important role here if we are to institute any sector-wide reset of policies and expectations.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, July 13th, 2018

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