RESEARCH plays an important role in determining a country’s economic progress, social development and its ability to positively contribute to all fields of knowledge, education, science and technology. Simply put, humanity would not move forward without enquiry and substantial research. However, what makes me wonder is the quality of research that is produced in Pakistan, including the ethics the researchers follow and to what extent the output benefits the country.

There is a large number of PhD faculty members teaching in Pakistani universities, in the process producing voluminous ‘research’. The acceleration in ‘research’ activities has been phenomenal in recent years. The credibility and usefulness of such large-scale research should be an issue of great concern for the Higher Education Commission (HEC).

Right from the admission process to the conduct of research, evaluation of the thesis and the award of degree, there are several loopholes in the entire process which universities’ advanced research boards and quarters concerned in HEC and its provincial offices should seriously consider.

We, as a nation, unfortunately, tend to believe in short-cuts and target quick results regardless of their value, appropriateness and utility. The purpose of research seems to be limited to the publication of the required number of papers for promotion to the next grade.

This (mal)practice not only fuels huge business of ‘predatory journals’, but also questions the worth and standard of research outlets that publish the papers within a few days if one is willing to pay a handsome amount that ranges from Rs30,000 to Rs60,000 in the name of ‘publication fee’. This makes one wonder where we stand when it comes to research ethics. What about academic honesty?

The concept of institutional review board (IRB) might not be new to the researchers. It is a mandatory part of clinical research. However, the higher administration and officials responsible for research activities in most public-sector general universities in Pakistan are in a state of oblivion in this regard.

The constitution and functioning of IRB seems to be the most significant element of any higher education institution, for it works for quality, appropriateness and usefulness of any kind of research being conducted. More importantly, it oversees all ethical aspects any research project might incur and involve.

The protection of human research subjects, sensitivity of the research topic, informed consent and regulation/monitoring of research tools are among the factors that are strictly evaluated before any research project gets under way. How, why and what that project costs in terms of potential benefits and risks remains their key concern.

My current engagement at Michigan State University as visiting postdoctoral researcher had made me realise where do we, the public-sector universities in Pakistan, stand when it comes to reviewing and scrutiny before any research project is undertaken. The university IRB ensured I undertake all the trainings and guidance I may need as a researcher before I began collecting data for my project.

What makes it difficult for the HEC to implement adequate measures for institutional, if not departmental, IRBs to set forth structure, policies, procedures and codes for credible, safe and ethical conduct of research?

By taking this route, I am sure we can improve significantly in terms of quality, quantity and usability of research we are producing, curtailing abnormally huge number of research degrees we are awarding without any significant impact on the overall quality of education, society and the country. All such degrees are nothing but pieces of paper in terms of their actual worth on the social scale.

It is high time we had independent, autonomous, qualified and impartial IRBs in all public-sector universities in Pakistan to ensure that we are able to actually contribute, even if a drop, to the ocean of genuine global research.

Dr Sumera Umrani
Michigan, USA

Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2023

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