At the cost of quality

The decision to provide financial rewards for publication in science journals and patents is fraught with problems

February 07, 2019 12:15 am | Updated 09:57 am IST

Photo for representational purpose only.

Photo for representational purpose only.

On January 30, a little more than four years after the last hike, the Ministry of Science and Technology increased the fellowship stipend for PhD students by nearly 25%. The government says the hike will be reviewed periodically. Since the increase is far less than the 80% hike that research fellows have been demanding for the last six months, they have decided to continue with their protests. The government is also planning to provide “financial and academic incentives to enhance and recognise the performance of research fellows”, for which an Inter-Ministerial Empowered Committee has been set up. Excerpts of the Committee’s recommendations, tweeted by the Department of Science and Technology on February 2, provide a glimpse of the financial rewards to be given for publication and patents. While the modalities are yet to be worked out, offering financial rewards for publication is a bad idea.

Cause for concern

Giving rewards based on papers published in journals, and determining the incentive based on whether the paper is published in an international or Indian journal, is fraught with problems. In China, for example, researchers were given about $44,000 in 2016 for a single paper published in prestigious journals such as Nature and Science . The impact factor (a proxy for the relative importance of a journal) of journals was used to calculate the prize money for publication. This led to an unprecedented increase in unethical research practices and frauds committed by Chinese researchers. This could also happen in India, which already has an ignominious record in this area and has no nodal body to address scientific frauds and unethical practices.

In India, a one-time financial reward of ₹50,000 and ₹20,000 has been recommended for a paper published in an international and Indian journal, respectively. This is a “hare-brained scheme,” says P. Balaram, former director of the Indian Institute of Science and former editor of Current Science . “Whoever has come up with this is ignorant of the history of scientific publishing. They will destroy research (with this scheme).” It is worth remembering that though the University Grants Commission’s intent to introduce Academic Performance Indicators was good, APIs were largely responsible for the spike in predatory journals published from India. There is little guarantee that the reward system based on publication will not lead to further erosion in the quality of science research in India.

In addition, giving greater rewards for publication in international journals makes no sense as international journals are not uniformly superior in quality to Indian ones. While Nature, Science,Cell and The Lancet are prestigious, there are many journals which are of poor quality. Similarly, some Indian journals are better than international ones despite having a low impact factor.

“If average or below average papers are submitted to Indian journals, the overall quality of the journals will be low compared with international titles,” says Professor Balaram. By giving 60% lower stipend to students publishing in Indian journals, the government will unwittingly be widening the gap between Indian and international journals, which will be self-destructive in the long run.

Also, “Indian science suffers from deep-rooted, structural problems — fellowships get delayed and project funding is not released on time,” says Gautam Menon, a computational biologist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. He argues that “the government should reward good research with generous funding and fewer constraints.” With hundreds of papers being published each year, it is debatable whether the government will be able to provide incentives given that research labs have reportedly been facing a fund crunch of late.

Reward for patents

The proposal to provide students an incentive of ₹1,00,000 on obtaining a patent (Indian or international) is a bigger recipe for disaster. While obtaining a patent is not difficult, it costs ₹10,000-₹30,000 to file a patent in India. Drafting the patent costs an additional ₹50,000 and there is also an annual renewal fee. Also, not all patents translate into products. The Science Ministry has not learnt from the mistakes of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). In late 2016, the CSIR instructed its 38 labs to stop indiscriminate filing of Indian and foreign patents. Then CSIR Director-General Girish Sahni had said that a “majority of patents are ‘biodata’ patents” and had been “filed for the sake of filing without any techno-commercial and legal evaluation”. In such a scenario, a financial incentive for patent-filing will only exacerbate the problem.

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