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In praise of quality in academia

Working scientists. Professional lab research, chemistry laboratory workers and science researchers. Infection scientists, biologist engineer working. Isolated flat vector illustration icons set

Working scientists. Professional lab research, chemistry laboratory workers and science researchers. Infection scientists, biologist engineer working. Isolated flat vector illustration icons set | Photo Credit: Tetiana Lazunova

It is not an uncommon phenomenon in academia to praise an individual, department or an institution based merely on the number of publications that they produce. When speakers are introduced during a conference, the number of publications are given undue importance and considered as a direct marker of the intellectual superiority or experience of an academician. During undergraduate and postgraduate training in medical school, we were nurtured with comments like, “If you do not publish, you perish”. After spending a few years in academia, I have started to question and reflect upon the meaning of such statements and the long-term impact that they can have on science and scientific acumen.

Academia is considered to be a noble area and different from its for-profit counterparts. It is assumed that academia values the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Sadly, many academicians do not share this aim. In my limited experience, I have come across only a handful of academicians whose true passion is the pursuit of knowledge. Most others do not attribute any value to knowledge or wisdom. This is the result of a system where a number or quantity is given undue importance than the quality or the type of work people do. It appears that the number of publications is inversely proportional to humility and directly proportional to the self-importance or entitlement displayed by the academician.

I am not arguing that quantity should not be a metric in assessing efficacy in academia. Nevertheless, I strongly feel that it should not be the only metric and should never be overvalued. If we spend time to scratch beneath the surface, the truth behind the numbers becomes evident. Giving gift authorship is not something new in academia. Gift authorship refers to giving authorship to a co-worker or colleague who has not contributed significantly to the study. Some of the avoidable ill-effects of gift authorship are, academicians may falsely appear to have expertise, may falsely come across as more competent than others and end up having undue pressure to excel even more. Ghostwriting is also not uncommon in academia, where somebody else writes and is not acknowledged as the real contributor for the work.

In a study by Tijdink et al, in 2016 (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0163251), the authors look at different personality traits associated with research misconduct among Dutch researchers. Narcissism and research misbehaviour were more prevalent in researchers in higher academic positions. The study concluded that Machiavellianism could be a risk factor for research misconduct. Machiavellianism is a personality trait that describes individuals who are extremely focused on their personal gains and who manipulate and exploit others to any extent to achieve their personal goals. Most individuals with Machiavellianism lack empathy and the ability to understand the perspective of another human being. In a way, Machiavellianism propagates the theory that one should be tough and smart to excel in academia. However, the world is already over-flooded with tough and smart people and definitely would not benefit by more of the same kind. In contrast, the world would benefit from compassionate, kind and empathetic academicians.

A better world

Just like artists and writers, academicians have an important role to play in making this world a better and sustainable place. If academia is just a reflection of all the misconduct that is happening in the outside world, then there is no hope that academia will be able to contribute reasonably to the growth of this society. Too much stress on quantity and reward based on quantity would lead to unhealthy competition. Often academicians are unable to see the unending mess of the chakravyuh (labyrinth) that they have got themselves into. The struggle to publish or perish makes people forget fundamental human relationships and fosters negativity in the work environment.

While the world is recovering from the grip of a pandemic, we need to reinforce certain lessons that the pandemic has taught us. One of the fundamental lessons is that human beings are not isolated in happiness and suffering. Even though the world has taught us to be selfish so that we may survive (survival of the fittest), this pandemic has taught us a lesson that we are not islands who can live on our own. A new culture needs to dawn in academia where merit is not based only on the quantity but also on the quality of work and the attitude of an individual in the pursuit of true knowledge.

I do not wish to have a black and white view of the whole system in academia and conclude that the future is bleak. I have been fortunate to know empathetic and kind supervisors and senior colleagues who have demonstrated integrity and enough grace to support younger colleagues and pave the way for their growth. I sincerely hope that this culture spreads where inclusiveness is valued, quality and wisdom are praised and more is not always better.

dhanyalakshmi@gmail.com


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Printable version | Aug 10, 2022 3:50:45 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/in-praise-of-quality-in-academia/article65576400.ece