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The dark side of academic publishing

Academic authorship needs to be transformed so that young scholars aren’t robbed of their hard work and originality

The dark side of academic publishing

Aspiring scholars who’re studying for a research degree in Pakistan need to be careful in terms of safeguarding term papers written during their coursework. Because apparently, professors or supervisors, portraying as if they are intrigued by their scholarly forays, often ask these students to send them their essays for expert advice. If the students are trapped, they are all set to lose the fruit of their academic labour.

The usual upshot of this whole activity is that these professors then ask the students — whose work they have ‘fine-tuned’ — to ask you to co-author with them on that work. A request that is flattering as being a published author at a young age is one remarkable achievement. Little do they realise that in doing so, they are just reduced to the status of a second author in research work undertaken solely by them.

Likewise, junior teachers/research associates and lecturers are heartlessly exploited by their senior professors, especially Heads/Chairs at universities. Their status renders them vulnerable and as “luck” would have it, if they are intellectually well-grounded, they are coveted catches of those haughty and big-headed professors who carry loads of intellectual hubris about them. They are well-connected and their names ring around the country’s academia. That is why it is least discomfiting for them if two or three journals publish different essays at the same time and they are second authors in all of them. They compromise their dignity and standing because in doing so they are apparently ‘promoting research culture’ — without having to write a single word of their own. Whosoever from the campus subalterns wants to have fast vertical mobility, is obliged to put these professors’ names either as principal authors (rarely) or as co-authors (mostly) in their research essays.

Though the Higher Education Commission (HEC) has a twelve-page manual of Ethical Guidelines for Journals, it is hardly followed in letter and spirit. Under the subheading of “Authorship Credit” (p.7) in HEC’s Guidelines, it is clearly stated that 1): “Authorship of the work may only be credited to those who have made a noteworthy contribution in conceptualisation, design, conducting, data analysis and writing up of the manuscript” and 2): “It is the responsibility of the corresponding author to include the name(s) of only those co-authors who have made significant contributions to the work.” In the same fashion, under the subheadings of “Conflict of Interest” (p.4-5) and “Disclosure and Conflicts of Interest” (p.8), ethical guidelines are loud and clear for both the Editorial Board (if the members publish their own papers in their journals) and external authors.

The real problem, however, is to ensure that research ethics are completely followed. Even if all the authors of a paper give an affidavit or a pledge to the effect that all of them have made significant contributions, there is no way to double check the veracity of their statements. Editors have to just take whatever is presented to them on its face value. There is no para-textual strategy to know what it is that the authors have actually contributed. Therefore, despite HEC’s all-out efforts aimed at developing and popularising ethical standards in research, what we get is a flood of co-authorship or what may now be called “co-authoritis” (neologism by Dr Saeed Ur Rehman).

The real problem is how to ensure that research ethics are completely followed. Even if all the authors of a paper give an affidavit or a pledge to the effect that all of them have made significant contributions, there is no way to double check the veracity of their statements.

A plausible reason for “scramble for loot” (Joseph Conrad’s words, in Heart of Darkness, for greed exhibited by the Belgian colonisers in Congo) in most of our universities is that climbing the ladder in academia is conditioned upon research publications. Everyone is jockeying to get published in at least Y-category journals. Those PhD scholars who need a Y-category journal paper on their credit before their defence, are in the most difficult position. In their naivety, they agree to co-author with anyone they think is influential enough to get their papers published.

Mostly, their supervisors dupe them into believing that HEC wants them to publish co-authored papers with them, from their yet-to-be-submitted dissertation, which is far from reality. Because of PhDs being produced in hundreds in Pakistan, many supervisors’ research profiles — due to co-authorship — go sky-high which makes moving up the ladder quite convenient to them.

Though there is a maddening competition both in Humanities and Sciences, the former has no comparison with the latter in terms of research papers these days. In Pure Sciences, rarely do they write single-author papers anymore in Pakistan. One wonders how Newton, Darwin, and Einstein wrote most of their works single-handedly.

The evolutionist Richard Dawkins writes something very relevant in the “Preface” to the 1989 edition of his book The Selfish Gene: “[T]here are influential scientists in the habit of putting their names to publications in whose composition they have played no part. Apparently, some senior scientists claim joint authorship of a paper when all that they have contributed is bench space, grant money and an editorial read-through of the manuscript. For all I know, entire scientific reputations may have been built on the work of students and colleagues! I don’t know what can be done to combat this dishonesty.” So apparently, there are proxy-issues in research journals being produced in Euro-American universities as well.

It is quite possible that — with few graceful exceptions on whose strengths our universities impart education and values — “the entire … reputations [of many of our academics in Pakistan] may have been built on the works of students and colleagues.” Though HEC, as a regulatory and monitoring body, has tried to ensure ethical practices in academic research in Pakistan, it seems hard to fix this vulturism in research in the name of co-authorship. Case in point: the Editors Orientation Workshop held on April 18-19 at Islamabad; which bears testimony to the seriousness of HEC in promoting research and reminding editors of the sensitivity of their job.

However, there is still a lot more to be done in this regard to resolve this age-old problem once and for all.

Sibghatullah Khan

Sibghatullah Khan
The writer is a PhD and teaches English Literature at National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad. He may be reached at [email protected]

8 comments

  • A dilemma duly translated. Our society needs social scientist who could share the ground of ethical responsibilities with Dr. Sibghat in order to combat “intelletual decoity” (my own coined term).

  • Khalid Iqbal Yasir

    It’s a web (not a website) or a vicious circle, too complex to be ripped apart. This web is weaved or spun together for mutual convenience and common intetests. It’s a cobweb where spider is unfortunately a teacher/supervisor who is all powerful and in a position for coaxing at will. It is the worst type of exploitation and plagurism which has been going on from the time immamorial and will keep on flourishing as it becomes honeycomb for many resultantly.

  • Adnan Ashraf Warraich

    We are blessed to have academics like you who, from time to time, keep voicing their concern over the gloomy state of affairs prevalent in the academia which is afflicted with ‘commodity fetishism’ and has only a shrinking space for the true purposes of teaching and research. We need more of such voices in order to get rid of the exploitation carried out in the name of academic publishing and to usher in a healthy culture of higher education. You have been inspirational in instilling an urge for genuine reading and research as well as intellectual honesty into your students which is a great service to the society and to your field.

  • Wonderful take! It seems the author knows full well the malpractices rampant in our universities these days. What Dr. Sibghat has written about is just the tip of the iceberg! I appreciate his stance. More needs to be written about vicious networks operating in our institutions that have received undeserved benefits for ghost-writing their bosses’ PhDs and later writing their half-cooked research papers so that these crooks get higher positions in their respective universities. HEC can’t do anything in this regard. The civil society within the universities should speak up abiut this as iur friend has done in this piece.

  • Academia is supposed to act as a ‘moral lighthouse’ of a society but in our case, unfortunately, it has been wrestling with its own demons. It reminds me of the Chaucerian phrase ‘if gold rusts, what shall iron do . Dr. Sibghatullah has highlighted a very pressing issue here and this needs to addressed and rectified as soon as possible. Such a research is redundant and would not take us anywhere.

  • Pseudo Scholar

    Influential and eye-opening piece of writing by Dr. Khan. Here, I want to bring to attention the Journal Mafia as well. Some of the journals charge loads of money (in USD) and cunningly explain that publication takes 7-10 months but if the author pays $200, they ensure fast-track publication within 3 weeks. I myself am a victim of infamous ‘Science International Journal’ which is now blacklisted for these very evil-deeds. I believe, merely blacklisting won’t suffice, these educated morons need to be prosecuted by law. Thanks

  • At last, Dr Sibghat has belled the cat and taken lead on this pressing and disgusting issue. It’s high time for other academicians came up and speak about the issue so that this voice of sanity gets strengthened. Let’s see and hope if this movement becomes similar to “me too” movement in the west?

  • Thanks Dr. Sibghat for writing on this pertinent yet hushed-up issue for reasons well known. I remember to have submitted one of my articles to the Faculty of Humanities, Department of English at GCU Faisalabad. A few months later, I came to know that my paper was published but with two more unknown co-authors’ names under the title. I immediately wrote to the editor of the Journal of Social Sciences (ISSN: 1812-0687). He promised with me to do something about it, such as writing a corrigendum etc. However, I never heard anything from him. A month later, I wrote to the VC of the university but got no response either. I also wrote to the HEC Quality Assurance Unit and HEC Chairman but never received any response. To my surprise, the same guy (Dean of Faculty) was sitting in an interview panel where I had to appear for a job interview. You and I and many of us know who does what kind of intellectual dishonesty but we’re helpless while the crooks are milking the loopholes in the system.

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