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).
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.