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A pay-per-publication system to spur research

LiveMint logoLiveMint 02-08-2017 Shekhar Chandra

Arecent survey by Wei Quan at Wuhan University, Bikun Chen at Nanjing University of Science and Technology, and Fei Shu at McGill University on the dizzying amounts being paid to Chinese researchers for publishing in reputed journals (in some cases up to $165,000 for a Nature or Science publication) has stirred a hornet’s nest, especially in the West, where such awards are unheard of. This fixation on publications has led to many academic malpractices, concurs Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Researchers have been caught reviewing their papers. The number of retracted research articles has increased sharply in the past decade—half of these were suspected of serious academic misconduct. These events have set alarm bells ringing in the academic world about the independence and excellence of scholarship.

As countries strive for global academic recognition, they often rely on one of three existing ways to incentivise publications.

The first model links publications with institutional funding. Under this, a national ranking of universities—relying to some extent on the quality and quantity of publications—is prepared, and is then used as a criterion to allocate research funding.

This approach was first used in the UK in 1986 as a Research Assessment Exercise and has since been adopted by several others: New Zealand (Performance-Based Research Fund) in 2002; Norway (New Funding Model for Higher Education) in 2006; Australia (Research Quality Framework) in 2006; Denmark (Globalization Strategy) in 2008; and Italy (University Programming and Evaluation) in 2009. This model is admired for its focus on institutions, not individuals.

The second model links publications to the academic progress of researchers—remuneration, tenure and promotion. It has been implemented in Spain through the National Agency for Quality Assessment and Accreditation which was established in 2001; and in Germany through the Professor Salary Reform Law in 2004.

The third model links publications to cash payments as a function of the impact factor of the journal. The impact factor reflects the frequency with which the average article in a journal is cited in a particular year.

South Korea started it as a state policy in 2006 with an average payment of $3,000 per publication in elite journals. Turkey started a cash bonus scheme in 2008, paying researchers in the range of $130-1,600 per article for publishing in reputed journals. The Chinese Academy of Sciences, as part of its “Knowledge Innovation Project” in 1998, began a similar cash payment scheme, wherein institutions themselves decided the amount to be rewarded.

The policy of rewarding individuals over institutions, particularly giving cash to researchers, has been criticized for reducing research into a mere publication-churning opportunity. There is also a disparity in the salaries of researchers in developed and developing countries, and cash payments for publication—even though a controversial measure to promote research—is likely to continue mainly because most developing countries suffer from a lack of institutions and human resources to holistically assess research. They then resort to cash payments for awarding and promoting research. Radical changes are, therefore, required to correct the regulatory and institutional structures to pre-empt the adverse impact of the cash payment practice.

The existing blind peer-review needs to be changed to a named peer-review process—the reviewers’ names must be attached to the publication. A named peer-review would pre-empt the malpractice of authors reviewing their papers. Since it’s a voluntary process, many journals struggle to find reviewers. Hence reviewers must be paid.

The nominal payment would also provide a legal basis for holding them accountable for fraudulent or half-hearted reviews. “I always put my name on every review I do for a journal, and insist that my name goes with my review to the scholar involved. I know all the reasons we do not do this now (junior people are worried about retribution if they criticize senior people, etc.) Even with these concerns, I still think named peer-review is a better way of holding reviewers accountable for what they endorse and reject,” exhorts Lawrence Susskind, who teaches at the MIT and Harvard.

The idea of financial rewards is not all that bad given that researchers are poorly paid in developing countries. However, the impact factor must not be the sole criterion for the quantum of payment. Some researchers become obsessive about high-impact journals and resort to cheating. Instead, the universities—based on the recommendations of their leading scholars—can create categories of journals. Researchers should get the same level of financial reward for publishing in the top 5 or top 10 journals in their field (as designated by each discipline’s professional society).

Researchers should also submit an undertaking stating the research as their own, full disclosure of data, indicating any conflict of interests—like most medical journals currently do. Payments for researchers must be contingent on full adherence to this system. Universities can create formal bodies to undertake this task, in line with the Institutional Review Boards which look after the interests of test subjects, suggests Prof. Susskind.

Shekhar Chandra is a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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