Columns Opinion

Improving the quality of doctoral students — is incentivising output the way to go?

Megha & Shambhavi Naik

A recent memorandum from the Department of Science and Technology suggested incentivizing publications and patents by doctoral research scholars through a monetary reward scheme that would pay up to Rs 50000 for a publication and Rs 100000 for a patent. 

In this opinion article, Shambhavi Naik, Research Fellow, Technology and Policy Programme, Takshashila Institution, and Megha, India Alliance Early Career Fellow at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) discuss the implications and possible repercussions of such a policy. 

Improving the quality of doctoral students - is incentivising output the way to go?
Improving the quality of doctoral students - is incentivising output the way to go? 

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) recently announced an inter-ministerial committee to improve the quality of doctoral research. This was accompanied by a list of recommendations, one of which is to reward PhD students for publications and patents. 

Despite being the target of several policy decisions, students are seldom directly consulted on such matters. We therefore surveyed PhD students about this; of 131 respondents, ~ 56% affirmed that monetising publications and patents would improve the quality of their PhD. In contrast, the very same incentive has been vehemently opposed by faculty and the media. We use our survey to advocate a middle path: acknowledge that students may perform better with incentives, but recognise that papers and patents are not the best way to measure the quality of a PhD.

Publications and patents often take years and are collaborative efforts, not individual student led outcomes. Increase in computational and technological power has pushed up both the number of authors and the amount of data required to publish in well-regarded journals, a fact poignantly quantified by Ron Vale from the University of California, San Francisco. 

Our survey echoes this sentiment: for students with a publication (any level of authorship), >55% say it took more than 2 years for the data they generated to be part of an accepted manuscript. Besides, in most scientific research articles, the author list follows a hierarchy, with the student who performed the majority of the work getting first authorship. This point is not addressed in the current recommendations. Will students be rewarded no matter where their name appears in the author-list? Even if it is limited to first authors only, what happens when there are multiple co-authors that equally share first authorship?

Further, the recommendations do not clarify what a reputable” international or national journal is. There are multiple issues with the routine metric for a reputable” journal — impact factor (IF). Many scientists agree that IF is a convenient but imprecise benchmark of scientific quality. Also, this favours students from laboratories that are already well-funded and regularly publish in high IF journals; the incentive thus rewards research environment rather than the individual student. It is possible that this would further feed the feeling of injustice that PhD students from resource-poor universities or laboratories already experience.

Furthermore, many factors determine where a manuscript is finally accepted. In the survey, students weighed novel research, technology, writing, supervisor’s reputation and luck more or less equally in determining if a publication is accepted in a reputable journal. It may be argued that none of these parameters is entirely in a students’ control. Therefore, the notion that incentives to publish will improve quality is not easily justified. 

A secondary, but important point is also the variability in reward: Rs 50,000 for an international publication vs Rs 20,000 for a national publication. This disparity signals that policymakers themselves believe indigenously peer-reviewed science is not of high quality or competitive to publish in. Which begs the question – why are we funding two tiers of science in the country? 

Another way to examine the effectiveness of these recommendations would be to study China’s cash for publication” policy. While China has significantly increased publication output, this policy has also encouraged scientific malpractice and plagiarism. Notably, such schemes form part of a larger investment by the government into R & D, that reach levels of up to 6% of GDP. In contrast, our spending is just 0.7%. Thus, borrowing policies from China piecemeal may not work for us.

Finally, in linking publications and rewards, we must reflect on the type of signal this sends to our scientific community, not just students. By rewarding publications and patents, we will be assessing scientific research merely by the output of the discovery and not its impact. Because much of science in India is tax-payer funded, should public money be utilised to reward research articles that achieve little in terms of direct public benefit? 

Rather than unequivocally disparage the government’s effort to improve the quality of students we argue that we must appreciate this initiative, but tweak how it is executed. Perhaps publications should not be the sole criteria by which the quality of a good PhD student should be assessed. We generated a word cloud based on student comments on what they think are the qualities of a good PhD scholar. As the figure suggests, publications are one facet. Other skills include but are not limited to communication, designing experiments, ability to apply oneself to a problem. 

Word-cloud visualizing answers to the question "What do you think indicates "quality" in a doctoral student?"
Word-cloud visualizing answers to the question What do you think indicates quality” in a doctoral student?”

Rewarding students for such skills at the institutional level as well as in national competitions is not a new thought. The government is already active in this area — for e.g., the science-writing competition recently concluded by Vigyan Prasar (AWSAR).

We envision three broad categories: communication, innovation and entrepreneurship, which would reward skills such as tenacity, problem-solving, ability to self-learn (a biology student who becomes a coder; a mathematician who does bench science), initiating collaborations, extent of literature knowledge etc. Ultimately, we must recognise these skills of doctoral students, as applied to their PhD, have as much to do with quality as patents and publications. 

The philosophy of these recommendations resonates with the way such policies are framed — by committees composed of experts at the peak of their career and with vast experience, but in the absence of the target stakeholders. Surely they also need to include the voices of the students and faculty that are directly going to be affected by the recommendations? Inclusion of all stakeholders in these issues will foster a feeling of a community which in the long-term would enable us to elevate the quality of our research. 

This article summarises our results from the student survey. We are now undertaking a survey of faculty for their opinion and suggestions for improvement on these recommendations. Hopefully, this would help our policymakers with formulating the recommendations, not just in content but also implementation. 

Survey details: We polled PhD students by circulating a link to students via email and social media. Responses between 62112 were collated for this article. The survey contained 5 questions which can be read here. We are happy to share the raw data upon request.

Do you agree with the views expressed in this article? Please let us know in the comments below.