Indian researchers are criticizing a government proposal by which graduate students who publish in select journals will be paid extra money. Such a practice could degrade the quality of research and increase scientific misconduct, critics say. Months-long protests of academics against the proposal have just concluded in India and new ones are already on the horizon.

Some countries, such as China, South Korea and South Africa, have various pay-per-paper schemes. Now, Indian central government committee has proposed that PhD students who publish in renowned international journals would receive a one-time payment of 50,000 rupees (about US$ 700), while students who publish in select domestic journals would earn 20,000 rupees. The cash bonuses for publishing are more than a typical graduate student’s monthly stipend.

The committee points out their recommendations should improve the value and quality of doctoral research. Indian academics believe these schemes do not improve research quality and money should be used to fund more research and permanent jobs.

In 2014, Elsevier performed research on Indian scientists impact for the Department of Science and Technology. Papers published by scientists in India were cited much less frequently than papers from China or the US. Indian funding agencies closely track such metrics when assessing scientists for grants, promotions and fellowships. The system rewards scientists with a higher number of research publications. According to Gautam Menon, a computational biologist at The Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai, some of them publish a large number of low-value papers to obtain funding.

Papers by Indian scientists are retracted at about twice the rate of papers from the US, according to an analysis using data from Retraction Watch. Mukund Thattai, a computational biologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru, is afraid that the proposed scheme will increase these problems. Since some scientists are poorly paid, incentives for publishing could push them to engage in fraud and plagiarism.

“This is an absolute incentive to game the system,” Thattai said for Nature.

In contrary, Ashutosh Sharma, the secretary of the Department of Science and Technology in New Delhi, thinks the scheme is about incentivizing quality research.

According to him, publications are just one of the indicators for evaluating PhD student’s work. “This is about encouraging [and] motivating students who are doing quality work,” said Sharma.

Perhaps an even greater problem is the committee’s recommendation to reward manuscripts in international journals with higher payments than papers in Indian titles. Implying that Indian journals are less prestigious could have negative, long-term consequences on Indian journals and quality of the papers published in them. According to Subhash Lakhotia, a zoologist at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, proposed the scheme could damage India’s scientific publications overall.

“If average or below average manuscripts are submitted to Indian journals the overall quality of journals will be low compared with international titles,” said Prof. Balaram for The Hindu.

Thattai believes editors of some journals are cautious about Indian papers. The number of retractions and misconduct cases is already too high. The incentives could further increase skepticism and make it harder for Indian scientists to publish in international journals. An interesting example is a 2011 study on nations that offer cash incentives, such as China, South Korea and Turkey. Researchers have found that the acceptance rate of papers in the journal Science dropped after these policies were introduced. Although the number of article submissions to a journal from studied countries has increased, their quality was questionable.

Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta and co-author of that study, pointed at another side of pay-per-paper programmes. Over time, they might lead scientists to seek out international collaborators with a record of publishing in top journals. Consequently, this may have increased the acceptance rate of papers from these countries in high-tier journals.

Some scientists would rather see other government measures, like the funding uncertainty eliminated in some existing research programmes, and an end to delays in students receiving their stipends. Menon proposed that the government could increase the number of permanent positions for scientists in state-funded colleges.

After complaints, the government has set up a second committee to consider the publishing proposal. At the same time, another controversial proposal is raising dust. They want to provide students with an incentive to produce patents (Indian or international) and many think it is an even bigger recipe for disaster. 

One step in the right direction was the government’s recent decision to increase PhD stipends after months of student protests. Indian scientists hope for a few more good news.

Learn more about some other issues that many doctoral students face in the video below:  

By Andreja Gregoric, MSc