Indian payment-for-papers proposal rattles scientists

Researchers say the policy could intensify existing issues with research quality and misconduct.

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Young man reading in a library in India

Some researchers fear that the proposed scheme could make it harder for Indian scientists to publish in international journals.Credit: Mahatta Multimedia Pvt. Ltd./Corbis/Getty

Indian scientists are criticizing a government proposal to pay graduate students who publish in select journals. They fear that it could degrade the quality of research and lead to an increase in scientific misconduct, by incentivizing publishing rather than good science.

Under the proposal by a central government committee, PhD students who publish in “reputed” 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 says the recommendations are designed to improve the value and quality of doctoral research. Various pay-to-publish schemes have been reported in other countries, such as China, South Korea and South Africa.

India’s government has yet to accept the proposal, but academics there say evidence suggests these schemes do not improve research quality. Some researchers want the government to fund more research and permanent jobs, and reduce the funding uncertainty in existing programmes, before introducing cash bonuses for publications.

Quality issues

Papers published by scientists in India are cited much less frequently than papers from China or the United States, according to a 2014 analysis by Elsevier for the Department of Science and Technology. Indian funding agencies closely track such metrics when assessing scientists for grants, promotions and fellowships.

One of these systems, managed by the University Grants Commission, India’s higher-education regulatory and funding agency, is used to assess academics’ performance. It places considerable weight on the number of research publications, and so it, too, has created perverse incentives for scientists to publish a large number of low-value papers, says Gautam Menon, a computational biologist at The Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai.

This reliance on metrics has also pushed some scientists to game the system by publishing frequently without regard to the quality of their research, says Arunan Elangannan, an inorganic chemist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru. Papers by Indian scientists are retracted at about twice the rate of papers from the United States, according to an informal analysis by Mukund Thattai, a computational biologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. Thattai used data from Retraction Watch, a blog that tracks academic misconduct.

A pay-to-publish scheme will exacerbate these problems, says Thattai. Incentives for publishing could push some scientists to engage in fraud and plagiarism, says he says. “This is an absolute incentive to game the system.”

But Ashutosh Sharma, the secretary of the Department of Science and Technology in New Delhi, says the scheme is about incentivizing quality research, as reflected in a paper. Publications are one of the few indicators on which a PhD student’s work can be judged, says Sharma. “This is about encouraging [and] motivating students who are doing quality work.”

Indian scientists are also critical of the committee’s recommendation to reward manuscripts in international journals with higher payments than papers in Indian titles. This implies that Indian journals are less prestigious, and that reputation might in turn cause them to attract only sub-standard manuscripts that would further degrade the journals’ quality, says Subhash Lakhotia, a zoologist at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi. The proposed scheme could damage India’s scientific publications overall, he says.

The incentives could also make it harder for Indian scientists to publish in international journals, says Thattai. Some editors are already wary of submissions from the country because of the number of retractions and misconduct cases, he says. Incentives that increase the number of submissions could make editors even more cautious about Indian papers, he says.

A 2011 study of nations that offer cash incentives, such as China, South Korea and Turkey, found that although the number of article submissions to the journal Science increased following the introduction of these policies, the acceptance rate of papers from those countries dropped.

But Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta and co-author of that study, says that over time pay-to-publish programmes might lead scientists to seek out international collaborators with a record of publishing in top journals. As a result, this might have increased the acceptance rate of papers from these countries in high-tier journals, and not just the submission rate, as her earlier study found.

The real problem

Some scientists, including Menon, would rather the government funded more PhD research and increased the number of permanent positions for scientists in state-funded colleges before launching schemes to incentivize research papers. They would also like the funding uncertainty eliminated in some existing research programmes, and an end to delays in students receiving their stipends.

The government has set up a second committee to consider the publishing proposal. Sharma says members are aware of similar schemes in other countries and will consider those experiences when making their recommendations.

Sharma also says the science department has launched numerous schemes to improve research quality in the past four years. For example, a post-doctoral fellowship has been established to fund PhD students to continue research after graduation. Delayed grant payments have also been cleared, he says. The government also agreed this month to increase PhD stipends after months of student protest.

Nature 566, 307 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00514-1

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 21 February 2019: An earlier version of this story did not make it clear that data on India's retraction rate was an informal analysis.

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