As India adds new universities, knowledge creation must be increasingly emphasised. Nowadays many leading universities say they are research and innovation driven. Whereas the role of colleges is to disseminate knowledge, universities are expected to create knowledge. Universities want to be seen to be fulfilling this essential objective.
New knowledge so created can be disseminated freely (as in a publication in a journal) or at a price (as in a patent). The patent path must be followed when the possibility exists of the research being applied with economic or monetary implications. Researchers are advised (or even pushed) to file patents over relevant geographical areas, in spite of the costs involved in this process. Such patents are protected through legal processes, such that ownership of economically relevant knowledge is legally defended when there is any trespass. But establishing ownership of new knowledge, or credit for its creation is also necessary when there are no obvious economic implications. Why?
Universities have a responsibility to ensure that credit for any new knowledge is assigned where it is due. On a larger scale, assigning due credit for knowledge creation is an ethical responsibility of a knowledge driven society. No doubt Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) is discussed in an academic spirit in international forums without reference to its actual monetary implications. However, the undercurrent of such discussions is almost always the economic implications of new knowledge. As importantly, the creators of any original thought must be credited irrespective of its economic potential. Ownership of an idea is in itself a reward.
Protecting and assuring credit for new knowledge created is favourable for universities as well. Universities ranking in international evaluations is determined also by the new knowledge that their faculty and students create, and by its impact. Thus for a university to get its rightful ranking, it is essential that credit for research is appropriately apportioned and that it is not wrongfully appropriated through plagiarism. Claiming ownership while creating new knowledge must be a primary concern and responsibility of every research and innovation driven university.
Protecting against plagiarism
Every research publication refers to earlier relevant papers, and it is the primary responsibility of reviewers and editors to ensure that proper credit is given where it is due. Usurping someone else’s credit or claiming authorship of someone else’s research output is plagiarism, and it is also hotly discussed.
Plagiarism is defined as “the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results or words without giving appropriate credit.” Plagiarism of words is mentioned in the notifications and guidelines of the UGC in the context of Ph.D. and M. Phil. thesis, and has become an issue for all universities to address. Every thesis submitted to a university is subjected to a software check to ensure that the student has not plagiarised text from published literature or other sources. Some universities may soon take this further and require similar checks on papers submitted to journals or to conferences. Research project proposals submitted to funding agencies could be similarly scrutinised.
While these methods work well to check for plagiarism, they constitute a defensive approach towards the greater aim of knowledge creation, building as they do on the belief that researchers may usurp the credit of others. To enhance the self-belief of researchers, mechanisms must be introduced that build on the belief that they will produce ideas that others may consider worth usurping!
An essential component for the creation of new knowledge is self-belief and a supportive atmosphere. Clearly, a change in attitude is required. And since some new knowledge will not result in patent filings, there is a pressing need for procedures that will ensure credit even when the new knowledge has no obvious economic implication.
Instances of Indian scientists becoming victims of idea-plagiarism by established foreign bylines do occur. In two recent experiences we succeeded in establishing the precedence and importance of our contributions, which culminated in the foreign scientists apologising in the journal Physical Review B (in both cases). During these episodes I realised that there is no mechanism in India for obtaining redress when an Indian researcher becomes a victim of plagiarism. Clearly, we are not ready for ideas/processes/results of Indian researchers being plagiarised by established foreign bylines.
Every researcher attempts to answer questions that other groups may also be independently addressing. We work hard and fast to claim priority, hesitate to publicise interim results, and worry about unauthorised access to manuscripts submitted to journals. I have found that preprint archives provide an attractive medium for releasing the manuscript in the public domain almost immediately. They allow us to put in a claim for priority with minimal human interference. This advantage is an overriding benefit for potential victims of plagiarism. It also bypasses refereeing or editorial delays—we often find papers submitted later than ours appearing earlier!
We must educate students on how to properly assess the importance of their research, and not to unnecessarily publish in a ‘lesser journal.’ Uploading on a preprint archive ensures priority while allowing the student time to convince referees and editors of a journal of appropriate visibility.
The UGC issues guidelines to police researchers and ensure that Indian universities do not become perpetrators of plagiarism. But it is more important to mentor researchers and set up mechanisms to ensure that our universities do not become victims of plagiarism. For the benefit of universities, I have outlined proposals to this effect in recent articles in Current Science.
Impact of the Internet explosion
As a proponent of using preprint archives with great visibility on the Internet, I have come across other impacts of the internet explosion. Some of the issues concerning the publication of research that must be addressed pertain to how information is exchanged and the likely impact on publication practices. Specifically, how will the explosive growth of new open-access predatory journals affect our meeting requirements of regulatory bodies like the UGC? Further, interactions on social media will also be counted in academic discourse on claims of new knowledge. Will this affect the importance of pre-publication reviews and enhance the importance of post-publication commentaries? If this shift is expected, and we also underscore the need for quick dissemination of our research output, then we need to take recourse to preprint repositories. What are the issues in disseminating preprints, and are we ready for the change that is required in our mindset and in UGC guidelines?
A few of these questions appear to have been recognised. Here are two excerpts from a report titled ‘Peer review in scientific publications’ of an 11-member Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons (U.K.).
- “The growth of post-publication peer review and commentary represents an enormous opportunity for experimentation with new media and social networking tools.”
- “With the growth of online repository journals … and the development of more advanced tools for post-publication review and commentary, the role of the publisher in filtering research prior to publication is diminishing.”
Clearly, methods of publication of research are evolving. This has implications for claiming ownership and ensuring credit for new knowledge. Research and innovation driven universities must debate and address these issues.
Praveen Chaddah was the Director of the UGC-DAE Consortium for Scientific Research during 2005-2013. The institute has laboratories at Indore, Mumbai, Kolkata and Kalpakkam. It provides physics researchers from universities access to various state-of-the-art experimental facilities. Dr Chaddah has contributed to research in various areas of condensed matter physics, and is a Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy, of the Indian Academy of Sciences and of the National Academy of Sciences of India.