More than 20 researchers from Pakistani universities were blacklisted in 2015 by Higher Education Commission (HEC) for plagiarized work. The numbers of reported cases are even higher than decided. The matter becomes more sensitive when you have spent a reasonable amount on implementation of plagiarism detection software in all degree awarding higher education institutions.
One objective behind the transformation of the University Grants Commission (UGC) to HEC has been to promote the research culture in Pakistan. The HEC has taken many initiatives to motivate academia for publishing research, including offering incentives such as promotions (from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor and full-fledged Professorship), financial rewards and foreign visits to attend international conferences. Academia responded in turn by producing and publishing prolific amounts of research articles in any HEC acceptable conference proceedings or journal.
Over the last decade, we have witnessed a substantial increase in the number of citations and articles that are being published, though the quality of the research papers produced is debatable. Research in any field is dependent on getting access to readily available information, especially scholarly knowledge. As an individual or an institution, immediate access to latest scholarly information has become crucial to keeping pace with the latest trends, innovations and research in a certain field.
Serving the education sector as an information professional, I understand the importance of having free and full access to scholarly information. The HEC National Digital Library Program has contributed a lot to the promotion of the research culture in Pakistan. This program made it possible for researchers in public and private sector higher education institutions to access costly online journals and databases using a single platform. At the same time, the online access encouraged some of them to copy other’s work and publish it as their own. HEC provided anti-plagiarism software to deter plagiarism but it only indexes similarities (in language and expression). With smart editing one can easily by-pass software detection. Interestingly, Pakistani universities’ international ranking is not going up, even though, academia has been facilitated and encouraged to produce meaningful research.
What should be the way forward? We need to decide as a community if we are going to focus on number of papers published or on quality of research that actually solves problems? Nobody can deny that the research output must be high and is very much required for any country like Pakistan. But at present, the more emphasis must be to publish quality research in quality research journals. There should be zero tolerance for plagiarists, however, at the same time a campaign at mass level is required. After spending 15 years as information professional, I understand plagiarism is more of a behavioral issue. We need to handle it accordingly. This enhances the need of access to best electronic databases for which HEC should now conduct a need assessment study and prioritize the databases keeping in view the need of each institution.
Another issue related to the digital library is that we need to produce indigenous knowledge and preserve it. Pakistani authors are publishing their research in international research journals focusing on local issues but we do not have full text access to these research articles. Bibliographic information is available online but full text access is only received by paying the impact factor journals.
A possible solution is to build an online repository where local and international full text research publications by Pakistani authors can be made available. HEC can devise a mechanism to acquire each publication by the Pakistani author and preserve and disseminate it through an online platform. A legislation or contract with leading publishers may help us in building such a repository of indigenous literature. There is an urgent need in Pakistan to provide easy access to indigenous resources being produced by different individuals and organizations. The digitization, preservation and dissemination of recorded information is the need of the hour. Pakistan has a rich treasure of rare and historical documents, manuscripts and other materials and the country can take benefit by digitizing and preserving these important documents. A recent project of Information Technology University (ITU) and Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) to digitize and preserve the Punjab Archives is a step in the right direction. This would help a number of scholars in their research around the globe.
Concluding this debate, I would say that access to reliable information shall remain a key factor for progress in the quality research, development of information society and knowledge economy. Role of HEC in providing access to scholarly information is appreciated, however, much is required to continue this practice and make up for the deficiencies in getting easy access to information.
Dr. Shahid Soroya is chief librarian and director, National Centre for Academic Integrity at ITU, Lahore.