Chart 1(a) | The chart shows the number of publications over time for five countries. India recently became the third-largest producer of scientific articles in the world
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On the surface, Indian research has never been better. India recently became the third-largest producer of scientific articles in the world (Chart 1(a)), a notable achievement for the world’s fifth-largest economy.
Chart 1(b) | The chart shows the number of retractions over time for five countries. Graphs are in multi-scales: China (X20), India (X5) and the U.S. (X5).
But behind the barrage of research papers lies a telling statistic that should be a considerable cause for concern to Indian academia: the number of retractions (Chart 1(b)). Published papers are retracted when they are found to have mistakes, and retractions remove them from the scientific literature. In many instances, papers are also retracted when they are found to contain data or claims produced as a result of misconduct. Historically, a very small fraction of scientific misconduct has been caught.
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As such, retractions are the tip of the misconduct iceberg. The Retraction Watch database lists 109 reasons for which papers have been retracted. For simplicity, the reasons can be grouped into three categories: grave reasons (constituting serious breach of academic and scientific integrity), including criminal proceedings, hoax papers, and plagiarism; misconduct (wherein the author knowingly indulged in misconduct), including civil proceedings, conflict of interest, and manipulation of results using computer-generated content; and errors (errors in the article, which can also indicate hasty publication), including concerns/error in data, images, results, etc., requiring correction.
The data show that the number of retractions in India rose dramatically in 2020-2022, mainly for misconduct. As such, India seems to be following in China’s footsteps but could benefit from following in Japan’s instead.
Chart 1(c) | The chart shows the quality of publications as measured by ratio of publications to retractions.
To understand the effects of a higher research output on the number of retractions, consider the ratio of the former to the latter. As a proxy for quality (Chart 1(c)), it indicates an alarming drop in the country – almost halving.
Chart 2 | The chart shows retractions by domains in India.
As for the domains of retractions (Chart 2), engineering accounts for almost 48% of all cases, up from 36% in 2017-2019, while the humanities grew by 567%.
Science itself appears to be relatively untouched by this phenomenon. It is difficult to ascertain the major reasons for the rise given the number of factors at play, although the opinion of the research community itself could give us some insights.
Chart 3 | The chart shows the results of a small survey conducted by India Research Watchdog with 364 respondents.
A little more than half believe that university ranking parameters are behind the rise. Another 35% attributed it to unethical researchers, while 10% pointed to the minimal action taken when an allegation is reported or when an offender is ‘caught’. There are other factors as well, including making it compulsory for PhD students to publish papers (a change instituted in 2017), as a result forcing those unable to do so to resort to low-quality publications, and the proliferation of predatory journals.
While more investigation is required, the sudden rise is not, as some have claimed, an artefact of the COVID-19 period for two reasons: such an effect was not observed in any other country and the number of papers published/uploaded during the pandemic was only marginally higher, whereas the number of retractions grew by a factor of 2.5.
The data should be an urgent call to action to scrutinise research malpractice in Indian academia. It affects research and teaching. If we don’t take a closer look now, we will waste our great potential on producing bogus research.
Achal Agrawal is the founder, India Research Watchdog
Source: Data for retractions were sourced from the Retraction Watch Database and the publication data were sourced from Scimago
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