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Beyond Academic Honesty

In response to Rajeshwari Deshpande's "How Does the System Encourage Academic Dishonesty?" (EPW, 25 February 2011), it is argued that the solution to systemic problems in the social sciences lies in creating accountable researchers, and in channelising social science research funding to the needs of development policy.


of higher education and research in our

Beyond Academic Honesty

country. Research in any economy should be need-based. But the very concept of “need” should be qualified. Whose need is P M Mathew it? And how is it satisfied? In an environ-

In response to Rajeshwari Deshpande’s “How Does the System Encourage Academic Dishonesty?” (EPW, 25 February 2011), it is argued that the solution to systemic problems in the social sciences lies in creating accountable researchers, and in channelising social science research funding to the needs of development policy.

P M Mathew ( is with the Institute of Small Enterprises and Development.

ajeshwari Deshpande, in her article “How Does the System Encourage Academic Dishonesty?” (EPW, 25 February 2011) condemns unethical practices in research with special reference to the social sciences. She highlights a variety of systemic problems, which obviously demand detailed discussion and analysis.

Deshpande describes a process which can best be recounted as commodifi cation of research with a focus on the PhD degree as its central theme. The new pay scales of the higher education sector, as outlined by the University Grants Commission (UGC), have obviously triggered this process of commodification. It is natural that a focus on stipulated requirements, as against the quality of research output would lead to a bandwagon effect.

Key Questions

Deshpande (2011) also points out that there is a lacklustre research atmosphere in most parts of India, except some metropolitan centres. She points out that a PhD-centric understanding of research often encourages academic dishonesty. PhDs in particular, and research activities in general, get linked to different kinds of material and symbolic benefits rather than to serious academic pursuit of knowledge. However, the larger question remains as to what drives serious pursuit of knowledge. Deshpande ascribes it to so-called “academic pleasures” (2011: 15), which is too abstract a concept. She asks the bigger question – whether the overall design of our educational system really encourages good research. Unfortunately, answers to these questions still need to be found.

Where do the roots of the problem lie? Has anything serious happened with the design of our educational system in the recent past, or have major changes in the economy affected the research environment as well?

An answer to these questions needs to be sought in terms of a historical analysis

Economic & Political Weekly

april 30, 2011 vol xlvi no 18

ment in which education itself has a derived demand, with research as a bonus, it is natural that the latter becomes a commodity. On the other hand, in a situation where knowledge becomes a commodity, fetching a market premium, it is the pursuit of knowledge that is valued in society. While conceptually, education and knowledge go together, in the real world, they stand apart.

A closely related aspect is the attitude to work. Knowledge causes people to swing into action; there is a natural tendency for human beings to work for gaining knowledge. However, this situation has got distorted over time. Where the return on the pursuit of knowledge is less than the rents gained from formal education, academic degrees turn out to be commodities.

The need for research should be perceived in terms of (1) pursuit of theory, and (2) interest in real-world problems. The basic question that needs to be raised is whether research today is driven by any of these motives. If the motives are any of these, then one would be on the search for necessary facilities to pursue that interest. A content analysis of contemporary research in many socialscience disciplines would indicate that research even in the metropolises, as identified by Deshpande, does not qualify by these standards.

This is essentially for two reasons. First in India today, we have some broad categories for researchers based on ideological preferences (and identification with political parties). Some universities and institutes are also similarly branded. Such ideological branding helps these so-called scholars gain offices and positions with economic and social benefi ts. Naturally, their ideological positions are often matters of choice rather than of conviction. This is a major and recent change in the academic value system.

As such, we also have stratifi cation among researchers on the basis of mediocrity


versus quality, influence and so on. A mediocre researcher produces mediocre research. Such research output gets refl ected in the standards of the institution, as also the educational standards of the students it graduates. On the other hand, good researchers also sometimes produce mediocre research output, but because they have already gained a brand, serious work is redundant for them. They are easily packed and marketed because of the brand name effect.

The motives behind research are clear when we examine the types of research projects handled by individual researchers. Why do the most reputed social scientists of the country not prefer to take projects from the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR)? This is a question which needs to be deliberated on in detail. Is it because the ICSSR and its affiliated institutes do not provide a supportive research environment and “academic pleasures”?

As a development practitioner, this writer has noticed that research output from the hubs of research, especially the ICSSR institutes, despite its superior methodological content, is less than useful from the point of view of development practice in the country. Many such studies are, at best, masterpieces in self-promotion (as evidenced by the biographical notes) and institutional promotion. Much research output by these scholars today is adapted from what they have done two decades back.

Deshpande points out that the core of the problem is that research facilities are poor, and centralised. However, the reality is that even in the hubs of research, as outlined by Deshpande, quality research does not take place. On the other hand, the benefits of technology available today are such that research output is often able to meet the quality and delivery benchmarks with far greater ease, unimaginable two decades back.

In the 1970s, the ICSSR system was set up as an answer to the rigidities and constraints of the then prevailing university system. The pioneers of the time like J P Naik, D T Lakdawala, V K R V Rao and K N Raj did not have bags of money to plan alternatives to the university system. But they were academic entrepreneurs who could act as leaders and managers. What is the status of ICSSR institutes today? Many of them are outsourcing centres.

The question then is simple: what is social science research in India for? Is it for the individual researchers’ career development? Or does society have real control over these researcher’s actions and output? Private funding of universities is not allowed in the Indian context, but why don’t we think on those lines? The solution lies in creating researchers who are accountable at some level. Unfortunately, this is not happening in the Indian context. Mediocrity is the result, and naturally, the market does not want the services of such researchers. The upshot is that the equilibrium needs to be maintained through subsidies. It is a subsidising role that the government plays through the UGC and the ICSSR, diverting public money for the private purposes of these researchers.

Centralisation of research is, by no means, the problem. Decentralisation of facilities will only lead to a furthering of the subsidy regime. The key issue relates to the social objective of the so-called social science research. After all, public money spent on an initiative should not simply be for private gain.

Theoretical and applied research in the social sciences should be clearly distinguished. The research programmes of both the UGC and ICSSR should undergo major restructuring. The goal of funding by such research funding bodies should not be to enable individual self-promotion, or for institutes to gain awards. Social science research funding should, to a large extent, be channelised to the needs of development policy in the country. Such funding, like in many advanced countries, should be easily available to any genuine researcher, either in the form of small grants or as institutional grants.


March 5, 2011

India and the ILO in Historical Perspective – Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, J Krishnamurty, Gerry Rodgers India, the ILO and the Quest for Social Justice since 1919 – Gerry Rodgers Indian Officials in the ILO, 1919-c 1947 – J Krishnamurty Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work: India and the ILO – Kamala Sankaran Employment in Development: Connection

between Indian Strategy and ILO Policy Agenda – T S Papola

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320-321, A to Z Industrial Estate, Ganpatrao Kadam Marg, Lower Parel, Mumbai 400 013. email:

april 30, 2011 vol xlvi no 18

Economic & Political Weekly

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