The quality-quantity conundrum
"Those who speak most of progress measure it by quantity and not by quality": George Santayana. Gautam Radhakrishna Desiraju and Giridhar Madras give a counterpoint arguing that an increase in quantity will lead to an increase in quality in Indian science.
doi:10.1038/nindia.2010.156 Published online 10 November 2010
Quality and quantity are essential attributes of science research output in a country like India seeking a place in the modern world. However, these attributes are generally considered to be mutually exclusive. There is a semblance of quality in a few of India's institutions though a vast majority of them appear to be drowning in mediocrity and incompetence. In the process, the country seems to be losing both quality and quantity.
Using bibliometric indicators to measure science research output in India, China and USA during the last forty years, we have found that the Indian curve has been sluggish throughout. The analysis, between 1960 and 2010, shows (figure 1) that publications from USA increased in the early 1970s, in the mid-1980s and again around 2001. The numbers of Chinese publications show a very sharp increase from 2002. Interestingly, these times correspond to a period of economic well being in these countries.
The Chinese performance has been truly remarkable in terms of quantity. In the period 1996-2009, the increase in the numbers of scientific publications from USA, India and China has been 30%, 300% and 2000% respectively. If present growth rates in China are sustained, the number of Chinese publications will be greater than those from USA in around 10 years.
On the question of quality, the number of publications in all three countries increased during the time period under consideration. Despite the huge increase in the number of publications (figure 2), the number of citations per paper has remained nearly constant over the years. This is true for a country like USA from which a very large number of papers have increased at a moderate rate, for China where the rate of increase is startling and for India where both the number and rate of increase in number of papers is modest.
An increase in the number of papers does not lead to a loss in quality. While quantity is no substitute for quality, quantity does not mean loss of quality, as is popularly believed.
An interesting trend was seen in the number of papers during the period 1980-2010 in three prestigious journals, Physical Review Letters, Journal of the American Chemical Society and Journal of Biological Chemistry. As the number of total publications increased, the number of publications in these top journals increased proportionately, for all three countries. Quantity does not hurt quality. It might even improve quality. The reasons could be many, the simplest being the presence of a larger peer group of authors increasing the overall sensitivity to quality and leading to a desire to write more high quality papers.
The key to increasing the quality of Indian publications is to increase the number of publications. In this view, we should look at measures that increase the overall numbers.
An earlier analysis on the contributions of the best 10 research institutions in these countries to their overall publication records showed that the premier Indian institutes contributed nearly 30% over the span of 25 years. This is in keeping with the sluggish Indian curve in figure 1. However, in China, the contribution of the top institutes has decreased from 53% to 39% during the period of 2002 to 2008, which coincides with the exponential overall growth in that country. Clearly this means that the second and third rung research institutes have begun to participate actively in research. This can only be possible if trained manpower who studied in the top institutes went on to teach and do research in these institutes.
Policy and funding
Therefore, to increase the overall productivity of number of publications, two major steps need to be taken: increase the number of researchers trained in the best universities/institutes and increase the number of researchers in the second/third rung institutes who will actively participate in research. It is no coincidence that the sharp increases in the number of American and Chinese papers coincided with periods of economic growth in those countries. India is now entering that phase and the science bureaucrats would do well to initiate proactive changes now.
Some of these measures already seem to be under way but there are serious lacunae in their implementation. New universities and institutes have sprung up but the archaic and political manner of selecting their leadership leaves much to be desired. Corrupt practices among the present leadership of our academic institutions constitute a grave impediment. Political interference in the running of state universities needs to go.
There is also a real need now to assess the consequences of the caste based reservation system. Where has 50 years of reservation taken us, in a world where no quotas are applied in competitive activity?
India's Department of Science and Technology (DST) budgets have been increasing annually at the rate of 20-25% but the velocity of funding and its absorbability are serious issues. Selection of faculty is slow and bureaucratic. The number of new faculty hired must be so large that the few who are inevitably unsatisfactory do not pose a problem. Perhaps we could experiment with the tenure track system.
There must be a clear signal from the scientific departments and from the Ministry of Human Resource Development that they are up to the task of meeting the challenges of a newly awakening country in which economic advancement is the only aspiration of the masses, and in which education is seen as the only means of achieving such advancement.
The authors are faculty in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
- Panchagnula, M. V. Curr. Sci. 97, 1707 (2009)