A Global Perspective on Research

Quality should matter more than quantity.
By Faiza Abdur Rab

Worldwide advancements in science have increased the importance of connecting researchers globally. Though technology now allows certain types of instant connectivity and emerging nations are spending widely on their research institutions, wide gaps remain, even when talent and subject knowledge may be equal.

Since professional advancement involves teaching and research—with career progress at many institutions dependent on maintaining a continuous research track—quality of scientific research is often compromised in favor of quantity, especially in developing countries where pressure to produce is heavy and resources may be lacking. Unfortunately, this often reduces research in such places to a data-generating process, perpetuating the gap between wealthy and developing countries.

The global research community would benefit from uniform rules for awarding research degrees and uniform guidelines that take into account differences in resources and provide equal opportunities to contribute. High-quality education is the prerequisite for doing high-quality research. Today, the quality of research done in developed parts of world is far above that in developing countries. Financial constraints have created vast differences between standards in differently developed regions of the world, but the developing countries are beginning to show signs of catching up. Assistance will be needed, however.

When research was less dependent on the use of technology and there were fewer security-related issues, research training and career opportunities were somewhat more open to people living in developing countries. The quest for knowledge was something of an individual journey. Then, it was financially feasible to do high-quality research even in developing countries. Research was also of comparably higher quality because there was less competition among researchers on the basis of the number of papers published or patents registered. Until recently, most studies from developing countries were narrowly focused and were conducted by two to three authors, at the most—with very little possibility of financial return.

The situation has changed. With the advancement of technology, research groups are now present in almost every corner of the globe. They are focusing on generating data, publishing papers, and registering patents—but they are not making substantial original contributions to science. Technology in many fields requires massive financial investments in research training, and in hiring researchers, research institutions give preference to local candidates. Security concerns have played an important role in restricting the access of potential candidates from the rest of the world, widening the perception of global “haves” and “have-nots,” at least in terms of research contributions. Universities involved in research in almost all domains of knowledge need to be global literally.

Today’s studies often address old issues using new technology and data-analysis tools. The work is frequently multidisciplinary, and the number of authors involved in any study has significantly increased. Since there is more need for financial support in providing the required technology and other technical support, the principal investigator of any funded project, even without making any considerable intellectual contribution, can get authorship credit for papers that may not be relevant to the investigator’s field of expertise. This is analogous to what is happening between research institutes globally. In the developing world, permission to use laboratory facilities or get technical support is given only on the condition of the grantor’s receiving at least partial authorship credit. In principle, the researcher working on the bench or collecting data should become the first author credited in publication. Since there are comparatively more researchers involved in studies today, there is often disagreement on the order of authorship recognition, but such fights are seldom exposed. Merely filing notice of disagreement can damage a junior researcher’s career. The same can be true of research institutions in remote places when they attempt to gain global parity.

Impact factor scores have been assigned to research journals since 1975 to differentiate high-quality research from routine scientific work and to measure the relative importance of journals within their field. The impact factor of an academic journal represents the average number of citations to recent articles published in the journal. Journals having higher impact factors are considered more reputable, which, in turn, allows them to publish more high-quality work. 

The contribution of any researcher should be evaluated by the cumulative impact factor of his or her publications. Unfortunately, in many places, the number of publications is what is counted. Most of the officials designing policies ignore the fact that individuals doing original work would never be able to generate many papers in a given span of time. Their contributions still could alter the horizon of the understanding in a given field, however. In less privileged parts of the world, an extremely competent researcher who follows the rules and regulations might never be promoted without compromising the quality of his or her work in the race to generate papers. The same could be said for research institutes as a whole in developing countries and, to a lesser degree, in developed ones.

In research, quality should matter more than quantity. Unfortunately, in most of the developing world, quantity is rewarded first, a situation that encourages copycat publication and even plagiarism. Publishing even negative results would help to make the process of learning more transparent.

With security issues and the growth of the Internet, PhD candidates in developing countries are increasingly having to study in local institutions. Connectivity, however, has both positive and negative aspects. Universities in the developing world—in spite of having, more and more frequently, huge buildings and technical support—lack the infrastructure and professional training of their counterparts in wealthier countries. Furthermore, entrance to universities in developing countries is often predicated on doing well on exams that require little more than memorization. The global impact of the work researchers do in “home” institutions is further limited by the language barrier, which keeps some of today’s potentially best scholars from gaining access to internationally recognized institutes for research training.

Such hindrances do not decrease the ambition of researchers in the developing world, nor does it diminish their capability to generate useful hypotheses in the fields of their interest. Even though their facilities may be improving, they are not always in a position to generate data that could support their hypotheses or lead them to discard or modify them. This results in a great loss to the researcher’s immediate scholarly community and to overall knowledge and understanding.

Journals with high impact factors could be part of the solution to the problem of providing better access to global research conversations to researchers in the developing world. These journals could, for example, introduce a section where researchers from all over the world could publish their hypotheses even in the absence of supporting data. Such an approach would bring researchers in the developing world into contact with researchers at other institutions where the needed data could be generated. Encouraging the formation of an independent research evaluation organization to evaluate the submission of research proposals, theses, and published papers, especially in case of authorship disputes, could also be helpful. Researchers from developing countries, after all, can feel bypassed by those from better-funded and more centrally located institutes when they do not receive appropriate credit.

Competent researchers from developing countries often prefer to work abroad, where the environment is more supportive of high-quality research, leaving less competent workers at home. These latter, unfortunately, are the ones who design academic policies that support their own parochial interests while allowing overall standards to deteriorate, increasing the quality gap. There are few explicit global standards to which they need to adhere.

Researcher communities seem to ignore the importance of having competent research groups available in all the disciplines in every region of the globe. More study needs to be done regionally, no matter the field, if we are ever to have global research parity that takes advantage of talent worldwide. Setting comparable standards for research training across the globe should be a matter of concern for all. Research is often focused in commercially significant areas, ignoring the fact that we cannot have new technologies without having done research in basic sciences and other disciplines.

There are large numbers of researchers with PhDs in almost every country, but they are not at all comparable. There are no universally adopted criteria for awarding doctoral degrees, a basic requisite for doing independent research and keeping the quality consistently high.

If we do not opt to change the system, original research could become merely a dream outside of the developed world. I hope we outsiders can learn to learn well and join with the rest before it is too late.

Faiza Abdur Rab is assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of Karachi in Pakistan. Her e-mail address is faizaabdurrab@uok.edu.pk.

Comments

Very useful article by Faiza Abdur Rab. I agree to what she has said based upon my own experience of several years in RS and GIS. Some key problems faced by researchers of developing countries like Pakistan include: Unavailability of experienced researchers especially of emerging knowledge and technology, Lack of credible information/data to be used in research project and discouraging environment for the researcher community. I myself have suffered due to this: http://www.researchgate.net/post/Are_there_volunteers_to_be_advisors_if_...

Quality of research is also a big question mark. The MSc research I did in 2008 at Netherlands is bigger in scope than the PhD I am pursuing at Pakistan right now. Similarly, the type of research project I did as part of master degree at Netherlands in 1998 is being pursued in MS/PhD level study/research in Pakistan in 2015. Therefore, in developing countries research is not really contributing to quality global research due to some the points mentioned above.

Thanks Dr Asmat Ali for your complements and sharing your experiences.

Dear Dr. Rab:
Teaching is the imparting of new and old knowledge. Yes, Research Methods are required in the second year in American programs. Students must evaluate and participate in the research basic to new knowledge. Learning via participation is basic.
This separation of teaching in subsequent development is wrong and must be corrected.

Dear Dr Louis,
Thanks for your sharing a very important aspect regarding teaching and research.

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