Is it dangerous to set quotas for research output?

Roosy Aulakh

Yes, argues Roosy Aulakh, an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics in the Government Medical College and Hospital in Chandigarh, India. In last week’s BMJ, she argues that recent measures to force researchers in India to produce a minimum number of publications to obtain promotions could set the stage for many problems, including fraud.

Retraction Watch: You cite a recent paper that showed more than 50% of Indian medical institutions and hospitals didn’t publish a single paper between 2005 and 2014. Did that finding surprise you?

Roosy Aulakh: Well definitely yes! With over 400 medical colleges in India producing more than 50,000 doctors an year, such poor research output surely came as a surprise.

RW: In response, the Medical Council of India (MCI) is now requiring researchers to publish at least four articles to become an associate professor, and eight to become a professor. Does that concern you?

RA: It concerns the entire medical community at large. In the present era of evidence-based medicine, all treatment decisions and further research planning is based on the global medical research database created through decades of hard work by research-inclined individuals. Research is basically an art which every medical professional can’t be expected to possess. Research needs to be voluntary and measures should be taken to provide proper infrastructure and incentives to medical professionals keen in conducting research.

RW: You raise concerns about recent reports of widespread cheating in situations where scientists are under pressure to succeed, such as during medical and dental exams — including a criminal network that sent answers to students via WhatsApp during the exam (relying on tiny Bluetooth devices, vests with embedded SIM cars, and watches with cameras. Is there anything comparable that could occur in academic research, where researchers have the pressure to publish a fixed amount of papers?

RA: Mandatory research as a pre-requisite to promotions in medical colleges could prove counter-productive. It could create a ground for scientific fraud whereby professionals are forced to indulge in unscrupulous practices including plagiarism, fabrication of data, enrolling patients in trials without proper informed consent, and so on.

RW: In other countries, researchers are expected to have multiple publications in order to get promotions, even if they aren’t strict “quotas.” Are these systems equally vulnerable to fraud, in your opinion? Why or why not?

RA: Surely yes! Medical research is not limited to any country and so shall be the anticipated problems with forced research. Any such system in any country is equally vulnerable to incite scientific fraud. Any advancement in scientific knowledge gained via research in any country has a global impact. It not only guides medical professionals across the globe in their day to day decisions in clinical practice, but also incites a series of research activities globally.  Hence, in order to avoid contamination of the medical database by fraudulent research findings, urgent steps need to be taken globally to refrain from forcing research output from medical professionals by setting mandatory research as a criteria for promotions.


RW: Clearly, India wants to boost its publication record. What do you suggest, if not the quotas proposed by the MCI?

RA: No doubt, research is the backbone of medical science. And ongoing research is the only way to update the medical database. However, measures/guidelines should be taken/framed to incentivize quality research. A few suggestions in this regard would be:

  • Research methodology and medical ethics (in clinical practice & research both) need to be a part of undergraduate medical curriculum. This would motivate young medical professionals and also provide them necessary skills to carry out quality research.
  • Separate posts for research doctors in every medical specialty in medical colleges could be created. Medical professionals having aptitude and interest in carrying out research should be selected for such posts.
  • Medical professionals working in Indian medical colleges are mostly multi-tasking. Their work profile includes not only clinical work (outpatient and inpatient care along with running specialty clinics) but also teaching (clinical/ theory) of undergraduates and postgraduates, guiding and supervising postgraduates in carrying out their thesis, organizing scientific Continuing Medical Education/conferences, editing or reviewing college magazine/journals and organizing college fests/cultural bonanzas, as well as being members of various college committees. Hence, carrying out research activities needs genuine interest and utmost motivation, and cannot be expected from each and every medical professional. If such a requirement is made mandatory, then separate time needs to be provided to medical professionals when they are relieved of all other activities and encouraged to conduct quality research.

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18 thoughts on “Is it dangerous to set quotas for research output?”

  1. I am not sure if we should stratify minimum number of publications as ‘quota’. Since, the requirements to become a full professor in terms of publications is just 8. If you are not interested in research and cannot fulfil the above requirement then you are not eligible to call yourself as a ‘Professor’.

    1. Professors should be judged by the quality of what is in their papers, not just the total number. Counting instead of reading on the part of promotion committees (and not just in India) makes a farce out of the whole point of the scientific endeavor.
      Furthermore, teaching should be viewed as important at an educational institution!

      1. You’re spot on anon. Doctors’ main duty is to treat patients, train and supervise residents and interns, the pressure to publish would distract them and could force them to perceive their patients as subjects in a research sample. The end result is distracted, overwhelmed doctors whose main interest is keeping their jobs by crunching out papers. And why is research not credited unless it’s published? It seems that the aim is not conducting research; rather, it is publishing papers!

  2. No one is ever “… forced to indulge in unscrupulous practices including plagiarism, fabrication of data, enrolling patients in trials without proper informed consent, and so on.” People are responsible for their own actions and individuals engaging in fraudulent behavior should have no expectation of continuing employment.

  3. Not only dangerous but also ridicules: quotas on discovery????? Its called publish or perish
    and with pharma studies publish and profit.

  4. Whether negative or positive conclusions (i.e. expectable or not expectable results accordingly to a study hypothesis) we always will have something to publish relative to our research. Amazing results don’t appear from the night to the day. The problem is when scientists are asked to published amazing results and here start the frauds….but if scientists are only asked the humble results of their big research effort I think there is no problem is setting quotas for research output.

  5. A professor SHOULD be an active researcher. If you just want to teach, that’s called a lecturer or instructor. No one forces PhDs into academia, and no one forces you to cheat and lie.

      1. Totally agree. Just look around the world and the most important research centers of the world and the pressure to get funding that we only get by publishing high impact papers

    1. Couple of things here – first, as I understand the whole thing, the title “professor” is merely an indication of academic standing and that standing is achieved in a variety of ways. Yes, if your academic area is one based upon research, you should be actively involved in research, if not as the lead researcher but as the head of an active research group.

      From my own perspective, to say that one is a lecturer or an instructor with the present academic ranking is place you at a level that you may not actually be at. Some academic institutions understand that there are some who find more satisfaction in teaching than research and acknowledge this appropriately.

      The issue at the present isn’t the rank of the individual but how that rank was obtained and the environment in which the individual works. When an administration tells an individual that they must have a minimum of 8 publications to advance in rank and then does not provide the appropriate release time to achieve those results, you will get what is taking place – faulty research, fraud, and retractions.

  6. I can’t understand how publishing 8 papers on one disease, let’s say; hypertension or diabetes mellitus, makes you a professor in internal medicine. In my view, academic ranks are misleading when applied to clinical specialties. I have seen professors with very narrow research expertise who know nothing about the management of patients, and yet they are called professors!

  7. When academic scientists – and probably not just scientists – started dodging their responsibility to understand and evaluate their colleagues’ work, leaving it to deans and impact scores, the slide into counter-productive incentives invited a flood of bad science.

  8. Why do 50,000 medical doctors/year in India all need to publish eight papers to get promoted? Can’t they just concentrate on treating people and improving the level of Indian healthcare? How much more fodder for bad and predatory journals do we need?

    1. Who says 50,000 doctors need to publish? Only doctors in job that too in medical colleges, not general hospital doctors need to publish. Well, still it’s a bad idea to force them to publish for promotion.

  9. An interview question: “The Medical Council of India (MCI) is now requiring researchers to publish at least four articles to become an associate professor, and eight to become a professor. Does that concern you?”

    How can it be that a _research_ professor is not expected to publish? How is it possible to have “evidence-based medicine” without peer reviewed publication? I can see discussing whether _teaching_ faculty should have publication requirements for advancement, but how can this be appropriate for _research_ faculty? What other expectations are there for research faculty in India?

  10. Given the inherently profitable publishing industry. It is about time policy makers asked all those pushing for “publish or perish” to disclose any possible conflict of interest such as ties with journals, publishers and ranking agencies.

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