Feudal Lords of science

Published: September 4, 2018
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. 
He tweets @mhzaman

The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

Last week, we found yet another Pakistani scholar — this time at the Centre of Energy Research and Development at the University of Engineering and Technology Lahore —involved in blatant plagiarism. The paper was copied word for word, from another paper already published. The original paper appeared in Nature Energy on January 1st, 2018. The paper copied verbatim — and authored by Pakistani researchers — appeared in Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells on June 7, 2018. It was submitted in March 2018. The issue got international attention, and the episode highlighted once again the deep-rooted problems in academic publishing in the country.

As I was discussing the issue of corruption in science and academia in Pakistan, some friends and colleagues told me that while plagiarism does get some attention — and indeed more needs to be done — there is another problem that almost never gets any attention. Instead, it is accepted as the norm in the experimental research labs. The issue is akin to feudalism in our research labs. I wasn’t sure what these friends in Lahore, Karachi and Faisalabad meant. But as I probed further, they were talking about the bullying attitudes of the heads of large labs and of those at senior positions at our science institutes and departments. These senior colleagues, I was told, essentially call all the shots, and demand that their junior colleagues must include their names (ie of the department heads and senior scientists) on the papers, irrespective of the contribution of the senior colleague. Let me illustrate this point further. A junior colleague (in this case a female young assistant professor) was told by the head of her department in molecular biology, that she must include the name of the head of the department in any papers that she publishes.

This was expected of her if she wanted to get promoted, granted access to use the expensive equipment under the supervision of the head of the department, and above all allowed to travel outside Pakistan to research meetings and conferences. As I dug in further and talked to some other junior colleagues, I found that the practice was prevalent across the country — even at nationally-renowned and prestigious science institutes affiliated with Karachi University and Punjab University. Part of the reason some senior colleagues are able to get so many papers out every year is not because of their intellectual contribution, but because of their demands of their junior colleagues, even those who are far from their area of expertise. It is one thing to mentor and supervise, and make active contribution, quite another to bully someone into submission.

The issue of international travel was particularly a sore topic among junior faculty. Young researchers and scholars at our universities are interested in developing collaborations, eager to learn from their peers abroad and interested in sharing their own original work. But time and again, it is the same senior person and the same head of department who shows up at the international conference. This is something that many of us, who are keen to see representation of Pakistan at international meetings, have seen time and again. These senior people, who keep showing up at meetings, have little to add, have given up research years ago, and are often an embarrassment. These heads of departments and leaders of institutes are robbing the state funds and taking away the right of aspiring junior faculty to develop.

On a national level, we were never able to carry out land reforms. The feudal lords of our society still call the shots, and their fiefdoms are a source of misery to millions, who are anything but free. The nascent experimental science enterprise of the country has become a microcosm of these fiefdoms, with their own lords who harass, control and reward as they see fit. Neither are these fiefdoms socially or morally justified — nor should they be acceptable to anyone.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 4th, 2018.

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Reader Comments (3)

  • khawar sohail siddiqui
    Sep 4, 2018 - 12:21PM

    It’s time for PTI government to look at the matter and change heads. As per my experience all chairmen directors etc are incompetent and corrupt.Recommend

  • Ali Zaib
    Sep 5, 2018 - 9:34AM

    Expose them with names as well.Recommend

  • Mudabbir ali
    Sep 5, 2018 - 11:15AM

    The same scenario is being adopted by dr nadeem javaid from cs department of comsats university islamabd.. he is also one of the feudal lord of science/academia… i request to education authorities to probe into comsats university islamabad and acquire reviews of his students.. i was one of the victim while publishing a research paper, he nagged me to mention his and seniors’ names.Recommend

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