I have spent the better part of the last decade studying the quality of medicines and medical products. From innovation to policy, access to accountability, I have seen firsthand what makes a system create, foster and sustain a quality product. I have also seen what happens when the systems fail to create or maintain quality of medical products. While the lessons of each sector have their own nuances of governance, accountability and implementation — I have come to believe that the general principles of quality creation and maintenance are applicable to other areas, one of them being: academia.
There is no question that the research output in science from a large number of Pakistani academics is sub-par. The issue of plagiarism aside, the key story, the quality of study design and the analysis leaves a lot to be desired. In general, the papers in my field (and closely related fields) coming purely from Pakistani scholars often fall short compared to the highest standards.
So what are some quality lessons here that may be applicable to our output? First, quality does not automatically appear — it has to be demanded, expected and maintained. In the absence of this demand, the general output will remain variable and lack consistency. Our institutions, from departments to universities, and beyond, are generally less interested in quality than in quantity. Furthermore, the simultaneous emphasis on a high number of publications and the expectation to publish in high impact journals have led to foul play and cheating, as well as a desire to tag along with international collaborators instead of original contributions. The number of papers of high quality coming from purely Pakistani scholars remains small.
The second lesson from quality assurance studies is that it is both time and resource consuming. In academia maintaining quality would mean providing researchers with the resources needed to do quality research, and taking away the pressure to publish extensively. Unfortunately, our institutions are going in the wrong direction on both of these fronts. They expect our colleagues to publish a lot, while burdening them with extensive teaching and giving them limited resources.
The third lesson is that quality metrics should be globally recognised and not arbitrarily lowered for local scenarios. This means that we should expect high and rigorous international standards of discovery and analysis — and not accept poor quality studies by arguing that under Pakistani circumstances this is the best we could produce. For those who continue to lower standards, there is no bottom.
Fourth, just as quality metrics have to be global, the enforcement and awareness have to be local. A general local awareness about quality is directly connected to demand and accountability. Those who consume the output, such as other national researchers in the field, should push for higher standards and be ready to critically evaluate the existing output. This can and should happen by stronger academic and professional societies and local journals that have to be seen as uncompromising on quality.
Fifth and perhaps most importantly, a quality product requires quality at every step of the process without exception. This is where we have to invest the most — by emphasising highest quality (and ethics) in crafting the question, in investigating the question, in analysing the results and in disseminating the information. Any misstep in the process would compromise the final outcome.
Quality outputs from academia are among the most powerful and lasting symbols of the capacity of human endeavour. However, the road to quality products is long, winding and often fraught with painful decisions. Yet, the lasting legacy of a quality product is always worth the investment. An unwavering commitment to quality in our creative pursuits is a highly sensible investment in our future.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 2nd, 2018.