Good vs good enough

Many outside reviewers are unable to objectively evaluate the work of Pakistani scholars on its merit

Muhammad Hamid Zaman September 12, 2023
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman


A discussion with colleagues in Pakistani academia about the overall quality of the work in the country is often sensitive. Many colleagues in the country feel what they may consider good quality work is often reviewed unfavourably by their academic peers abroad. Their frustration does have some merit. Prejudice cannot be ruled out. It is true that many outside reviewers are unable to objectively evaluate the work of Pakistani scholars on its merit, and are influenced by their negative views of the country of origin of the authors and their affiliation with unfamiliar institutions. This is not simply a global north-global south prejudice. We have it in our own country as well. The work of those who are trained in Urdu medium institutions is often viewed as sub-par by those who are trained in more affluent English medium institutions. Researchers in more well-resourced national private universities routinely dismiss the work of those from traditional madrassas as ordinary, or intellectually inferior.

There is, however, another side to this argument. That is, what do we consider good quality work? While there is no question that biases and prejudices are real, we cannot either deny that our own internal quality standards are often not reliable. An example of that is the quality of many (though not all) of our own academic journals that are published in the country. Those journals, by and large, do not generate a sense of confidence. Apart from serious issues of plagiarism or unethical behaviour, there are also questions of methodological rigour, strength of arguments and the quality of writing. Poor editing further undermines the overall quality of the publications. There is broad agreement among national scholars that most would prefer to publish abroad than in local journals. That agreement is not simply because of the reach of international journals and periodicals (which is a factor) but also the quality of work in leading journals published outside the country. In the imperfect world where we live, the poor quality of many of our own journals and the academic books published reinforces global north prejudices. While fighting against these prejudices, we have to also tackle the issues that fuel these biases.

There is yet another dimension here. Those who defend the national journals also have an argument. Their argument is about access vs quality. They argue that given the current national education and training standards, if we have a very high bar to publish in our own journals, then very few people would be able to meet those expectations. Their argument is about the system as a whole. Until we change that system that does not train well, and fails to inculcate rigour, analysis and writing from an early stage, only a select few would be able to publish. Those select few are probably quite privileged anyway, and are already publishing abroad. Why would they publish in national journals then? Thus, this group argues, national journals, books and periodicals are a way to ensure that those who, for no fault of their own, did not receive the training they deserved, can get a chance to publish. This, in essence, is the same argument that has been put forward about opening new schools to meet the demand of a growing population and worrying about quality later.

This argument does have some merit and requires us to think deeply. Indeed, there is value in increasing and maintaining access, but a sharp choice between access and quality is actually a false choice. Choosing to focus on access, while disregarding quality completely, is both naïve and dangerous. While we have to increase access, we have to ensure that quality continues to improve. Just as for a healthy society, we have to have food that is available and meets the standards of good quality, not just barely good enough; similarly in our own academic standards, we have to set a high bar and ensure that year after year we are getting closer to it. ‘Good enough’ should be the floor of where we are, not the ceiling.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 12th, 2023.

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