New guidance that asks Ph.D. students at one of India’s leading universities to produce at least one journal paper per semester has been criticized amid fears that pressure to publish may have contributed to recent deaths by suicide among doctoral researchers.
The evaluation measures introduced by the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, often regarded as India’s most prestigious higher education institution, were cited as a major grievance during recent student protests at the Chennai campus.
One doctoral student told The New Indian Times that those who do not publish papers every semester “receive lower grades and face scrutiny by the doctoral committee.” The monitoring system—in which published papers help Ph.D. students accrue credits—adds to current progress-tracking initiatives that include weekly work logs and periodical reports from supervisors, they added.
Students claimed that IIT Madras, which ranked first in the Indian government’s own internal ranking of universities last year, might reconsider the credit-based system in light of the protests. The institution’s communications office did not respond to a request for comment from Times Higher Education.
Criticism of the new evaluation measures followed growing alarm over the deaths of several Ph.D. students enrolled at the highly selective IITs. Students at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur held a candlelit vigil earlier this month following the death of a female Ph.D. student—the third by suicide at the institution since December—while the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi was rocked by three deaths by suicide of students and a research scholar earlier in the academic year.
In November, IIT Madras also suspended a professor following the March death of a mechanical engineering Ph.D. student, bringing the tally of suicides there since 2018 to 12. Its director, Veezhinathan Kamakoti, told India Today in May that Madras was “committed to working towards ensuring the wellness of all on [the] campus” and employed more than 30 trained counselors to help students.
A spokesperson for the India Research Watchdog, an independent collective of Indian researchers and Ph.D. students that campaigns for research integrity, told THE that recent deaths by suicide among Ph.D. and master’s students should be tackled urgently.
“While each case is different, pressure to publish is definitely a contributing factor,” a spokesman insisted.
IIT Madras’s new evaluation measures might also push students to behave unethically to ensure publication, he added.
“We have also seen a lot of private institutions in India encouraging undergraduates to publish research papers and book chapters, and one can understand how these papers are being written. We hope that IIT Madras does not go down that route, as it is a race to the bottom,” he said.
“In any case, incentivizing paper publications by students at such a high rate will inevitably incite students to use unethical means to get ahead. While it might result in increased publication counts in the short run, such papers can seriously harm the reputation of IIT Madras as a world-class institute.”
India has “seen the nefarious effects of such incentive policies” in a more than twofold increase in the number of papers being retracted over the past three years, the spokesperson added.