It is easy to assume that young ESL researchers are more likely to plagiarize - Prof. Zabta Khan Shinwari

 It is easy to assume that young ESL researchers are more likely to plagiarize - Prof. Zabta Khan Shinwari

I first met Prof. Zabta Khan Shinwari at the 2016 meeting of the Asian Council of Science Editors in Dubai, where we had an interesting exchange of views on academic research and publishing, and ethical issues in the reporting of scientific research. During our discussions, I saw Prof, Shinwari as a passionate scientist eager to bring about a change in the world around him. This interview is an extension of that conversation where Prof. Shinwari shares his views on several topics close to his heart and related to scholarly publishing.

Prof. Zabta Khan Shinwari is the Secretary-General of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences and Chair of the Biotechnology Department of the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan. Over the years, he has built a reputation as a passionate researcher who believes in the ability of scientists to benefit humanity through scientific discovery and its communication to the lay people. He is also known for his support of biodiversity conservation, especially for the benefit and preservation of indigenous populations, as well as his work on bioethics and the importance of dual-use education in biotechnology.

Prof. Shinwari specializes in molecular taxonomy and systematics, specifically in modern plant biotechnology. Following a hard-earned graduation degree from Pakistan, he went on to obtain a PhD and multiple postdoctoral fellowships in Japan. In the course of his research, he identified over 300 plant genes, many of which display tolerance to severe weather and stress. He has also been associated with organizations such as the Pakistan Museum of Natural History, the National Agricultural Research Centre, and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Pakistan. He has been the Vice-chancellor of Kohat University of Science and Technology (KUST), where he played a crucial role in developing the university infrastructure and making higher education accessible to women. Prof. Shinwari has done a lot of work in the area of encouraging the sustainable use of natural resources among the local tribal communities in Pakistan as well as in enabling access to higher education among the underprivileged communities in Pakistan. Among his successes is the establishment of a University of Science and Technology in Bannu and of the KUST Institute of Medical Sciences (KIMS). He has also been the Chief Executive Officer of Qarshi Research International (a private research institution) and Vice Chancellor and founder of Qarshi University in Lahore, Pakistan.

Prof. Shinwari’s efforts to promote and foster an understanding of ethics, bioethics, biosafety, and the dual use of biotechnology led to his being awarded the 2015 UNESCO Avicenna Prize for Ethics in Science. He has authored over 300 scientific publications, including journal articles, conference proceedings, books, and book chapters.

We ended the previous segment with Prof. Shinwari talking about the gap between scientists and laypeople and how it could be bridged. Here, Dr. Shinwari shares some great advice for everybody involved in scientific research and its communication – young researchers, senior scientists, policymakers, journalists, and science communication professionals. He also talks about some of the barriers faced by scientists in Asian countries in general and in Pakistan in particular. The lack of a support system for researchers at all stages comes up as a recurring issue in Prof. Shinwari’s conversations.

What, according to you, are some of the barriers faced by young researchers trying to get published in the early days of their career?

Based on my personal experience, researchers for whom English is not their first language (ESL, or English as a second language, researchers) face more struggles. The primary issue is that English is the lingua franca of journal publishing and not all ESL researchers may have the same English language proficiency as native English speakers. This is an immediate and major disadvantage. I feel that ESL researchers face a sort of bias when it comes to publishing their papers and they might be judged based on their language skills instead of the content of their articles; so, perhaps, we don’t have an equal playing field.

Now let me point out the next challenge. Today, I am an experienced researcher and published author and I receive requests from journals to contribute to their publication. I know that what I write will not be doubted because my credibility has been established. But young researchers from this side of the globe don’t have it so easy today. If they submit a great paper with solid evidence, it might be difficult for other academics to trust their work. These days, it is easy to assume that young ESL researchers are more likely to plagiarize or adopt other unethical publication practices. So inexperience, especially in the backdrop of ethics violations across the globe, is another barrier to publication.

The third issue is high publication fees. Given the need to publish many papers, authors from developing countries might not be able to afford publication fees even though they receive a research stipend. You must remember that I am also talking about the currency values. Journal publication fees (even for the open access ones) are in dollars, euros, or pounds whereas researchers in developing countries are paid in currencies that don’t match up to the value of the dollar. This is a practical incompatibility and needs to be addressed to ensure that young scientists don’t lose out on opportunities because they don’t have the means to get published.

My heart goes out to PhDs and postdocs who have to struggle at every stage in their career. It’s a tough world out there and they need a lot of support and training along the way. And it is the responsibility of senior academics and publishing professionals to ensure they get the help they need.

Do you have any publication-related tips or advice for young researchers?

A lot of research undertaken in Asian countries is specific to the researchers' continent or region. If your research focuses on a local or regional topic (e.g., specific flora, fauna, or climatic phenomena), your chances of getting published in international English language journals might be slim. The journal editor may not choose your paper because he/she may not be convinced about the relevance of your work at a global level. So if you are working on a specific topic, make sure you present its global/international relevance. If not, consider a journal that publishes research that deals with region-specific issues. Remember that the readership of an international journal is also international, and people reading your article should be able to understand how your work is important to them or to general scientific research in your field. I also strongly feel that policymakers in these countries should ensure that they create policies that encourage local or regional research that will benefit their society. But that is a separate discussion.

Another important piece of advice is to stop running behind the impact factor because it will lead nowhere. This has been repeatedly stressed and yet, I feel the need to repeat – the sole focus of a researcher’s life should be performing research and communicating it instead of following the publish-or-perish culture.

Lastly, if you want to make your presence felt in the international academic and publishing landscape then you must consider research collaboration. Find researchers from another country who would be interested in working with you. This will not only give you global visibility but will also help you develop invaluable communication and research skills, because, at its heart, collaboration fosters an essential knowledge exchange.

So what can senior researchers, academic institutions, and policymakers in Asia do to encourage researchers and promote their advancement?

Policymakers MUST encourage regional or local research so that scientists can start working on topics that will lead to improvements in their region. This will not only give researchers much needed job security but will also help them contribute to society. I am not saying that publishing in international journals should be discouraged. I am saying that the focus on the impact factor and excessive attention to becoming global might have led us to forget the local problems that need urgent attention. Researcher promotion should not be based on the number of their publications in impact factor journals but on the impact their work can have/has had on society. And if we really want researchers to have international exposure, we should encourage international collaborations by tying up with international academic institutions and making more collaboration opportunities available to them.

Where does Pakistan stand in the global research landscape?

Pakistan is actually doing quite well in terms of research quality and output. I can cite a report published by Thomson Reuters not very long ago: “In the last decade, Pakistan’s scientific productivity increased by more than 4 times, from approximately 2,000 articles per year in 2006 to more than 9,000 articles in 2015. During this time, the number of Highly Cited Papers featuring Pakistan-based authors increased tenfold, from 9 articles in 2006 to 98 in 2015. Furthermore, in the last 10 years, Pakistan has emerged as the country with the highest percentage of Highly Cited Papers compared with the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China).” I can also say that the number of PhDs in the country has increased over the years.

But we cannot take these indicators at face value. We have several areas of improvement to focus on. My personal opinion is that we have made our researchers focus on the things that are less important than their own research. There are several reasons why I say this: Pakistani researchers receive their PhD degrees only after three international referees approve them/give them a positive review. Second, before submitting their theses for review they should have published at least one paper in an impact factor journal. Given such pressures, Pakistani researchers are pushed to publish or perish. They end up focusing on getting published instead of choosing on a research topic that will help solve some of their country’s problems. So because of the education and research promotion system, we’re doing little to advance scientific research that would prove to be helpful to Pakistan. Policymakers, government officials, and academia should realize that the current focus should be on something that will have an impact 20 years later, e.g., health issues, biomedical solutions, and environmental issues. I do know that this is changing gradually and we’re about to take off towards innovation.

To what extent are Pakistani academics aware of the principle of ethics in research and publishing?

I am going to be candid again. In my opinion, only 5% of Pakistani researchers are aware of ethical problems in research and publishing. The reason for this is the issues in the academic research and progression system, which I spoke about earlier. Given the intense pressure, a researcher would resort to any means to achieve the end – publication in an impact factor journal. Another really critical point here is that, most often, when we talk about educating researchers about ethical publication practices, we bring up plagiarism and ask researchers to summarize/paraphrase the original text or cite the original source. But there are other types of unethical practices which researchers indulge in but we don’t train them on how these could be avoided. For example, there is no clear solution/course of action offered to avoid data falsification (except saying “don’t fabricate/falsify data”). For, example, a researcher may have collected data of 10 patients and altered that to 100 while submitting the paper to the journal, because he/she would want the data to look better. How are we going to train researchers on avoiding such practices? We rarely talk about the other two issues which are more important than plagiarism. Plagiarism is wrong, but the practice that is more deadly is data fabrication and falsification, to which we don’t pay attention.  

So, what are some of the most important things you have learned as a researcher?

Ah! That’s an interesting one to answer. Let me think.

  • First, I believe that every researcher has the capability to do some good. This is slightly philosophical, but over the years, I have realized that researchers should focus on the larger picture, which involves thinking of the impact their work will have on science, society, and humanity. This will not only keep them grounded but will also motivate them to perform better. If you believe in yourself and the positive impact your work will have, you will achieve whatever you want.
  • Also, there is no shorter route to success in academia – hard work is everything, and so is smart work. Often, researchers bow to the pressure and look for short cuts, a sort of Aladdin’s lamp that will fulfill their wishes. If you work hard and do everything, you will reach your destination.
  • Next, remember that academic success is incremental. Learn to celebrate your small achievements because they will all build up to the big one.
  • Finally, being a successful researcher is not about being a famous researcher. In fact, the more experienced and successful you are, the greater is your responsibility – towards society, younger researchers who report or look up to you, journal editors, and fellow academics.

That brings us to the end of the interview. Thank you, Prof. Shinwari, for candidly expressing your views and for the insightful advice for young and senior researchers. I enjoyed this conversation because it made me reflect on some issues in scientific research and communication. I hope our readers enjoy reading it, too!

In case you missed the first part of the interview, you can catch up here.

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