University Grants Commission (UGC) has called for proposals to conduct a study on the “Quality of Ph.D. Theses in Indian Universities”. Inspiringly, UGC has received nearly 150 proposals for conducting the study, and Dr Bhushan Patwardhan, UGC Vice-Chairman, is hopeful that the study would reveal the real quality of the theses, the gaps and the areas of improvement. Although the idea of studying the quality of theses is indeed praiseworthy, there are more areas that UGC needs to take into consideration than just studying the theses. The initiative for studying theses suggests that UGC is extremely worried about the condition of research in Indian universities and also exposes that the higher education regulator is yet to find a viable way out of the problem. If high-quality research output is the serious expectation, then UGC may have a close look into the thesis evaluation process because the roots of lack of quality research are not just in the thesis but in the thesis evaluation process as well.
It is pertinent to pay attention to the thesis submission and evaluation procedure that most universities and institutes currently follow. A research scholar submits the synopsis of thesis to the research supervisor who then forwards the synopsis to the Departmental Research Committee (DRC) or the Departmental Postgraduate Committee (DPGC). Then the Chairperson of DRC or DPGC forwards the synopsis to the office of the Vice-Chancellor (VC) or the Chairperson of the Senate Post-Graduate Committee (SPGC). In most universities, the Controller of Examinations (CoE) handles the submission and evaluation procedure on behalf of the VC. From the date of submission of the synopsis, a stipulated time is given for the submission of the final thesis. Time for thesis submission varies from university to university, generally thirty to ninety days. At the time of submission of the synopsis or the thesis, the research supervisor in consultation with the DRC or DPGC submits a panel of at least eight names for Ph.D. thesis evaluation. From the panel, at least two names are selected as evaluators. Then the thesis is sent to the external evaluators and generally a time of forty-five days to ninety days is given to the evaluator for the submission of the evaluation report. All of these are official procedures.
UGC needs to pay critical attention to the general practices behind thesis evaluation process. The list of the panel that the research supervisor submits raises big questions. The panellists, presumably, are well acquainted with the research supervisor. What seems to be happening is that most often before putting a name in the panel, the research supervisor gets in touch with her/his academic acquaintances, discusses the research and gives hints about the expected report. In most cases, the evaluator sends a favourable report. This evaluator puts the name of the research supervisor (whose research scholar’s thesis he/she has received for evaluation) in the panel when her/his research scholar submits the thesis. Then he/she sends a favourable report. Sending a favourable report seems to be a mutual understanding. Sometimes, the research supervisor suggests the research scholar some books and articles for citation and instructs to project these books and articles as outstanding research because the author of the books and articles would be one of the panellists and citing the author would facilitate getting a favourable report. In most cases, it seems that getting a Ph.D. thesis awarded depends upon the research supervisor’s network of acquaintance in academia.
Also, UGC might need to take note of the time the thesis evaluator takes for the submission of evaluation report. Acceptably, there are Ph.D. thesis evaluators who submit the thesis evaluation report right on time, and it is equally acceptable that some evaluators delay the submission of the report for no valid reason. After the deadline gets over, the CoE or SGPC sends a reminder letter or email. I have heard amusing anecdotes about the manner the external evaluators prepare their thesis evaluation report. Sometimes, the Ph.D. thesis evaluator starts reading the thesis after receiving CoE or SGPC’s reminder. Some evaluators hastily submit a report making generalized comments just by going through the introduction and the conclusion.
The present Ph.D. thesis evaluation procedure is single-blind, that is, the identity of the evaluator is not revealed to the research scholar but the evaluator comes to know the name of the research scholar, name of the research supervisor and the research scholar’s institution. I suggest that Ph.D. thesis should undergo double-blind evaluation, that is, the identity of the scholar, the evaluator and the institution should not be revealed to each other. It should be noted that anonymous reviews and comments promote better research. My ideas about the advantages of double-blind evaluation are based on the assistance I got from anonymous reviewers during my contribution to international journals and on my experiences as a reviewer for international journals.
In order to facilitate the double-blind evaluation of the thesis, UGC needs to create an online portal for thesis submission and evaluation and appoint portal admins based on the subject area. All eligible research supervisors in Indian universities and institutes can be invited to create an account providing details about their area of specialization. After registration, all research scholars may be requested to create an account providing details about their research area and should upload a tentative research outline. The portal admin can forward the outline to the area experts for comments and suggestions. After successful completion of coursework, when a research scholar starts writing, he/she can submit the chapters using the online portal without any author identifying information for comments and suggestions from area experts. Working on the comments and suggestions would lead to the improvement of the quality of the thesis.
Also, once the chapters are submitted online, multiple plagiarism checks can be conducted and the menace of plagiarism can be minimized to a great extent. A research scholar should be instructed to submit the main thesis without any identifying information. After final submission, he/she should get an email confirmation of the submission with a unique thesis-identifying number. The portal admin can seek consent from interested evaluators sending request-for-evaluation email and then assign evaluators for thesis evaluation with a deadline. In case the deadline is over, an evaluator, only after assigning a valid reason, can apply for an extension. The research scholar may log in to the portal and can check the status of the evaluation. However, in the prevailing thesis evaluation procedure, the research scholar remains completely in the dark about the status of the evaluation.
Delay in submission of the thesis evaluation report is a serious problem and no one has yet raised voice against this pressing issue. If a research scholar is awarded right on time, then he/she can take up further research which would lead to the growth and development of research in the country. The online portal can easily track the progress in evaluation.
Many research scholars have made me aware of their encounter with their research supervisor regarding methodology. Some have told that their research supervisor doesn’t hold adequate knowledge about research methods and documentation techniques, yet he/she takes coursework classes and offers research supervision. Surprisingly, even in the thesis evaluation report, some thesis evaluators sometimes make wrong comments on research methods and documentation techniques. These hearsays of the research scholars need verification and UGC may conduct a study on the thesis evaluation reports. Indeed, we have full faith in the thesis evaluator’s scholarship in preparing the thesis evaluation report, yet cross-checking of the evaluation report might reveal areas where extra attention is required to strengthen research.
The online portal can facilitate the cross-checking of thesis evaluation report by other area experts. After the thesis is awarded, the reviews and comments can be made available on the portal to other scholars who can learn about the stages of evolution of research ideas by reading the thesis and the comments alongside. The online portal can be connected to different e-resource databases which is going to benefit both the research scholar and the evaluator: a research scholar while writing the thesis can consult different sources for improving the depth of the research and a thesis evaluator while evaluating a thesis can consult different sources, check the citations and suggest further sources for the improvement of the quality of the research.
Asserting autonomy granted to the universities for becoming institutions of global excellence, UGC should adopt effective measures for improving the quality of research. I want our country Bhāratavarṣa to be a highly developed and high-performance research output can give Indian universities a better place in world rankings (QS World University Rankings or Times Higher Education). Serious research reformation is the need of the hour and online thesis evaluation would revolutionize research.
Sayantan Chakraborty has published research articles in reputed international journals (Scopus Author identification number https://www.scopus.com/authid/detail.uri?authorId=57201589487) and assists international journal as a reviewer. He is Assistant Professor of English at KL (Deemed University), Vijayawada.