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April 16, 2020

HEC’s stringent parameters in new policy for journals to alter research culture

The new accreditation system for research journals introduced by the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (HEC) this month is expected to overhaul the higher education in the country as many varsity teachers who could earlier have their research papers published in Z category journals without following international standards will not be able to continue doing so as the commission has altogether abolished the Z category and announced other stringent measures to ensure high quality research in the country.

Earlier, the commission had divided the research journals into four categories, namely W, X, Y and Z, with the W category being of the highest standard and Z being of the lowest. However, with the introduction of the Higher Education Journal Recognition System (HJRS), a new online system for the accreditation of journals, the HEC has done away with the entire Z category, which means that any publication in the 241 research journals that had been put in that category would now not benefit the author at all.

With the new system that would be fully implemented from July 2020 onwards, the HEC will recognise the research journals only in the W, X and Y categories. The HEC also claims that it will use the internationally recognised parameters to measure the quality of the journals in order to assign them their category.

The HJRS has been introduced as per the decisions of the two-day 34th meeting of the HEC held on August 30 and 31 last year, in which the commission discussed ways to raise the standards of the research journals produced in the country and meet the international standards of research.

The meeting approved a transparent policy and impartial system for the accreditation of the research journals. Later on November 5, 2019, the commission issued revised criteria for the purpose which will be effective from July 1, 2020.

The response of varsity teachers’s bodies to the HJRS is varied. Some faculty members, particularly those who represent the Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association (Fapuasa) have raised concerns over the current overhaul. They are of the view that the HJRS, which is connected with international impact factor finding companies, will certainly hamper local researchers’ contributions to the national journals.

However, an independent group of faculty members has welcomed the newly adopted guidelines. They believe that the initiative taken by the commission will put a stop to substandard publications of the opportunist teachers who have been producing dozens of research papers within a short span of time.

Need for stricter policy

According to the HEC, the commission has been striving since 2005 to raise the quality of the research journals of the country. In recent years, its policies in this regard were revised in 2011, 2015, and 2018.

However, as such policy revisions did not allay the concerns of the international academic community about the research quality in Pakistan, the commission decided to implement a stricter policy this year. “This demands a transition to a more transparent, rigorous, and focused system for accreditation, monitoring, capacity building and funding of research journals,” reads the new policy statement of the HEC.

Old policy

According to the last criteria of the category system introduced on July 1, 2018, Pakistani research journals were divided into the W, X, Y and Z categories, with the W category having the highest standard and the Z category having the lowest.

As per the commission’s criteria, those journals that were recognised by the International Scientific Indexing (ISI) Impact Factor and included in the Journal `Citation Report (JCR) of ISI web of knowledge met the standard were to be placed in the W category.

The X category journals had no ISI Impact Factor but they met the HEC’s journal criteria and their publications were reviewed by at least one expert from an advanced country in the respective discipline.

Publications in the X category journals were acceptable for BPS appointments and promotions, and getting the status of HEC-approved supervisors. The candidates enrolled in PhD programmes after January 10, 2010, were required to publish their research paper in the HEC-recognised W or X category journals for receiving the PhD degree. The W category journals were also acceptable for the Tenure Track System, through which the commission appointed faculty members having minimum qualification of at least assistant professorship at varsities to boost research activities.

The journals of Y category lacked the expert review. All the terms and conditions of the X category were also valid for the Y category. However, publications in the Y category journals did not matter in the promotions of the author and getting them the status of an HEC-approved supervisor.

Meanwhile, the Z category journals were just fulfilling the HEC’s journal criteria which read that a journal must be regularly published according to its described interval of time and must be available online. Publications of research papers in Pakistani languages were also possible in the Z category journals.

Fresh changes

The newly adopted policy states that all the research journals in the country have been listed under W, X, and Y categories. Among them, the journals of W category have the highest standard while those in the category Y meet the minimum criteria of standard in order to be recognised by the HEC.

In case a journal stops meeting the HEC requirements, it can be derecognised as and when necessary in accordance with the prescribed procedure in the policy.

The Y category journals do not qualify for accreditation standards. However, they can receive seed funding to reach to the X category to seek international recognition. Likewise, the X category journals meet additional quality criteria and they can receive more funding as compared to the Y category, but do not qualify for the accreditation standards.

The journals of the X category must now be registered with one or more well-reputed indexing agencies. An open journal management system (OJS) or similar systems will be adopted for the submission, acceptance and rejection of the X category research articles. The published articles should be peer-reviewed by well-reputed international experts in the relevant field. All references in the article should be mentioned as per the international standards

The journals of the W category qualify for accreditation as per the HEC requirements and are to receive more funding. No ranking is assigned to the recognised journals and all the W category journals have equal standing for the purpose of academic benefits. Based on citation information, the journals of the W category should be internationally recognised by reputed accreditation systems such as SCImago Journal Rank, Emerging Source Citation Index, Source Normalized Impact per Paper, Impact per Publication, and others from diverse sources.

The policy statement of the HEC says the commission will develop an IT-based accreditation and ranking system, Journal Prestige Management System (JPMS), tailored to the HEC’s needs and requirements. However, the research and development division of the HEC, which is responsible for the ranking, financing, and capacity building of the journals, will play no role in establishing or monitoring the criteria for the utilisation of journals, validity of research, or verification of publications for the purpose of faculty appointments and promotions, including appointments as PhD supervisors, or award of PhD degrees, the policy reads.

The role of HJRS

For the implementation of the new policy, the HEC has connected the research journals of Pakistan with the international impact factor finding companies, abstract and citation database of Elsevier’s Scopus, and Journal Citation Reports of Clarivate Analytics, through its newly launched online platform — the HJRS, which was launched on March 3.

It has been configured on the basis of data acquired from Clarivate Analytics and Elsevier. A notification issued by the HEC on March 3 reads that the HJRS will be updated on a yearly basis and the existing research journals will be categorised as W and X on the basis of the Journal Prestige Index (JPI).

However, the HJRS website reads that the relative positions and further classification of each journal among the recently recognised categories of W, X, and Y have been computed by various parameters to compete with the international standards.

The notification further reads that the category-wise minimum threshold for each discipline has been determined by relevant discipline-specific scientific review panels of the HEC and incorporated in the system. The said thresholds were supposed to be fine-tuned by March 31, 2020, based on the feedback received but the COVID-19 outbreak disrupted the plan.

Furthermore, an open call for proposals will be issued separately every year in March for the recognition of national journals in the Y category.

The journals recognised in the HJRS would be eligible for funding in accordance with their respective category from July 1, 2020.

Data of research journals

The new system of categorisation will affect the number of recognised research journals in every discipline. The HEC recently updated the list of recognised research journals in the country on December 20, 2019 and then in February 2020. Since, the commission has now abolished the Z category, there will be a significant change in the list whenever it will be updated in the future.

According to the updated list, there was no W category journal in the country in the field of engineering and technology. However, there were seven journals in the X category, excluding three derecognised ones, 13 in the Y category, excluding two derecognised ones, and 16 in the Z category along with two derecognised ones.

In the field of health science, there were a total of 58 research journals in the country as on December 20, 2019. Of them, only four were in the W category, 17 in the X category, excluding one derecognised journal, 29 in the Y category, excluding three derecognised ones, and 45 in the Z category, excluding 17 derecognised ones.

The journals of the natural sciences discipline had only three of them in the W category, excluding one derecognised journal. There were four journals in the X category, 12 in the Y category, excluding four derecognised ones, and eight in the Z category, excluding one derecognised journal.

In the field of multi-disciplinary sciences, there were three journals each in the W and X categories. The Y category had eight journals, excluding 2 derecognised ones, and the Z category had 10 journals, excluding two that had been derecognised.

Among the recognised journals of the agriculture field, the W category had four journals, the X category had only one journal and the Y category had 13 journals. As many as 11 journals were placed in the Z category, excluding four that had been derecognised by the commission.

Despite the fact that the discipline of social sciences offered the highest number of research publications in the country, there was no journal of social sciences that met the criteria for inclusion in the W category. The X category had 11 research journals in social sciences while the Y category had 47. There were 57 journals in the Z category, excluding one derecognised journal.

The discipline of arts and humanities stood second in terms of the number of research journals in the country. However, even in this knowledge area, there was no recognised journal in the W category. There were eight journals in the X category and a total of 30 in the Y category, excluding three that had been derecognised. The Z category offered 60 journals, excluding three derecognised ones.

The management science discipline also had no W category journals. As many as 12 journals were recognised by the HEC in the X category while the Y and Z categories contained 19 and 18 journals respectively.

The multidisciplinary domain included no journal in the W category. Only three journals were placed in the X category. The Y category had 11 journals, excluding one derecognised journal. The Z category had 16 journals in the multidisciplinary domain.

Fapuasa’s opposition

In a joint statement, Fapuasa leaders said the HEC’s new policy on the research journals of the country did not take into account the perspective of students and faculty members, and the research culture in Pakistan.

Criticising the new HJRS, they said it would damage the research and publication system in the country and strongly disrupt the teachers’ hiring and promotion system that absolutely depended on their research publications. Research degrees such as MS, MPhil and PhD will also be affected due to the new policy as only the W category journals will be accepted for the acceptance of such degrees after the policy is enacted, they maintained.

The Fapuasa leaders were of the view that the new policy would not only straightaway mark all the categories of journals below W worthless, but also forcefully isolate the Pakistani research journals from other international publication community due to unrealistic and unviable recommendations.

They said the research culture in Pakistan was relatively new and required time to improve the quality of publications. According to them, making stringent policies in such a scenario was not a pragmatic approach as they would never work in the context of a developing country where the research culture is in its infancy.

They further criticised the new policy because it would make it necessary for the Pakistani journals to acquire indexation from only two of the major international agencies in order to be placed in the W category. They said the indexation with these agencies was a rigorous process that would take almost three to four years. Also, both the agencies would charge thousands of dollars as an annual fee for indexation.

“Majority of Pakistan’s research is based on Pakistan data; mostly international journals reject the local research work by asserting that Pakistan’s social science issues are of no interest to international readers and not relevant to the international readership,” said the FAPUASA leaders, adding that the new policy explicitly promoted the international agencies instead of encouraging the local journals. I would also discourage the national indexing and database agencies, they said.

The binding constraints imposed by the HEC would have a destructive and negative impact on research in Pakistan, the Fapuasa leaders warned. They called on the commission to facilitate the research culture rather than acting as an authoritative body.

They said if the HEC wanted to fully implement the international standards of research in the country, it should also implement the international standards in the salaries of university teachers, and their workload and other compensation. The researchers should also be then provided with similar research incentives as in foreign universities, they added.

They maintained that the research journals in Pakistan needed time to develop and get themselves indexed with the international agencies. The HEC should understand that the improvement was a gradual process, they added. The Fapuasa leaders lamented that the international journals and indexing agencies were trying to dominate the developing world.

The other side

Another group of independent faculty members, however, have welcomed the new HEC guidelines. They believe that the initiative taken by the commission would restrict opportunities for those who would produce dozens of research papers within a short span of time in substandard journals.

Dr Ali Gul Khushik, an assistant professor in the department of economics at the University of Sindh, Jamshoro, says: “The HEC, on one hand, has criteria for promotions reading that a professor must have 15 papers in recognised journals, and on the other hand, the commission intends to maintain quality to compete international standards. Thus at the same time, quantity and quality cannot be maintained.”

Dr Khushik remarked that some of the faculty members seeking promotions produced more and more papers within a few months in substandard journals — that too written by multiple authors. He added that such a trend needed to be discouraged.

The Pakistani varsities need competent teachers who could produce quality research. The commission has taken a perfect decision for the research journals, he opined.

HEC’s stance

As the HEC will not recognise the Z category journals in accordance with its new policy, the question arises whether such journals could be assigned the Y category.

Providing a clarification over this question, HEC Spokesperson Ayesha Ikram said in a written reply that after the implementation of the new HEC policy, the journals currently in the Z category that have been following the revised criteria for the Y category would be recognised in the Y category and the rest will be derecognised.

“HEC encourages the faculty members to contribute to the recognised journals only. As such the papers published after the effective date of the new policy in derecognised journals will not be considered for faculty benefits and the papers published before the effective date will be considered based on the existing policy.|

About the issue of plagiarism in research articles, she said the commission had zero tolerance for plagiarism cases and they would be dealt with strictly. She added that the international agencies with which the HEC would collaborate had also very stringent processes in place to detect plagiarism.

“The accreditation and recognition of journals will be valid for one year. All existing journals are also required to submit applications through the online system. In case of failure in compliance, they will not be made part of the new HEC Journal Recognition System (HJRS),” Ayesha explained.