The 2013 Nobel laureate British physicist Peter Higgs, renowned for Higgs Boson, believes that no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered ‘productive’ enough. When his department at Edinburgh University would ask for a list of recent publications for their research assessment exercises, Higgs would send back a statement: ‘None.’ Thus, we need to redefine ‘Academic Freedom’ within the framework of continuous pressure for publication of research outputs in academic journals.

An academic institute would invariably ask its faculty members for their list of recent publications once or twice a year. Appointment to promotions, tenure to salary hike, research grants to academic dignity, all are directly proportional to research publications, all over the world. Quality of research publications are usually measured by the relative status of the publishing journals. The peer pressure of publishing is the driving force of research in most part of the globe, ‘Publish or Perish’ being the widely practiced academic chant in today’s world. From Far East to Europe to America – university teachers are tied up in the junket of ‘compulsory’ research. Today’s universities do care about their international rankings which create huge uproars, and depend very much on research publications, although the worth of such ranking is not very clear to me.

Einstein defined ‘Academic Freedom’ as “the right to search for truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true.” At the International Conference convened by UNESCO in 1950, in Nice, the Universities of the World articulated three interdependent principles; the first of them was “The right to pursue knowledge for its own sake and to follow wherever the search for truth may lead.” At the first annual Global Colloquium of University Presidents at the Columbia University in January 2005, ‘Academic Freedom’ was defined as “the freedom to conduct research, teach, speak, and publish, subject to the norms and standards of scholarly inquiry, without interference or penalty, wherever the search for truth and understanding may lead.” The value of academic freedom is viewed to be closely linked to the fundamental purposes and mission of the modern university.

However, the concept of ‘university’ has changed a lot from that depicted in the one and- a-half century old book ‘The Idea of a University’ by John Henry Newman. Today, university teaching in most places is very much limited within a pre-scheduled framework of curriculum. What is to be taught at the 8th or 12th lecture is outlined apriori. On the other hand, as the American biologist Jerry Coyne opined, if a geology teacher blithely tells his students that the earth is flat, that’s not academic freedom, but dereliction of duty.

Back to research again. In most parts of the world, research of academicians is largely influenced by the interest of the funding agencies. Today’s academic system does not even allow a future Nobel laureate to carry out his own research peacefully, without producing regular research outputs. What would Peter Higgs make of such a standard of academic freedom?

How is academic freedom maintained in publishing a research paper? Writing a research paper is often like cosmetic surgery, on top of the research work, keeping the aim, style, orientation, page limit, preference and the editors’ profile of the journal in mind. After the paper is submitted to the journal, the Editor assigns it to some suitable Associate Editor, who finds a few suitable referees who are supposedly knowledgeable in that research subarea. The referees submit reports (usually with lot of suggestions for possible additions, deletions and alterations). Based on the referee reports, feedback of the Associate Editor, and his own reading, if the Editor finds the paper acceptable, the authors are asked to revise it. The authors need to revise it following each and every suggestion of the reviewers, whether or not they feel this is necessary. Even if they disagree with a certain comment/suggestion, it is a very delicate and difficult task to illustrate the reason with utmost politeness. The ultimate objective is to satisfy those few wise people. The revision might take a few months, and the freedom of the researchers gets compromised within the tedious process of satisfying the reviewers. If they succeed in satisfying those few anonymous wise persons with their revision, the paper would get accepted. Quite often, it might come back with another list of suggested modifications, or sometimes get rejected as well. However, after a long effort, if the paper is eventually accepted for publication, the researchers get delighted, and feel extremely proud of their ‘Academic Freedom’!

This is the most common research activity of academicians, worldwide! Just wondering – is this the type of academic research that Stephen Hawking described as “the joy of discovering something no one knew before”?

(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)