Of Doctors and Charlatans
- Sivaram Srikandath
Story Dated: Friday, July 6, 2012 17:11 hrs IST
The other day I came across an interesting news item. Dhaka University has ordered a probe into the doctoral thesis submitted by a political science teacher who was awarded a PhD in 2011 for his research The Practices of Marxism and their Impact on the Modern World : The Case of Objectivisation (and no, it was not because of the pretentious post-modernist title of his research, although that itself could be a good enough reason!). It seems that the teacher in question, Mohammad Noor Uddin claimed that in the course of his research he had interviewed a mind boggling 1.275 million people during a three year period; from June 2008 to May 2011.
Dhaka University vice-Chancellor Arefin Siddique said that " we ordered an enquiry into the thesis work after the Dean of the political science faculty and five fellow teachers made complaints. A five man committee led by the University's pro-vice Chancellor will investigate the matter."
In Professor Noor Uddin's defence it must be stated that one of his thesis supervisors and the chief of the University's Political Science Department, Professor Shawkat Arat Hossain saw nothing untoward in what he had done. She stoutly defended him stating that she believed in the authenticity of the research.
Intrigued by the news, I went online to get more details of the good professor and his gargantuan research effort. But other than brief snippets about the storm he has created in the academic teacup, I could find no references to the controversy, and a Google search of Mohammad Noor Uddin did not yield any evidence of scholarly articles published by him either.
Hmmmm..... Interesting . As we would say in India, daal mein zaroor kuch kala hain ! The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that Prof Noor Uddin was a smooth operator who may have been flying too close to the wind in his efforts to get the much valorized Doctor of Philosophy degree.
For, how does one interview 1.275 million people over a three year period ? This roughly translates into a respondent list of more than 1200 people daily. Professor Noor Uddin claims he was able to complete such a stupendous task because he used the medium of the Internet. Granted he did that. But then you must understand that any normal research procedure in the social sciences involves not only preparing the questionnaire, but also generating a bias free sample of respondents and then sending out the questionnaires to this sample, however large or small. Let us, for a moment play the devil's advocate, and assume that instead of mailing the questionnaire to such an impossibly large sample, the professor posted it on a website that would allow interested people to answer the questions and mail them back to him. To get 1.27 million replies, it would be necessary (statistically speaking) for him to have contact with a potential universe of at least 2.5 million respondents who could be persuaded to view his research site and then read through and answer his questionnaire (assuming a 50% respondent hit rate, which itself is unnaturally high).
The matter does not end there. Once the replies come in there is the matter of processing them and collating the responses. If, as is customary in the social sciences, the professor had used a 5 point scale for research vigour (instead of the binary yes/no responses) in his questions, or even more cumbersome, if he had any open ended questions in his questionnaire, then it would take an army of research assistants and a huge amount of investment in time and resources to properly organize the data. Assuming one is using a statistical program like SPSS (the favourite of social science researchers) one has to painstakingly code the replies and enter them manually into the computer. Once the data is fed into the computer, comes the more difficult job of analyzing it and testing the hypotheses that provide the theoretical structure to the problem(s) one is investigating. Even a simple frequency distribution analysis of 1.27 million questionnaires would take forever. Imagine the situation if the method of enquiry required a basic correlation and regression analysis. The Dhaka University's computer systems would just freeze up !
And then comes the job of writing up the dissertation, which if done in the manner it should be, is another major task. It involves a detailed exposition of the background, importance and purpose of the study; precise problem definition (remember the famous quip - a problem well defined is a problem half solved); specific research questions being addressed in the study; a review of relevant literature; an explanation of the methodology used; statement of research findings; and finally the conclusions, discussion and suggestions for future research. In short, writing up the dissertation is a serious chore that represents the summum bonum of the research process. It is is an onerous responsibility that is not something to be trifled with.
Now, even after granting a generous dollop of the benefit of doubt to Professor Noor Uddin, do you think that he actually interviewed 1.275 million people ? Sounds possible? Nay, I think not.
Just goes to prove that there are as many crafty charlatans as there are deserving doctors in the academic world !