A case in point is the number of engineering and technology doctorates awarded in 1977 — a year for which independent statistics are available.
The UGC says 152 doctorates were awarded, but the CSIR says there were 289. However, a committee appointed by the government in 1978 to review education and research carried out a head-count and reported 329 doctorates — more than double the UGC figure.
Different editions of Research and Development Statistics disagree about data, as do different government sources.
For the year 1989, the number of engineering and technology doctorates varied from 238 to 586 depending on which government source is consulted — all four disagree. There is similar confusion in the case of science doctorates, although the spread is smaller: the quoted figures for 1987 range from 2,591 to 3,038.
The ambiguity extends to efforts to determine how many research papers India produces every year. For an answer, one must turn to foreign databases — sources that obviously mainly serve the needs of the countries that have created them.
In 1998, India produced 1.57 per cent of the world's total research papers published in journals listed by the Science Citation Index (SCI). By 2002, its share had increased slightly, to 1.79 per cent.
During the same period, China moved from 1.90 to 3.68 per cent; and Brazil, more modestly, from 1.03 to 1.49 per cent. Germany, the UK and France show a marginal decline in their share while the United States and Canada show a small rise.
But of the 3,500 SCI journals, only ten are Indian. More broad-based than the SCI is the Web of Science database, yet this only includes about 50 Indian journals — a tiny fraction of the 2,000-plus scientific periodicals published in 2000.
Alternatively, one could consult subject-specific databases and add up the numbers — an exercise that produces a total of 52,120 Indian papers for 1999.
The problem with this approach, however, is that it creates overestimates, because the same papers can appear in different databases, such as those for agriculture and life sciences.
In any case, a common trend discernible in all these databases is that Indian publication output has remained stagnant for at least 15 to 20 years. But in the absence of a national database on R&D publishing, this conclusion has become controversial.
If data compilation remains a desultory and sporadic exercise, vital questions will remain unanswered. How are universities performing in comparison to research institutes? Where do physical sciences stand with respect to applied biology? What is the profile of authors with respect to gender, age, social and educational background, national and international collaboration?
And without those answers, a true picture of the state of science in India will remain elusive. This situation has kept alive misleading myths, such as the one stating India has the third largest scientific and technical manpower in the world.
Are there any other models India could use? In South Africa, all information on research publications is collated at government level. The system works because incentives for individual authors as well as awards of research grants are linked to research output.
But in India, where salary and job security are guaranteed with no link to performance, such a system is unlikely to work.
Better by design
However, this makes India ideally placed to launch its own centrally organised system. Since most research in India is carried out in state-owned and funded institutions, the government could decree that a reliable, complete and continually updated database be created. It could be made mandatory for all heads of institutes/universities to submit authenticated quantitative and descriptive information in a prescribed format every year.
This information would then go to a central agency staffed by qualified people capable of compiling the information and publishing it in an annotated and user-friendly format, say every two years.
Rajesh Kochhar is director of the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, New Delhi, India.
Read more about research and development in SciDev.Net's research and development dossier.