Downside of pressure to publish
I REFER to your report “Union wants fair probe of researchers” (The Star, June 19) on some local researchers being investigated for possible research fraud. The report quoted an academic asking if the deed could be a response to the unreasonable amount of pressure to publish.
Universities are under public scrutiny nowadays over their performance in international university rankings. Among the key indicators in these rankings are the number of peer-reviewed publications achieved by universities and prominence of their academics in the scientific world. Hence, the academics are under pressure to publish articles in leading journals as part of their key performance index (KPI). This situation is not new and it is also prevalent in many universities worldwide.
The general public may not be fully aware of the amount of work that goes into producing a journal article. It involves months of preparing a research proposal to apply for funding, conducting the research (some may require many years to complete), analysing and finally writing the results. Writing for journals is not like writing for a column in a magazine or newspaper. Each paper is reviewed by other experts in similar fields before it is declared worthy for publication. As such, journals that are highly ranked could very well have acceptance rates of only 10%.
When a paper is rejected, the authors have to revise it and go through the process of submission and peer review all over again. Thus, it may take months or years before an article is accepted for publication. For academics, the number of these publications actually determine their promotion to associate professor and professor.
When universities place too much emphasis on the number of scientific publications and citations, several ramifications can be anticipated.
I would like to share this from a medical school’s point of view. A medical school is meant to groom and train new doctors and specialists. It is also a centre for basic medical sciences and clinical research. Therefore, an excellent medical school cannot be focused on just publications. It takes a lot of hard work to produce good research, and it takes the academic away from other important tasks such as clinical work, teaching and supervising students.
While non-medical faculty lecturers can focus full time on academic publications and research, with some teaching and supervising tasks, clinical lecturers have to run their clinical services, teach undergraduate and postgraduate students and conduct research for publications. It is akin to a journalism lecturer having to teach and conduct research while working hands on in the press room.
Obviously, it is difficult to be excellent in all. Hence, when universities place too much emphasis on publications, naturally the lecturers will tend to place lesser priorities on other tasks such as clinical skills and teaching-learning activities. This will result in students and patients receiving less of their time.
There are lecturers who are excellent and inspiring teachers and clinicians. But as time goes by, their dedication and efforts in grooming new doctors or offering excellent service to patients are not being appreciated. It is very likely that they will see other colleagues who are less involved in teaching or clinical work get promoted. This is a major source of frustration for lecturers who are more aligned to teaching and clinical work. Hence, many clinical lecturers leave the university to practise in the private sector or other younger medical schools where the burden is less.
There is also a rise in the number of predatory journals and ghostwriters in the academic world. These journals offer fast review and high acceptance of scientific articles to desperate researchers at a high cost. The number of publishers and journals listed in Beall’s list of Open Access Predatory Journals increases each year. Clinical lecturers get email soliciting for articles in these journals and are asked to pay a hefty sum of money to get their articles published as open access.
However, the quality of scientific review for these articles is doubtful and it becomes a shady business in the academic world. The publishers get paid for publishing an article which is the hard work of the researcher whose funding for the study is from a research grant. The researchers do not get paid any royalties for their work to be published and shared. Desperate researchers have turned to these journals to meet their yearly KPI, and this is a worldwide phenomenon.
Desperation also leads to unethical practices in publication. There are papers written by only one or two researchers but end up published with maybe six to 10 names with varying levels of contribution to the work. There are researchers who use ghostwriting services to write their research. There may be researchers who resort to sending multiple manuscripts of the same work to different journals in order to minimise the time to be accepted for publication.
It is also important to note that many highly-ranked universities worldwide have different career tracks – teaching, clinical or reaearch – for their lecturers. This allows more focus and capitalises on their affinity for each track. Opportunities for promotions and career advancement should be made equal for these different tracks. This will then allow for better job satisfaction and reduce the brain drain from local medical schools.
With the recent cut in research funding for universities, the pressure to “publish or perish” becomes immense. Thus, perhaps it is time for universities to relook the KPI set for publications and to offer more recognition for none publication-related endeavours such as teaching and clinical work. Ignoring the efforts put in by these academics will result in the medical school being just a research centre and not for training or clinical excellence. Frustrated Medical Lecturer Kuala Lumpur The STAR Home > Opinion > Letters
Monday, 20 June 2016
Union wants fair probe of researchers
The Universiti Malaya Academic Staff Union (PKAUM) hopes investigations into the case of scientific dishonesty involving several researchers will be conducted fairly and with transparency.
“The researchers involved should face the music if they are found guilty of wrongdoing,” said union president Assoc Prof Dr Azmi Sharom.
“PKAUM strongly objects to any sort of academic dishonesty, which includes plagiarism, falsification of data and unethical practices.”
When asked if the university would sack the researchers, he said the institution could dismiss the four if disciplinary rules allowed it.
On Wednesday, Universiti Malaya (UM) confirmed that researchers from the Institute of Biological Sciences had indeed falsified their research data, with vice-chancellor Prof Tan Sri Dr Mohd Amin Jalaludin admitting that findings suggested all four articles submitted to scientific journals were prepared with a single set of data.
However, Dr Azmi also suggested that the university looked into the root cause of the incident as well.
“If the researchers are found guilty, we have to ask why they would resort to such a thing.
“Could it be that UM places unreasonable amount of pressure on its staff and researchers to publish as much as possible?” he asked, pointing out that this issue had also happened in institutions in other countries. Lee Chonghui The STAR Home News Nation Saturday, 18 June 2016