The recent research fraud that implicated four researchers from Universiti Malaya (UM) has serious implications that are best encapsulated by a Malay proverb, “Guru kencing berdiri, murid kencing berlari.”
It essentially depicts a situation where the misconduct of a teacher is closely imitated by his/her students to such an extent that the former can no longer claim a moral high ground, which is — or should be — important in an educational setting. After all, a credibility deficit makes a role model a far distant dream for the teacher.
In the context of the above university, research ethics and the integrity of the academics and researchers and of the university as an institution of higher learning have been severely compromised. It gives a wrong signal to students that plagiarism is kosher.
An incident like this obviously doesn’t augur well for UM which, as with most public universities in Malaysia, is said to fervently strive for academic excellence and a better placement in global university rankings.
That the flawed research findings of the four academics had found their way into prestigious international academic journals should ring the alarm bell to those in positions of power at UM and also the Ministry of Higher Education because the country simply cannot afford to be well-known yet for another wrong reason.
This incident should also be of great concern to the university authorities because it is not the first at UM as there was at least one known case of plagiarism and academic dishonesty in the past. In fact, it should be a wake-up call for the entire academic community in the country as the academic deceit is a microcosm of the national academia.
In other words, plagiarism and other forms of intellectual dishonesty also rear their ugly heads in institutions of higher learning other than UM. They may vary from one university to another in terms of degree, but these cases undoubtedly eat into the academic integrity of the academics and institutions to which they are affiliated. It may also demoralise other researchers/academics.
Another practise, which may be considered a lesser “evil” but could well pave the way to more insidious form of academic fraudulence, is the habit of some academics to piggyback on students’ academic work so as to swiftly bolster their CVs and points for promotion.
While proponents of such practise may argue that it is perfectly professional and ethical to have collaborative work between lecturers and their students/supervisees so as to provide the academic leadership and guidance, the often unequal power relations between the two parties would yield a situation where the students easily fall prey to sheer exploitation.
A worst case scenario is that the lecturer concerned would have his/her name mentioned together — if not the first name to appear — with the student in the eventual publication of an academic article even though the former did not even lift a finger. An unholy alliance, this really is.
The major factor that drives many of these academics to go to such great lengths and misdeeds is the KPI, or Key Performance Index, that has caught the imagination of university administrators who feel — or are compelled to think — that counting points leads to much in the very process of attaining academic excellence, no matter how this concept is interpreted by the respective institutions.
This KPI culture, which is a recent phenomenon, can be brought to a ridiculous level. For example, if in the old days, one would attend a seminar or forum that was held on campus purely out of keen interest or curiosity; these days academics are lured to such meetings by being dangled with CPD (Continuing Professional Development) points irrespective of the degree of interest one has in the subject at hand. Indeed, it makes a mockery of something that is integral to the intellectual development of a university.
To be sure, the KPI makes almost all things quantifiable so that some of the advocates of this concept tend to lose sight of the wider meaning of education at the tertiary level, which should include the expansion of knowledge and meaningful contribution to community and society — and not merely serving the interests of the industry, as some academics would have us believe.
Equally worrying is that a more liberal approach to education gets de-emphasised or eclipsed at the tertiary level with political intervention from ruling politicians whose political interests do not sit well with an enlightened notion of university education where conventional wisdom and status quo are necessarily challenged as a matter of fact.
This, in turn, has an impact on the kind of research conducted in universities as well as the mindset of some academics, particularly those who have the penchant to overly “mengikut perintah” as well as the apple polishers.
In an effort to induce, nay compel, academics to do research and publish especially in top-tiered international journals as part of the primary objective to attain academic excellence and better international ranking, financial rewards are offered by the universities concerned to academics who have succeeded in publishing their articles in these journals. Such a practise makes publishing as if it is a novel thing — and not a normal academic obligation. In a sense, this might devalue the noble pursuit of knowledge and truth.
And increasingly pushed by the need to publish and publish fast, and subsequently accumulate points under KPI, some academics desperately resort to a “groupish” strategy in writing a single piece of academic article. This would involve a group of four to six (or even more) individuals who would write an array of articles with the leaders being rotated with each succeeding article.
The scheme is that each individual gets a mention in all of the jointly written articles so as to shore up their individual CVs quantitatively, but it would not help readers to ascertain the academic strength of each writer. There might also be an involvement of piggybacking among the writers. Clearly this is not a clever approach to genuinely build one’s academic strength and credentials.
While there may be many paths to academic excellence, plagiarism and intellectual deceit is certainly not one of them. Neither is an undue push to publish in high-ranking journals necessarily a panacea to a dearth of intellectually challenging academic articles.
A university of excellence should be built on an intellectual tradition that values and encourages critical inquiry and intellectual exchanges that are conducted in an environment that is less tainted with political interference and dictates of the industry. At the end of the day, its academic and intellectual contribution should be for the betterment of the wider society as a whole.- Dr Mustafa K. Anuar The Malay Mail Online Opinion Friday June 24, 2016 8:30 AM GMT+8