kheru2006 (kheru2006) wrote,
kheru2006
kheru2006

Numbers that matter too much

WE live in a culture that values and ranks everything, including academics, on numbers. In this era of rankings, the “quality” of a professor is judged based on a series of numbers: research articles published, citations received, research grants awarded, PhD students supervised and h-index among others.

I generally agree with other authors who have written to this column over the unreasonable amount of pressure to publish. About 20 or 30 years ago, there were not many local professors who bothered about publication in international peer review journals.

Back then, the so-called “deadwood professors” phenomenon was a norm in public universities and not many administrators of universities had even heard about potentially dubious bibliometric measures, including impact factor and h-index.

University world rankings have now successfully created a “culture of publication” among local professors. Unfortunately, those rankings have also mistakenly drawn the attention of government or universities away from investing on improving the quality of teaching and use most resources for earning points on research measures.

As one of the factors that students consider when choosing courses, university ranking seems appropriate at their face value.

Rankings’ scores are however misleading as they often tell potential students that one particular university is “good” because it is ranked in the top 100 – which could possibly be true for some well established universities with long-standing reputations.

However, these rankings are generally meant for research-focused universities and were found to have fallen short in evaluating the teaching quality.

Hence, it is not unreasonable to argue that blindly pursuing ranking performance indicators would affect the overall quality of the academia, locally and globally.

Ironically, in modern day science, goals of research have been distracted and aimed at publications.

The whole global scientist community follows the mantra of consumerism – “MORE is BETTER”. Coupled with bibliometric measures that rank the quality of scientists, we have been obsessed with the quantity of paper. In narrower sense, modern day professors and scientists are preoccupied with paper hoarding.

Writing, communicating and reporting science are among the most important activities in scientific community.

Unfortunately many times the main driving force behind these writing and publishing activities is not the science or the intention to improve society through science, but the world university rankings and/or university’s ranking system which ranks scientists for promotion, annual bonus, awards among others.

Many of the scientists struggling in this era of rankings have forgotten about the initial intention, passion, ambition, optimism and interest when they first stepped on this career path.

Publication should be done for the sake of scientific communication, out of curiosity in nature and seriousness in science and research, not out of rankings, h-index, promotion or money.

You may think that I wear a saint’s halo, but I also need to feed my family and pursue my career like other scientists.

The problem is that when we blindly pursue the ranking indicators imposed by both the ranking companies and corporatized universities, we also have sacrificed fun, integrity and seriousness in academics.

The report that about two thirds of life sciences papers in the prestigious PubMed database - which covers thousands of journals and research papers - were retracted due to some forms of scientific misconduct (such as fraud and duplicate publication among others) is alarming.

On the other hand, when scientists need to work longer hours and compete with peers to get papers published, grants secured and awards won, the quality of life is compromised.

Such long hours and stressful working conditions are also disasters to creativity and critical thinking in science. When scientists are subjected to such rat race approaches in research processes, what we sacrifice is not just the quality of life but also quality of science.

A recent survey shows that many academics are overworked, especially when their role switched from teaching to research.

An at least 60-hour workweek (including 10 hours at the weekend) is now a norm in the academia, which seems to be true in Malaysian research universities as well.

Stress-related diseases are prevalent among professors. It mostly needs academics and administrators of some prestigious academic associations and universities to lead the change towards a healthy academia.

Universities in the developing countries may however be determined to start this on a smaller scale. Peer reviewed papers will still need to be placed in the main output of science, but without blindly believing that quantity and numbers are everything.

Online open peer review is an alternative way over current mysterious peer review systems; university or funding bodies may apply different systems to justify promotion or grant application; assessing the research based on its own merits and impact to the society, among others.

Speed kills, not only the physical and mental entities of a professor, but also the quality of science. Hence, being a “slow professor” would ensure a healthier and scientifically sustainable academia.

Seriously, there is more fun in science and excitement in discovery of nature - than all the above mentioned “scholarly” metrics. Dr Song BK The STAR Home News Opinion Letters Tuesday, 28 June 2016

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