SCIENTISTS, especially those in the universities, nowadays are under a lot of pressure. It is the pressure to publish, a key KPI for lecturers.
In fact, they are constantly hounded by the “publish or perish” warning. Those who are behind in their publications risk losing out on promotions and other benefits.
With the recent drying up of research money, meeting this KPI has become even more challenging. Researchers have to resort to all kinds of creative ways to meet that KPI. As a result, it has been inevitable that there have been some compromises on scientific integrity and ethics.
Has it always been like this for scientists? Not really. The truth is that such pressure to publish is a relatively new phenomenon. A study of the history of science would reveal the fact that scientists of the past published not because they were under any kind of external pressure.
They published because they needed to share their newfound knowledge with their peers.
The intention was to test the validity of their findings. They would write in the journals of the day, hoping to obtain feedback about their research. And the consequent citations by fellow scientists would lead to further strengthening and refinement of their research.
In other words, the knowledge would be validated and enriched. The scientists then did that out of their own passion and interest in the subject or topic they were studying. They were never promised promotion or other forms of rewards for their work.
It is different now. Publishing in the so-called peer reviewed journals has become the top KPI of university scientists.
Failure to measure up to an acceptable rate of churning out published papers will be at the expense of one’s career progression. Promotion in the universities is largely determined by publishing achievements in high impact journals.
And because of the high demand, journals nowadays have become highly commercialised. In fact, some have suggested that science journals have become a lucrative business.
In some of the top journals, you have to pay a considerable fee to get your articles published. No wonder journal owners earn big money.
With the advent of the internet, some fake electronic journals have emerged, persuading scientists to use their platforms for a fee. But there are also genuine electronic journals.
Publishing in the so-called tier one journals has also become more demanding for university dons because of the recent increasing obsession with ranking.
Recent years have witnessed some disturbing developments in the race to be on the high ranking. Often, some degree of manipulation may have taken place in order to look good in the ranking exercise.
A key criterion in many such ranking platforms is how many of the university research papers are accepted for publication in the high-impact journals. Though there are other criteria, the publishing KPI somehow dominates.
This is what creates the pressure on lecturers. There have been claims that such unbalanced demand has led to some amount of neglect on teaching, another core mandate of university education. Can this be the reason why the quality of graduates in local universities has shown a worrying decline?
Many in the upper hierarchy of the university administration have called for a re-examination of the almost religious patronage of the ranking culture. Their key argument is that it is pointless to compare us with universities in advanced countries. We are at different stage of development.
We should instead come up with our own criteria and standard to help us improve. Furthermore, our development agenda is unique to our own country. We should not equate ourselves with the likes of Harvard and Oxford. What we desperately need to do is to bring the universities closer to our own society.
The culture of research, for example, is still low in our society. University professors need to engage more with the society at large in order to address this weakness.
Instead of asking scientists to devote most of their writings to tier-one journals where the readers are only of their narrow discipline, the KPI should include writing to communicate their thoughts with the larger society.
The National Council of Professors may want to give serious thought to this! Prof Datuk Dr Ahmad Ibrahim Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia, UCSI University The STAR Home News Opinion Saturday, 2 July 2016