‘Focus on research impact, not quantity’


WHILE research is essential to drive innovation and effect change, researchers who solely aim to publish their papers are defeating its very purpose and spirit.

Further compounding the problem are reports of academic misconduct in Malaysian universities.

Cases of academic misconduct include plagiarism, fabrication, falsification, ghost authorship and publication in predatory journals (see infographic).

To address the problem, experts are calling for a review of policies related to performance assessments for both these institutions and educators.

Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) fellow Emerita Prof Datuk Dr Asma Ismail recommended transitioning from a key performance indicators (KPIs) approach to a more holistic one centred around key impact performances which aim to create a comprehensive and forward-thinking ecosystem, emphasising a return-on-value.

“It should foster a humanity-centred, inclusivity-conscious, equality- and equity-driven environment among researchers,” she told StarEdu.

She said the output-focused KPIs set for researchers in Malaysian higher education institutions (HEIs) have created a “publish or perish” culture.

According to the chair of “A New Horizon for Science, Technology and Innovation – A Strategy to Enhance Higher Education in Malaysia” position paper, these KPIs, and the performance of HEIs and researchers in achieving them, determine the amount of research funding they receive.

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“It creates pressure on universities to achieve them and fosters a ‘silo mentality’ among researchers who only aim to publish since it is very much linked to their promotions,” she said.

Agreeing with Prof Asma, Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities (Mapcu) president Datuk Parmjit Singh urged the Higher Education Ministry (MoHE) to advocate for a more inclusive culture within universities, allowing diverse talents to thrive and encouraging different pathways.

“It is essential to recognise that academics have different preferences and strengths. Some excel at teaching, while others gravitate towards a research-focused pathway,” he said.

Prof AsmaProf Asma

Prof Asma added that focusing on output as a sole measure on performance among researchers has contributed to incidents of retractions and self-citations by researchers.

“Journal retraction, typically initiated by journal editors or the authors of a paper, refers to the removal of a published article from a journal due to serious flaws or errors, such as issues with reproducibility, plagiarism or falsification of data, and is accompanied by a retraction notice that specifies the reasons and basis for the retraction,” she explained.

Purpose-driven

Weighing in, Vice Chancellors’ Council for Private Universities (VCCPU) chairman Prof Mushtak Al-Atabi said if the focus of research assessment is directed towards measuring for impact, then more universities will choose to do impact-based or purpose-driven research.

“In Malaysia, researchers are assessed yearly based on the Malaysia Research Assessment Instrument (MyRA) and we are very formulaic in calculating the number of papers published, how many times these papers were cited, so applying the management principle of what gets measured gets done,” he said.

Citing the United Kingdom’s Research Excellence Framework as an example of research quality assessment, Prof Mushtak, who is also Heriot-Watt University Malaysia (HWUM) provost and chief executive officer, said the evaluation of university rankings and funding allocation in the UK is heavily dependent on impact cases written by researchers on how their research changes the world.

“Being assessed every five years by a panel of experts in their respective fields, UK researchers do not necessarily submit all of their work, but only the most impactful ones so they have more time to develop, share and produce a positive impact or make a difference through the unique and authentic ideas they develop,” he said.

To promote a positive research culture, Prof Mushtak shared the importance of encouraging researchers to identify their sense of purpose as it helps them see the bigger picture of their work, which is to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

Prof MushtakProf Mushtak

“When the goal is to pursue something noble, it is easier for researchers to follow the right practices as compared to when the reason for pursuing a degree or publishing a paper is merely to get promoted.

“The lack of a clear sense of purpose may make a small minority of individuals engage in academic misconduct,” he said.

Asserting that academic misconduct will eventually be exposed due to the multiple self-correcting mechanisms of research, Prof Mushtak said when a research paper is submitted to a journal, it undergoes an extensive peer review process by two or three experts in the field.

“Reviewers usually evaluate several factors, such as whether new elements of knowledge are introduced, the acquisition of knowledge has been done according to standard scientific practice, citations are correctly applied and so on, before recommending a paper for publication.

“As research involves transparency and the ability to replicate results that people claim that they have gotten, when publications are made public, other people will be checking the work, so researchers need to be able to defend it when questions arise,” he said.

Parmjit said clarity is crucial in disclosing which papers have been retracted and under what circumstances to ensure transparency and awareness among affected parties.

“The term ‘retraction’ should be unambiguously articulated to the academic community through internal circulation led by the university’s research office, accompanied by examples illustrating the concept.

“The university should offer robust support and counsel for staff whose research faces retraction, fostering a culture of learning and caution in future research endeavours,” he said.

Ensuring ethics

To maintain academic integrity while promoting research productivity, Parmjit, who is also Asia Pacific University of Technology & Innovation (APU) chief executive officer, emphasised the importance of universities having a dedicated research management office, compartmentalised into two pivotal components: research strategy and research operations.

“The former is geared towards driving efforts to enhance productivity, encouraging a culture of continuous scholarly output, while the latter focuses on the intricacies of research ethics, academic integrity, and the proper governance of research grants and funding.

“These establishments must be intricately linked to the overarching board-based leadership position, which should articulate a resolute commitment to the importance of academic standards and integrity, ensuring that they are never compromised in the pursuit of heightened research productivity,” he said.

He added that universities should create a dedicated committee focusing on research ethics, particularly addressing issues such as responsible data collection to avoid abuses within vulnerable communities, unethical practices, and other ethical considerations in the research process.

ParmjitParmjit

Echoing his sentiments, Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) deputy chief executive officer (Quality Assurance) Prof Khairul Salleh Mohamed Sahari urged universities to provide clear policies, codes of conduct and mandatory training programmes regarding academic integrity and research ethics to all researchers, focusing on proper citation and responsible research practices.

“Utilising technology, such as plagiarism detection tools, ensures the integrity of academic work, while whistleblower protection mechanisms and strict consequences for misconduct further safeguard ethical standards.

“The integration of ethics discussions into the academic curriculum and collaboration with international institutions are encouraged, along with guidelines for responsible authorship to prevent ghost-writing and honorary authorship in research publications,” he said.

He added that the MQA assesses the quality assurance of programmes during its accreditation exercise using the Code of Practice for Programme Accreditation (COPPA) while in institutional audits, the Code of Practice for Institutional Audit (COPIA) is used for the evaluation of self-accreditation institutions, both of which contain sub-areas evaluated in research and development.

“The MQA has prescribed standards which require institutions to have research policies, to put in place adequate facilities and resources to sustain it, to show that there is interaction between research and learning and that it is reflected in the offering of programmes.

“In terms of the quality of research output, it is only evaluated indirectly if the academic research is part of a degree programme, especially postgraduate programmes by research mode, through the attainment of learning outcomes by the students,” he said.

He added that the “MQA’s Standards: Master’s and Doctoral Degree” document, which is used to ensure the quality of all postgraduate programmes, stipulates the requirements of research resources including facilities and finance, research supervisors and examiners, as well as the student handbook.

Prof Khairul SallehProf Khairul Salleh

At the tertiary institution level, Prof Asma recommended all HEIs to adopt the Malaysian Code of Responsible Conduct in Research (MCRCR), a framework for researchers in Malaysia to conduct research ethically and responsibly.

“The National Committee on Research Integrity (NCRI) was established to implement this code and to educate researchers in Malaysia about it.

“ASM and NCRI propose that the MCRCR be adopted nationally and that researchers and postgraduate students from the public or private sector who undertake research activities attend a course on the MCRCR,” she said.

She added that an online course on the MCRCR, which includes an assessment to test researchers’ competency in understanding the content, is being created.

On successful examples widely adopted in the academic community to address issues of plagiarism, research ethics and productivity, Parmjit cited “The Compendium of Best Practices in Promoting Academic Integrity”, a publication by the Council of Europe, to be utilised as a reference point.

Prof Khairul Salleh shared the Global Academic Integrity Network (GAIN), launched by Quality and Qualifications Ireland and Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency in 2022.

The network, he said, is working with similar agencies around the world to stamp out commercial academic cheating operations which have flourished in recent years with the increasing prevalence of online learning.

Zhi Yong, 24, a student in Kuala Lumpur, is a participant of the BRATs Young Journalist Programme run by The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) team. For updates on the BRATs programme, go to facebook.com/niebrats.

Keepers of the code

In my 40 years as a medical academic, I have striven to uphold professional integrity by inculcating honesty and transparency in engagements with students and patients, promoting a practice of medicine and research that is evidence-based, and decision-making with consideration of both benefits and risks. All medical research nowadays requires approval by ethics committees. As the chair of the University of Malaya Medical Centre-Medical Research Ethics Committee, my primary focus is ensuring scientific rigour, safety and ethical conduct in human research.– Prof Datuk Dr Looi Lai Meng, Universiti Malaya (UM)

Challenges, such as unrealistic expectations leading to a ‘publish or perish’ culture, a talent pool that is often stretched thin, and insufficient equipment upkeep or funding, perpetuate academic misconduct, leading to compromised research quality and brain drain. Policymakers and researchers share responsibility in addressing these issues by prioritising qualitative measures, fostering integrity, and addressing the root causes of poor-quality research. Collective commitment is required to uphold scientific integrity, ensuring Malaysia continues to be a beacon of innovation on the global stage. – Assoc Prof Dr Tan Jun Jie, Universiti Sains Malaysia

Every task demands integrity but in research, it’s the difference between promising ideas and actual deliverables. Without careful methods and honest reporting, even the most well-intentioned work can lose its power to benefit humanity. For me, transparency in reporting and ethical conduct are the cornerstones of both integrity and quality, and this is what I share with all my students. We know that research is crucial for development, but development will only be accepted wholeheartedly when people have trust in the research carried out and in the people carrying out the research.– Prof Dr Ramesh T. Subramaniam, UM

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