Scientific fraud on the rise

The respected scientific journal Nature reported that more than 10,000 research papers had been retracted in 2023 – a new record in what can be considered a key indicator of scientific fraud.

Malaysia was in a Top 10 ranking, coming in at number six on the list of countries with the highest number of retractions at 17.2 retractions per 10,000 research papers.

The Nature article shines an uncomfortable but much-needed spotlight on the dark side of academic research, which includes plagiarism, fabrication, data manipulation, suspect peer reviews, predatory publishing, paper mills and a host of other unethical practices.

In this case, the perpetrators are not students but academic staff selfishly seeking to enhance their own status and profile. The 10,000 retractions likely represent only the tip of the iceberg, and one can only imagine that the actual number of undetected cases is far greater.

To complicate things further, there is also significant debate over what constitutes scientific fraud. In the recent case of former Harvard president Claudia Gray, her misdemeanours were labelled as plagiarism by some but as the lesser charge of “inadequate citation” by others. It is somewhat ironic that while universities often take the high moral ground on academic integrity concerning work submitted by students, not all academic staff members practise what they preach.

No doubt, with increasing advancements in generative artificial intelligence and tools such as ChatGPT, the lines between original and fraudulent research will become even more blurred.

Perhaps it is naive to think that scientific fraud is not happening at any significant scale. An academic’s reputation is built on research outputs. At prestigious universities, academics are largely judged on the number of articles published, how widely their work is cited, and their influence via measures such as “impact factor” and “h-index”. Heads of department use such metrics as part of performance reviews, so it is not surprising that targets often end up becoming the goal rather than a means to a goal.

Understandably, the pressure on academics to publish can be intense. Higher education’s infatuation with global rankings, which remain heavily weighted in favour of research outputs, continues unabated, with universities effectively becoming factories for academic publication.

The Malaysian higher education system, former education minister Dr Maszlee Malik commented in a recent news portal report, has lost its soul due to excessive focus on rankings and publications.

Of course, much is at stake for individual academics. A strong publication track record can bolster one’s career in significant and sometimes life-changing ways, including academic promotion, obtaining tenure, landing a new position at another institution, or securing research funding.

So, when push comes to shove, one can understand the temptation to commit scientific fraud. Furthermore, unlike some professions such as lawyers and doctors, there is no licence to practise in academia that can be suspended or revoked in cases of professional misconduct.

There is no easy solution to address the issue of scientific fraud. The current system of blind peer review, where academics anonymously check the work of others, is well-established but has limitations.

In addition, reviewers can only review what is presented to them, and cannot be expected to vouch for the integrity of the research. The move towards open research, and the open sharing of research data, is encouraging but limited as a tool for addressing scientific fraud.

The diversity of research methods and research data, both quantitative and qualitative, also means data can’t necessarily be packaged, inspected and reused in other studies.

Perhaps what is really needed is a rethink of how research is measured and evaluated. Providing tangible evidence of the impact of one’s research may be a way forward. Simply doing away with bean-counting of publications is another, perhaps replacing publications with products, prototypes or other forms of intellectual property.

We can only expect scientific fraud to rise, which begs the question of whether academic research can still be trusted. It will be sad to see scientific endeavour move from the pursuit and passion for problem-solving to a game of metrics.

Prof Wing Lam is the provost and chief executive officer at University of Reading Malaysia, an international branch campus of University of Reading, United Kingdom. He has held a variety of academic positions in Malaysia, Singapore and the UK. Prof Wing completed his PhD in computer science at King’s College London in 1994.

He has published over 80 peer-reviewed articles and journals. His current areas of research interest include technology and innovation. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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