Rot in pursuit of research

DR Manimalar Selvi Naicker’s letter “When diagnoses are wrong” (The Star, May 14) has made a pivotal observation on research projects done at universities by postgraduate students who have no or minimal knowledge of research methods. I thank her for her candour and courage in speaking the plain truth.

In 2012, I wrote a letter to a local English daily explaining how the quality of research in Malaysia’s public universities was compromised due to glaring flaws in the system. The editor of the newspaper called me to verify certain details and warned me that the letter would not be well received by the universities in particular. My letter never saw print.

Research (ideally done well) is meant to help us improve in our respective fields. In addition, research projects affect university rankings, which explains why academic institutions are firm proponents of such activity due to the nature of its duality.

In the medical faculty of public universities, post-graduate students are required to produce a research project (a dissertation, if you will) as part of the criteria to pass. The exercise aims to expand the latitude and depth of our thinking by being critical of concepts and practices and putting these concepts to the test.

In theory, this is a vital part of our training. In practice, however, it is a brutal survival lesson of what can go wrong in an academic institution.

To academics, research publications mean promotions from lecturers to associate professors or associate professors to professors. But these academics are often not given the time needed to produce good research papers.

To remedy this, the burden of research is passed on to the postgraduate students and the academics are given a supervisory role instead. Without spoon-feeding, the supervisor is entrusted with keeping the post-graduate students’ perspective focused in every aspect – from the birth of ideas to execution, data interpretation and critical evaluation.

More often than not, a supervisor remains largely physically and mentally absent from the process until the date of submission or defence when they arrive to claim credit for work well done or refute that which is substandard.

Conducting research requires financial support in the form of grants. Small grants provided by universities to post-graduate students are seldom sufficient to bear the costs of research and may need self-supplementation by the students, but the process of obtaining the grant is fairly transparent. The finances are channelled to the student directly and there is little room for misappropriation.

Grants obtained via supervising academics are much larger in amount (sometimes up to six figures) and can sustain the costs incurred. This financial aid is channelled from the university to the student via the supervisor and the students often receive only a fraction of the money – in some cases, none at all.

To put it bluntly, the money trail is plugged at the supervisor’s level. Many students simply dig into their own pockets to compensate for additional costs. Any form of dissent to this practice can result in backlash during final examinations or assessments in the form of a fail grade.

There is a sprinkling of genuine academics who are not part of this wretched cycle. They are educators in the true sense, but sadly they are a microscopic minority. Nevertheless, their commitment to education does not absolve them from guilt as many are aware of the practices of their colleagues.

Post-graduate students who have gone through this process also share the burden of guilt. As students, they fear retribution from their respective supervisors and departments and refrain from speaking out. Upon graduation, they simply wish to move on from an unpleasant tertiary education experience. This apathy is fertile ground for a cycle to perpetuate since no one is willing to speak of it or demand accountability.

Public university rankings mean nothing if our basic conduct, both as academics or students, reflect a deep-seated rot that no one is willing to address or rectify.

Critical thinking is not meant to be an affront to a person’s intelligence or to put another person down. It is an opportunity for us to see things from a different viewpoint as pointed out by others, colleagues, superiors or subordinates. And it all begins with an open mind coupled with research done the right way.