Look beyond the numbers when promoting professors

I CONCUR concur with Professor Dr Ghazally Ismail’s opinion on there being no comparison bet-ween Malaysian university professors, then and now (“Malaysian university professors then and now – there is no comparison”, TheStar.com.my, Jan 22; bit.ly/star_profs).

As universities change and adapt with the times, it is only natural that the promotion criteria for professors would also change.

For example, many local universities today use the number of publications indexed in the Web of Science or Scopus database as a yardstick for promotion.

These databases, however, only gained prominence after they were used in university ranking systems and did not exist in their current form more than 10 years ago. Some journals do not have their early issues indexed in these databases, hence the number of publications and citations of the older professors may seem lower than they really are.

There is no doubt that there are bad apples among professors, then and now. It is not difficult to sniff them out.

In this respect, promotion boards of universities have an important role to play. Do not just look at the numbers achieved by the staff but try to do some forensics behind the numbers.

It is no secret that some have gained promotion because they are good at strategising and not so much because they are really good at what they are supposed to be doing.

Here are some signs to look out for:

> Staff who do not show much research activity or have just a few publications to their name prior to holding important administrative positions suddenly showing a high level of productivity, having many publications with various co-authors in fields not necessarily in their area of specialisations.

> Academic staff with many publications (more than the norm in their area of research) but all or nearly all are co-authored.

There is nothing wrong with having co-authors but to be a professor one has to show an ability to lead and come up with ideas on one’s own.

If the staff is only as good as the ideas coming from his or her co-authors, then he or she is not ready for promotion yet.

In fact, in some areas where it is not uncommon to have single-authored journal articles, like in the theoretical sciences and some areas in the arts, there should be a minimum number of single-authored publications as part of the promotion requirement.

> Another criteria that should also be considered carefully is research grants for promotion.

Do not just look at the total grants received as is often the case.

The promotion board should also consider how the grants were utilised.

Were the objectives achieved? If the grant was awarded because the project had potential for the greater good of mankind, what had been the outcome of the research project? Did it deliver on its potential?

We want our professors to be respected. Clearly, promotion boards at universities have to

be helmed by people of integrity who are able to look beyond

the numbers and can differentiate between a genuinely capable

academic and a pseudo-academic who is good at “playing the game”.


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