Being the best universities means knowing what the best students need

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If students have to wait for a day just to be able to go on to his/her second series of reading, how is the research going to be productive, wonders Nicholas Chia.

university-studies

Referring to the Malay Mail Online report about Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) suspending its subscription to the Science Direct database, I can only say I view the decision with more aghast than my reaction to the much debated Court of Appeal ruling on the Allah case. The decision was later rolled backed by the school’s administration, most likely due to the intense reaction after the issue came to light following the media’s expose.

An inside source suggested the University decided to put Science Direct on the receiving end of the budget cut because statistics showed students hardly used it, despite the database being currently one of the largest sources for scientific, technical and medical full text research.

I can attest to its usefulness as Forensic Science International, Journal of Chromatography and Analytica Chimica Acta were the most frequently accessed journals while I was engaged with forensic chemistry research during my undergraduate years. The database still proved useful years later when I moved on to the social sciences.

Suffice to say, Science Direct was indispensable in my journey of academia. It would appear that at USM, students held the same sentiment as Science Direct was voted as the most favoured database in a recent poll.

As an alumnus of the university, I could also attest to the fact that most undergraduates did not use journal articles in their university assignments (at least during my time that is). What perplexes me is the measure taken by the university in dealing with it; by cancelling the full subscription of the all important database, citing budget cuts.

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No doubt, the failure to live up the expectation of being an apex university (ranked at 355th in the 2013 QS World University rankings after years of sliding) may have reasonably caused a lot of funds from the government to be pulled off. The (now reversed) decision to suspend one of the most vital resources of a research-based University signifies once again how the bureaucracy within the university has been partially responsible for its downfall.

The non-usage of original research articles as a primary source of information is without doubt a worrying trend among our undergraduates. The dependence on shoddy internet sources and the infamously popular Wikipedia makes their work highly unoriginal and worst, borders on plagiarism.

By right, even review articles should be discouraged because they are secondary sources of information. In other words, the work of analysis and verification has been done for the student. Not so much higher order of thinking when what the students do is to summarise what other people have summarised, right?

Nevertheless, it would be unjustified to call our students lazy when the universities themselves took the lazy way out by cancelling direct journal access due to the low demand instead of imposing stringent marking criteria to force the students back to the route of original thought and research.

The original remedy to the suspension, the “Science Direct Document Delivery Service” that delivers the document to the student within the earliest three days after the application is nothing worth applauding. It highlights nothing more than the fact that policymakers of a research-based university knew nothing about the research process. Literature review, which is an important phase of research, is not a linear process.

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Students don’t simply read a few designated papers and then start working directly, at least not the diligent and intelligent ones. In modern times, such linear way of study is no longer applicable even in lower levels of education. Conventionally, after reading one paper, the student would have to jump to multiple papers as quoted by the paper to verify facts, to expand their knowledge and to critically assess the original paper. That is why the reference list in academic publications tends to be very long; coming to an informed and concrete solution is by no means a journey of thrifty reading.

If the students have to wait for a day just to be able to go on to his/her second series of reading, how is the research going to be productive? How creative can he be if his train of thought is constantly disrupted by unnecessary bureaucracy? How many Eureka moments have to be decapitated just because you need to submit an application every time you need to check on something new?

If every subsequent reading requires another day of processing, wouldn’t that encourage procrastination? Are we expecting unlimited expansion of our students’ minds by idiosyncratically giving them a limited amount of resources? This model of encouraging rigid and planned reading is antithetical at best to the aim of tertiary education in producing holistic, informed and dynamic students.

The idea formulation process is usually an unorthodox, intense, compelling and sometimes playful experience. It is like going on an island-hopping treasure hunt with a speedboat. Those who have experienced the thrills of it will understand what I am talking about. Those who don’t, better stay away from the decision-making table of our ivory towers.

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Improving our universities extends beyond the popular demand of amending the Universities and University College Act 1971 (which has in fact been substantially amended for student political participation). It is about the fundamental understanding of what the best students are composed of and what they need. Since we have already practised the perverse logic of sending away our best and brightest to foreign universities every year for just undergraduate studies, can we now at least retain the best and brightest in running our universities?

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Nicholas
Nicholas
23 Oct 2013 12.54pm

even if Harvard stop half of its subscriptions, its students still have more than the complete resources our students have. Being a product of both foreign and local education, I know this clearly. Anyway, what they are doing is making a stand over unjustified journal pricing, which I do agree about. But we are doing it just for the sake of cutting cost, neglecting the vital fact that our students need to up their levels in terms of academic prowess and encouraging access to journals are the best way to do so.

Kah wan
Kah wan
21 Oct 2013 2.28pm

How about Harvard? top 10 rank dare to stop subscription..

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/apr/24/harvard-university-journal-publishers-prices

najib manaukau
19 Oct 2013 8.10am

It is based on the political needs of the Umno warlords and nothing else matters !
That is why all the varsities in Malaysia are so badly rated rated when MU trained doctors were so welcomed in the world,
just take the case of medical faculty when the egregious Mahathir lowered the entrance standard just to have the medical faculty to have (less qualified?) Malay students filled up the places. Despite the objection of the British Medical Council that he laid his hands off with the policy of allowing (such) students to be accepted as medical students, otherwise the British Medical Council would not recognised the doctors MU was coming up with. His argument was Malaysia was and is producing the doctors for Malaysia and was not worried if they are not recognised outside Malaysia.
As a result, just look at the doctors MU has produced since, not wanted and not recognised outside Malaysia plus with so many thousand of these … Malaysian doctors are now being ‘treating’ the million of sick Malaysians !