While there may be many paths to academic excellence, plagiarism and intellectual deceit is certainly not one of them, says Mustafa K Anuar.
The recent research fraud that implicated four researchers from Universiti Malaya has serious implications that are best encapsulated by a Malay proverb, “Guru kencing berdiri, murid kencing berlari.”
It essentially depicts a situation where the misconduct of a teacher is closely imitated by his/her students to such an extent that the former can no longer claim a moral high ground, which is — or should be — important in an educational setting. After all, a credibility deficit makes the goal of being a role model a distant dream for the teacher.
In the context of the above university, research ethics and the integrity of the academics and researchers and of the university as an institution of higher learning have been severely compromised. It gives a wrong signal to students that plagiarism is kosher.
An incident like this obviously doesn’t augur well for Universiti Malaya which, as with most public universities in Malaysia, is said to fervently strive for academic excellence and a better placement in global university rankings.
That the flawed research findings of the four academics had found their way into prestigious international academic journals should ring alarm bells for those in positions of power at the university and the ministry of higher education because the country simply cannot afford to be well known for yet another wrong reason.
This incident should also be of great concern to the university authorities because it is not the first at Universiti Malaya as there was at least one known case of plagiarism and academic dishonesty in the past. In fact, it should be a wake-up call for the entire academic community in the country as the academic deceit is a microcosm of what is happening in national academia.
In other words, plagiarism and other forms of intellectual dishonesty also rear their ugly heads in institutions of higher learning other than Universiti Malaya. They may vary from one university to another in terms of degree, but these cases undoubtedly eat into the academic integrity of the academics and institutions to which they are affiliated. It may also demoralise other researchers and academics.
Another practice, which may be considered a lesser “evil” but which could well pave the way for more insidious forms of academic fraudulence, is the habit of some academics piggybacking on students’ academic work to swiftly bolster their CVs and points for promotion.
While proponents of such a practice may argue that it is perfectly professional and ethical to have collaborative work between lecturers and their students/supervisees in order to provide academic leadership and guidance, the often unequal power relations between the two parties would yield a situation where the students easily fall prey to sheer exploitation.
A worst case scenario is that the lecturer concerned would have his/her name mentioned together — if not the first name to appear — with the student in the eventual publication of an academic article even though the former did not even lift a finger. An unholy alliance, this really is.
The major factor that drives many of these academics to go to such great lengths and misdeeds is the Key Performance Index or KPI, which has caught the imagination of university administrators. These administrators may feel — or are compelled to think — that counting points amounts to much in the process of attaining academic excellence, no matter how this concept is interpreted by their respective institutions.
This KPI culture, which is a recent phenomenon, can be brought to a ridiculous level. For example, if in the old days, academics would attend a seminar or forum that was held on campus purely out of keen interest or curiosity, these days academics are lured to such meetings by the prospect of CPD (Continuing Professional Development) points dangled before them, irrespective of the degree of interest they have in the subject at hand. Indeed, it makes a mockery of something that is integral to the intellectual development of a university.
To be sure, the KPI makes almost all things quantifiable so that some of the advocates of this concept tend to lose sight of the wider meaning of education at the tertiary level. This should include the expansion of knowledge and meaningful contribution to the community and society — not merely serving the interests of industry, as some academics would have us believe.
Equally worrying is that a more liberal approach to education gets de-emphasised or eclipsed at the tertiary level with political intervention from ruling politicians. Their political interests do not sit well with an enlightened notion of university education where conventional wisdom and the status quo are necessarily challenged as a matter of fact.
This, in turn, has an impact on the kind of research conducted in universities as well as the mindset of some academics, particularly those who have a penchant for overly “mengikut perintah” as well as the apple polishers.
In an effort to induce, nay compel, academics to carry out research and getting it published especially in top-tiered international journals as part of the primary objective of attaining academic excellence and better international rankings, financial rewards are offered by the universities concerned to academics who have succeeded in publishing their articles in these journals.
Such a practice makes publishing appear as a novel thing — rather than a normal academic obligation. In a sense, this might devalue the noble pursuit of knowledge and truth.
And increasingly pushed by the need to publish and publish fast, and subsequently accumulate points under KPI, some academics desperately resort to a “groupish” strategy in writing a single academic article. This would involve a group of four to six (or even more) individuals who would write an array of articles with the leaders being rotated with each succeeding article.
The scheme is that each individual gets a mention in all of the jointly written articles to shore up their individual CVs quantitatively – but it would not help readers to ascertain the academic strength of each writer. There might also be an element of piggybacking among the writers. Clearly this is not a clever approach to genuinely build one’s academic strength and credentials.
While there may be many paths to academic excellence, plagiarism and intellectual deceit is certainly not one of them. Neither is the undue push to publish in high-ranking journals necessarily a panacea to a dearth of intellectually challenging academic articles.
A university of excellence should be built on an intellectual tradition that values and encourages critical inquiry and intellectual exchanges that are conducted in an environment that is less tainted with political interference and the dictates of industry. At the end of the day, academic and intellectual contribution should be for the betterment of wider society as a whole.