Here’s how we tackle ‘creative plagiarism’ in academia

TARA WINSTEAD/PEXELS

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Our university lecturers have been in the headlines lately, mainly due to the problem of journal retractions, slipshod article publications and academic fraud.

Many public university lecturers have been called out for their lack of academic integrity.

For decades, we have been reading about these problems, but they have not been addressed adequately.

Whenever a ‘hot’ issue emerges in the media, it dies a quick death without any solution or top policy input. Society quickly moves on to the next issue of contention. As a result, the problems fester.

The tragedy is that leadership continues to fail in fixing the serious problems facing Malaysian academe.

What do we do? Let us focus on fraudulent publications.

As far as Malaysia is concerned, journal retractions have not yet been investigated thoroughly and in detail, by either global watchdogs like Retraction Watch or internally.

The December 2023 disclosure by Retraction Watch of our “8th place” ranking is an embarrassing eye-opener and a good attempt at addressing the problem. However, it is not enough.

Due to under-reporting or lack of awareness of the gravity of the problem within Malaysia, our dishonest academics and their supporters continue to provide excuses, when a report like Retraction Watch reveals a sharp rise in retractions.

To ‘save face’ or in order not to jeopardise a university’s reputation, our university management and lecturers claim that the high retraction rate is due mainly to peer review “mistakes” or editorial “oversight”.

Deliberate misconduct is seldom projected as the main reason. Authors, journal editors and reviewers are presented as having made mistakes rather than having engaged in deliberate misconduct.

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This practice of covering up an endemic system of academic dishonesty arises because an efficient and transparent investigative mechanism by top university management does not exist. Perpetrators are not exposed and appropriately punished.

Also, when there is a report such as Retraction Watch’s 2023 disclosure, there is little follow-up or scant systematic analysis into why the problem is on the rise.

A case in point is when a paper was published in the journal Accountability in Research in 2022. The paper analysed the “authorship patterns” in 4,561 papers from 1990 to 2020 of 94 academics from three research universities in Malaysia.

I have yet to see a detailed, public and transparent follow-up to the damaging findings of this paper. Such research findings are obviously not taken seriously. There seems to be a ‘tidak apa’ (apathetic) attitude towards fraud.

Furthermore, the absence of shame among these authors and their ‘bodoh sombong’ (stupid, arrogant) attitude not only irritates but is cause for deep concern.

This attitude reflects the larger lack of attention among leadership and society to what should constitute a “more and dignified life”. It also exposes the fact that our political leadership has neglected the fundamental purpose of the university and role of academia in society.

I have written and spoken about this very often. The university is supposed to encourage probing, “what if?” questions, which stimulate diverse, multi-faceted answers. Universities are safe spaces where one is free to think, reason and decide on interpretations. Its scholars are meant to equip society with the fundamentals of a good life, rather than how to make a living. Academia is meant to nurture the human being, not the human resource.

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If all of us involved in higher education possess a certain level of commitment to this purpose, less nonsense and fewer fraudulent publications might be produced.

In Malaysian academe, many articles published especially in the social sciences, are exercises in ‘creative plagiarism’. Often, articles that have been retracted are rearrangements of previous research with a new thesis appended on to them.

To address these problems, I suggest the following:

More systematic and evidence-based investigation is needed by the media, civil society groups, the public and top university management instead of stopping at the speculation stage, ie speculating on why retractions are on the rise and doing nothing about it.

University management and academic departments should follow up on these retractions. Be transparent about them, and involve the lecturers, department heads, deans and academic associations.

All public universities should set up a systematic tracking system to rigorously record retracted articles. Perpetrators should be rigorously reprimanded, shamed and appropriately punished for their misconduct. Perpetrators include the authors, editors, reviewers or anyone who is responsible during the entire publication process.

Also, the media should take a keen interest in exposing these frauds, which means investigative reporters must be well-versed in the fraudulent activities. The media have a huge responsibility to expose such misconduct so that university authorities can take appropriate steps.

Some groups of academics who publish in predatory journals tend to be ambitious, ruthless and toxic ‘politickers’. They are often the ones who have singlehandedly transformed our campus culture into toxic environments that are anti-intellectual and where zero critical thinking is done.

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These are career academics (not scholars) who would do anything to move up the promotion ladder as quickly as possible. Their sole objective is to have more publications to list in their CVs and to aim for top administrative positions that draw lucrative allowances and perks.

Top university management, department heads and faculty deans who are responsible for promotions and research grant approvals continue to count the number of papers authored by applicants. Rather, they should scrutinise the quality of these publications.

Hence, instead of insisting on 10 journal articles, for example, the interview board should require three or four articles of quality.

The only way to assess the quality of these articles is to read them. After all, a promotion exercise should not be flippant. It takes time and commitment if a university wants to hire and promote credible scholars. Once hired or promoted, they would ultimately prop up the credibility of the university, so it makes sense to put more effort into the exercise.

It takes effort and commitment to create a credible public university system. If the university management is sloppy and flippant, it will surround itself with equally sloppy and flippant academics. This is what is happening in Malaysia, and it is time for the government to address this crisis. – Free Malaysia Today

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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