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Shouldn’t we be worried about the retractions?

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The pressure to publish has been blamed as the culprit for provoking scientific misconduct. Photo by Chris Liverani - Unsplash

By: Prof. Dr. Mohammad Tariqur Rahman

On 12 Dec 2023, a news headline in Nature might have shocked the academic world. A new “smashing” record of more than 10,000 retracted papers was recorded in 2023. “Retractions are rising at a rate that outstrips the growth of scientific papers” – the news says.

Prof. Dr. Mohammad Tariqur Rahman

One can easily surmise if that number is far less than the actual number that should have been retracted for the reasons they were retracted.

Hindawi journals alone pulled more than 8,000 articles over the compromised concerns for the “systematic manipulation of the publication and peer-review process” – the news added.

Albeit, those who keep an eye on the issue of scientific misconduct might not be surprised. In the year 2012, a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA, famously known as PNAS, reported a dramatic increase of retraction in every five years from 1977 to 2011. The percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud increased 10-fold between 1975 and 2011.

However, what might be more shocking is the “unforeseen” presence of Malaysia among the top eight countries with the highest number of retractions in 2023. Nature’s analysis counted an article for a country if at least one co-author has an affiliation in that country. If retractions based on conference papers are excluded, Saudi Arabia has the highest retraction rate, of 30 per 10,000 articles. That rate for Malaysia is 17.2.

Academics and researchers bank on many forms of scientific misconduct namely plagiarism, duplication, manipulation of results, compromised peer-review process, and unethical authorship practice.

They also use “cheap” avenues to publish their papers in predatory paid journals by paying the so-called “open access fees” or “article processing fees” (APC).

Their sole objective is to have more publications in their bank. The number they aim (read “are forced to aim”) for is far more than it is realistic. Hence, it is their misconduct exercise for an inflamed number of papers. If identified, those misconducts could be the reasons for retraction.

Over and over again, the “pressure to publish” has been blamed as the culprit for provoking scientific misconduct. Nevertheless, authorities and policymakers in academia who are responsible for the appointment, promotion, and research grant approval continue to count the number of papers authored by the applicants. They aim to crown the name of their institution in the list of global fame – a fake fame it is in reality.

What the authorities and policymakers in academia failed to recognize is that the number they are imposing on the academics and researchers is not realistic – it is not achievable in a proper way. On the other hand, because of their improbable branding desire, academics and researchers are under pressure to publish more papers.

Policymakers in academia are efficient in making calculations on how to increase the publication productivity of their academic and research staff. The number of publications by their staff is often

compared with that of other universities in the country and region. Often the achievement of an individual is compared to a global benchmark in their field.

To them, it is unacceptable if the achievements, i.e., the publication productivity represented by the number of papers, are not comparable.

Besides, to increase their number of publications with global repute, academics and researchers are encouraged to have international collaborative networks. Malaysian universities have been aggressively exploring their research networks for more than a decade. On a positive note, this networking has resulted in increased visibility of Malaysian researchers in the world. At the same time, it helped Malaysia to enjoy research impact in various ways.

For example, a paper published in 2015 in Scientometrics concluded that international collaboration contributed to higher annual citation counts and average citation values of papers co-authored by Malaysian researchers from 2000-2009.

However, should they want to continue to do research collaboration, they must carefully choose their potential partners. If the partnerships are established in the countries with the highest number of retractions, that might in the long run bring more pain and predicament than gain.

Having Malaysia named in the list of top countries with the highest number of retractions in 2023, it is time for the authorities and policymakers in academia in Malaysia to give due heed to their strategy and desire for branding.

Imposing unrealistic KPI for research publications and forcing potentially harmful research networks must be avoided.

……

The author is the Associate Dean (Continuing Education), Faculty of Dentistry, and Associate Member, UM LEAD, Universiti Malaya. He may be reached at tarique@um.edu.my

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