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Reading between the lines of retractions

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Publish-or-perish has its fair share of driving academicians and researchers to push against the wall to prove their productivity. Photo by Scott Graham - Unsplash

By: Prof. Dr. Mohammad Tariqur Rahman

Every year the announcement of global university rankings comes with joy and pride for Malaysian universities. Finding prestigious spots on the ranking list represents an all-out effort of the universities toward global branding. They are all in line with the aspiration to make Malaysia the regional hub for higher education.

Prof. Dr. Mohammad Tariqur Rahman

In academia, we eagerly wait for the next rounds of announcements to see if our institutions go up on the list.

Amidst that waiting, a Nature news on 12 December 2023 emerged with countries with the highest rate of retracted research publications. And retractions are not good news!

One or another form of misconduct is the major cause of those retractions. The shock wave of that news might have shaken many Malaysian academics finding Malaysia in 6th position in the list of countries with the highest rate of retraction.

For others, the anticipated tsunami was not unforeseen. In 2022, a paper published in the journal “Accountability in Research” reported an analysis of authorship patterns in 4,561 papers from 1990 to 2020 of 94 academics from 3 research universities in Malaysia.

Using different years as cut-off periods, it was observed that the appearance of the academics as co-author in their papers had steeply risen around the years: 2006, 2007, and 2008 – a period which corresponds to the adoption of the “publish or perish policy” by the Ministry of Higher Education in Malaysia.

On one hand, the increased number of authors in the multi-author papers and the appearance of the selected academics as co-authors reflect the extent of boosting collaborative research. On the other hand, the sudden rise in the number of co-authored papers might imply that they might not have proper intellectual contributions in those papers where they are credited as co-authors.

Surely, the above analysis does not tell if the academics had to resort to one or another form of misconduct to boost their publications. Nevertheless, it shows the pressure that pushed them against the wall to prove their publication productivity beyond their usual trend in the past.

Furthermore, a sudden increase of 3- to 4-fold publication productivity in a given time attests to a probable lack of authenticity and reproducibility of the results in the published research.

Keeping aside the assumption of any forms of misconduct in those papers, it is now clear that as a whole, papers authored by Malaysian academics are under the spotlight of retraction watch.

There are a few probable consequences if Malaysia continues to remain under that spotlight. Firstly, no matter what positions Malaysian universities will have in the global university rankings, a parallel ranking on the highest rate of retraction will jeopardize the aspiration of making Malaysia a reliable higher education hub in the region.

Secondly, if the list of retractions is brought down to the institutional level, which is most likely to happen in the near future, then the affected institution and its academic staff will lose their reputation and recognition not only at a national level but also at a global level.

And thirdly, the justification of the appointment or promotion of individuals who might be identified with some of their papers being retracted in the future might raise a major concern.

There is no doubt that the praxis of “publish or perish” has its fair share of driving academicians and researchers to push against the wall to prove their productivity, fake or not. At the same time, predatory paid journals with a deceitful praxis of “pay and publish” have offered them the avenue to sustain the pressure. The inevitable outcome of this is what we are seeing now in the growing list of retractions at an alarming rate.

If the policymakers in academia both at national and international levels are not reading the messages between the lines of retractions – a reversal of academic misconduct will be nearly impossible.

……

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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