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Of knowing one’s onions in academic research

Some academic journals exploit scholars and dupe universities into the ranking business while annoying readers

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I recently read an article entitled “Investigation of sharpness of knife by onion cutting” written by a group of academics based at a public university in Malaysia.

I was not particularly interested in this topic, neither am I doing any social or political research relating to onions or knives.

This particular article was a recent topic of discussion on a WhatsApp group, which made me reflect more about the bigger picture of Malaysian academics, higher education in Malaysia, and the purpose of the university globally.

The article in question was published as a conference proceeding, and peer reviewed. All this seems credible enough. The title was also eclectic, eccentric, almost childlike in a simplistic yet inquisitive sense.

However, it was equally assaulting (pun intended, since “knives” are the items of focus here).

There are seven authors of this article, which is six pages long, including the abstract, many diagrams, graphs, tables, the acknowledgements and the reference section.

To be fair, scientific articles are considerably shorter than social science articles, even though one physics article with a record number of 5,154 authors was published (in 2015) in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Malaysian-style flattery

The article I am featuring here has seven authors, so there is nothing unusual here. However, when seven authors pen one article, it starts to become a little unsettling when we factor in the pretentious system of Malaysian-style flattery in academia.

These include creating instant digitalised and colourful posters featuring the authors’ photographs, praising the new publications, listing the journal ranking, and promptly circulating this on social media, via email, WhatsApp, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

The underlying impetus is to recognise quantity over quality. The message is that the academic staff of the university are actively publishing. The title of one article will now appear in seven CVs. This is excellent publicity for the university.

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Eventually, and pretty soon, what may follow are promotions and prestigious university administrative appointments that merit additional allowances. The name of the university is supposedly enhanced, and the public are supposed to be in awe of such scholarly output – what more in the scientific field!

Obviously, scholars in the human sciences lose out to other fields in the pure and applied sciences, for traditionally being lone authors, me included. We often co-author with two or a maximum of three authors. Seven authors contributing to one article is very uncommon, especially in fields such as history, sociology, literature and philosophy.

However, in international relations, political science and social psychology, more articles are being authored by bigger groups of academics, apparently due to the “complexity of the work involved”. This is a mere excuse.

The business of education

A major reason for this is the structure of the global university ranking system, and all the neoliberal economic criteria imposed on the business of higher education and university scholarship. Also, these disciplines are becoming more quantitative, which is another affliction affecting the human sciences.

Also, the global infatuation with science, technology and engineering research is sidelining research on social reform, climate change, poor governance, corruption, leadership moralityMalaysia, and the human condition. In Malaysia, this trend of focusing on the wrong areas of research is already very entrenched.

Let us deconstruct this article on onions and knives.

It starts by explaining how older generations believed that the blades of knives are dulled (ie reduced in sharpness) because of their frequent use in cutting onions. The authors declare that this is speculative because no studies on this belief have been actually carried out. Great! Another group of maybe 20 young PhDs from our public university system should attempt further research and publish it to get promoted.

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The article then explains the onion, its scientific name, and what family it belongs to (taxonomy). It also details its dietary benefits and that it is a “vegetable”. Lastly, it is pointed out in earnest by the seven authors that this vegetable needs to be physically altered (ie cut, sliced or chopped) to help it release its flavour.

Science in action

The article then moves on to the experiment section, elaborating on taking bundles of onions, potatoes, and sets of knives, and proudly stating that the experiment lasted 49 days (seven weeks), in which the methods of cutting, chopping, and slicing were used on the onions and potatoes.

Oh, and the knives were also labelled and washed after each daily use during the experiment, throughout these 49 days.

The article then gets interesting for a social scientist like me. I think I learnt a lot of words and phrases, mainly gas chromatography, carrier gas flow rate, SPME fiber, silica capillary column, the HS-SPME method of extraction, scanning electron microscope with energy dispersive X-ray fluorescence (SEM-EDXRF), identification of volatile organic compounds or VOCs.

I have a BA in both history and sociology. My understanding of VOC is that it refers to the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or the Dutch East India Company. But never mind. No headache yet.

Getting to the point

Then comes the observation segment of the article, ie observation of the knives used during the experiment. Images of the knives’ blades were taken, magnified using high-powered digital microscopes. Many pictures and graphs were then displayed of the knives’ blades, comparing the different knives, of those knives which cut onions versus those which cut potatoes.

Finally, the conclusion. Based on all this rich data and the painstaking effort of 49 days, the researchers concluded that the action of cutting onions does indeed quicken the process of “dulling the knife”. The researchers also proudly declare that theirs is the first research of its kind, the first scientifically proven, lab-tested, microscope-evaluated discovery.

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Furthermore, they concluded that sulphur in the onion is extremely corrosive. The authors then recommend that studies be done to determine the composition of knives, to understand if stainless steel knives are the best knives out there for onions.

Really???

They also suggest that another study be conducted by using other onion species.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why another study should be done. If there is any reason, it should be explained clearly in the article, which it wasn’t.

An insult to society

So, my overall comments are as follows.

First, this is how academic journals generate money, known credible publishers included. They exploit scholars and dupe universities into the ranking business and, in the process, annoy readers, waste our time and contribute little or nothing to social reform or improving the human condition.

Second, it is an insult to society. Shouldn’t most, if not all, research be of benefit to society, and make human lives easier, rather than complicate it?

Also, if indeed there was some moral, philosophical or commercial benefit that resulted from such research, it should be explicitly mentioned in the article. If it wasn’t, which is the case in this particular example, any self-respecting publisher should have rejected it immediately.

This review has killed many of my brain cells, and it did give me a headache. However, brain cells do regenerate. I read about that in a highly ranked journal. – Free Malaysia Today

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