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PM must act decisively against academic misconduct

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On 22 January, in a speech at the University of Malaya, Anwar Ibrahim emphasised the need to abandon outdated bureaucracy in the running of our universities.

He appealed to the Ministry of Higher Education to stop making decisions on behalf of the universities.

Two weeks earlier, at an event organised by the ministry, Anwar alluded to university autonomy. He mentioned that the leadership of higher education institutions should be given more space.

This was necessary to create innovative ideas for the country’s education direction, towards our continued quest for a cohesive and sustainable development trajectory.

Anwar stressed that by giving more space to universities, innovative and more relevant higher education programmes will emerge.

I welcome these calls wholeheartedly.

However, on both occasions, Anwar should have also insisted on academic honesty and integrity in our universities.

Patronage and cronyism

Reducing outdated bureaucracy and giving universities more space is superfluous unless it is supported by academics who despise dishonesty and the culture of patronage and cronyism on campus. They must be brave enough to report cheaters and uphold academic integrity.

Anwar must make a decisive effort to fight academic misconduct in our universities. He must commence a sincere, loud and concerted campaign against academic fraud, the way he has vowed to wipe out corruption in the country.

Both academic fraud and corruption must be considered very serious and detrimental to the development of the country. Anwar and his team must have the political will to do so.

At the same time, existing lecturers who do not partake in academic misconduct must also be brave enough to collectively object to oppressive rules that stifle critical thinking and intellectual activities.

If there are more among university academics who call for legislative reforms, the authorities will have to take note and act accordingly.

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Furthermore, honest academics would have an additional moral platform from which they can campaign against draconian legislation that inhibits their scholarly activities.

In this way, their ethics and spirit of integrity might also create a respect for Malaysian academia among society at large.

Severe blow to credibility

After all, Malaysian academe or the scholarly environment has suffered a severe blow to its credibility. We have become a pathetic and disrespected lot in the eyes of most people in Malaysia.

The recent fracas surrounding the falsification of data by two Universiti Putra Malaysia academics is a case in point. Their article titled “The Jongs and the Galleys” was published in a predatory journal. Many have already criticised the authors.

I shall not get into why these criticisms are justified. What is more crucial is the crisis of academic integrity in our universities and the apparent lack of attention paid to this, by both the higher education ministry and the prime minister’s office.

Growing dishonesty

There seems to be a growing number of dishonest lecturers who keep publishing and speaking nonsense. Many do this deliberately, thinking that they can get away with it. Many may be genuinely incompetent ignorant, or inexperienced researchers.

However, they are propped up for some reason, and many are rewarded with fast-track promotions. Some who engage in academic misconduct hold exalted positions.

They think they can fool the public. They have no shame. Many do not even realise that there will be foreign scholars who will criticise them. A French historian recently did so.

Thanks to social media, blogging sites and a more open online news portal environment, publication of reports on errant academics and criticisms of them are becoming more accessible to a general readership.

READ MORE:  Journal retractions: Cracks in the ivory tower

Full biodatas of academics are also available for all to scrutinise, including whether dishonest lecturers are to be found at the junior level or among senior professors, vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors and professors emeriti. Looking up the biodatas of the “Jongs and the Galleys” authors, for example, will be an eye-opener for many.

Rising academic dishonesty

However, despite all this, the level of academic dishonesty in our public universities does not seem to diminish. If anything, it is on the rise.

For example, let us look at journal retractions. The practice of journal retractions began around 1977. Since then, there has been a 67.4% increase globally.

Significantly, in the mid-2000s, a sudden increase in this rate coincided with the beginning of the global university rankings system. I will address this link a little later.

Between 1977 and 2011, there had been a 10-fold increase in journal retractions. Malaysia is placed 8th globally, with the highest number of retractions in 2023. Other statistics will shock as well.

According to the Retraction Watch database, a researcher based in the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Technology Malaysia had published similar, related or identical papers in over 33 studies in various journals. By 2022, 10 of these articles had been retracted.

Furthermore, over the last few decades, deliberate misconduct, rather than honest mistakes or errors, has been stated as the reason for articles being retracted.

Types of misconduct

“Misconduct” in academic publishing includes the following:

  • Plagiarism: presenting another person’s ideas as if they were your own, without proper acknowledgment
  • Duplicate or redundant publications: an author copies and republishes their own work without reference to previous publication; they submit the same publication to multiple journals
  • Data fabrication or falsification: either making up results or altering results of experiments to match a contrived conclusion
  • Inappropriate attribution of authorship: the practice of including individuals who have not contributed to an article, excluding authors who have contributed, or ghost authorship
  • Misconduct within the publication process: authors submit manuscripts under fraudulent names or with fraudulent affiliations
  • Peer review misconduct: violation of single-blind (authors do not know the reviewers) and double-blind review (both reviewers and authors do not know each other) status; ie neither the reviewers nor the authors are anonymous. The journal editor knows both, so misconduct could be practiced by the editor
READ MORE:  Strengthen academic ethics and quality, curb fraud

Excuses, excuses

Flimsy excuses have also been given for academic misconduct in Malaysia. A common one is that “retractions are not just a Malaysian academic phenomenon; it happens in the West as well”.

I say, so what? Just because others commit academic fraud does not mean we should, too. Where is our dignity?

Also, our minds continue to be very captive. Our captive minds think that just because a former Stanford University president resigned from his post because of academic misconduct and was still allowed to keep his professorship, we too should not punish our fraudulent scholars “too much”.

My response is this: our universities are mediocre compared to many universities globally, so we should tackle academic fraud more severely.

Many Western societies can boast of an influential community of intellectuals, thinkers and scholars. Their campuses are vibrant with meaningful scholarly discourse among professors and students.

Malaysian society and our campuses cannot claim the same. – 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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7 May 2024 12.37pm

Slm Msia.This serious academic misconduct reflects the deterioration in our human values and ethics. Our national documents, the Fed Constitution, Rukun Negara, V 2020,have strongly laid down the principles and ethics of common human interaction, for the nation to blossom economically, socially and spiritually. Society at large n very much the authorities must act to root out such negative national illnesses. For the authorities, Anwar himself needs to be a strong check, so that the former do their jobs for the common good. Race factors must be whittled down in all equations conscientiously. It must be remembered n taught that all 3 main races fought n obtained independence together. The youth needs to be shown good examples of truth.

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