Success’ of Malaysian researchers is again under the spotlight

Success’ of Malaysian researchers is again under the spotlight

By: Prof. Dr. Mohammad Tariqur Rahman

A Nature article published on 10 January 2024 referring to a study reported in Plos One in December 2023 articulates “Self-citations in around a dozen countries are unusually high”. The article continues to emphasize “Researchers behind the analysis think that policy incentives in these places are to blame”.

Using Scopus data, the study in Plos One evaluated the trends of country self-citations in 50 countries over the world in the period 1996-2019. While most countries’ country self-citations had a decreasing trend over time, 12 countries including Malaysia exhibited anomalous trends of self-citation.

During that period Scopus’s number of recorded publications for Malaysia is 310,874. The numbers for Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand are 292,723; 150,879; and 188,262 respectively. 35.5% of those published papers by Malaysian scientists are categorized as international publications, i.e. publications with authors from different countries. In that category, Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand had their shares at 51.5%, 27.9%, and 39.6% respectively. Indeed, those numbers reflect the commitment of Malaysian researchers to pursue science.

Nevertheless, the accompanying “fames” for Malaysia as one of the top countries, with the highest number of retractions in 2023 and now with the highest number of self-citations was unexpected but not unanticipated.

According to a UNESCO report published in 2014, higher education and research policies in Malaysia emphasized global university rankings that needed an increased publication rate by the targeted universities. Consequently, those university faculty members were kept under pressure to publish in top-tier international journals.

It could be noted that the National Higher Education Action Plan 2011-2015 devised a strategy to achieve a world-class research university too. For such a university, an outcome indicator of an increased percentage of staff achieving at least 100 indexed citations was set under the action plan for improving the quality of faculty publications.

According to the study in Plos One, the upward trend of Malaysian country self-citations coincides with the years following this government intervention.

Arguably, the quality of a publication does not necessarily depend on the citations received by the paper. It was well evident that a good number of papers published in reputed journals were retracted for fraud or other forms of misconduct before those were cited hundreds of times.

Clearly, retractions and anomalous citations none of those are good news to sustain Malaysia as a regional higher education hub. Unfortunately, no “undo” button can erase those infamous records and Malaysian researchers cannot come out of it unscathed.

What if there is a “refresh” button to make a clean and prestigious future?

A reset at the higher education policy level to define quality and sustainable research to address the urgent needs to build a clean and prestigious future.

Here I dare to suggest a few considerations for the policymakers to ponder upon to refresh and reset their action plans for sustainable quality research outputs in higher educational institutions in Malaysia.

1. As long as publications are considered, appointment and promotion criteria must not consider merely the number of publications and citations but rather the role of the applicants in the publications i.e., as primary and/or principal (or corresponding) authors.
2. To have a qualified pool of researchers from the beginning of the newly appointed staff members, a minimum of two years of postdoctoral training should be used as the minimum requirement to appoint an individual at a starting level of university faculty positions.
3. The requirement for completing postgraduate in each time with strict requirements of publications and an “unwritten” obligation to pass anyone who enrols for such a degree must be revisited. At the same time, the requirement for completed postgraduate supervision should be revisited in the interest of quality research and supervision.
4. As far as the research grants are concerned, the current trend of evaluation of academic and research staff based on the amount of the grants must be replaced with the ratio of the amount of the grant and research outputs.
5. Extension of the time to complete a research grant must be based on the actual reasons and a case-by-case basis. Albeit there must be a given time frame to complete a research project however, it does not necessarily mean to terminate any project if failed to finish within the time as long as justified reasons are provided.
6. Performance indicators for MyRA ranking should be revisited to scale down many of those from obligatory to optional indicators and align those with global university ranking indicators.

The author is the Associate Dean (Continuing Education), Faculty of Dentistry, and Associate Member, UM LEAD, Universiti Malaya. He may be reached at [email protected]

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