Publish or perish, or just steal it: A peek into academic theft in Malaysian universities

Sometimes, just owning a lab is used as a reason to have one’s name listed as a co-author of a research paper, says an academic.

PETALING JAYA: It is a norm in Malaysian universities for academics to get their names published in research papers – without having to actually write anything.

This is part of the insight provided by a senior lecturer to FMT – a glimpse into the world of paper chase and academic competition.

In the rush, some academics have no qualms about getting recognition without earning it, and the stakes are too high to resist.

This comes in the wake of the revelation by FMT last week of a foreign student at a local university whose work was stolen by his PhD instructor.

A Yemeni student said his paper was published last year on his university’s official website under the names of his supervisors, one of whom did nothing to earn it.

Speaking to FMT, an academic at a local branch of a foreign university said the revelation was not surprising.

He said many academics regard their job as an opportunity “to make more money”, and collecting bylines for research papers, the heart of gaining academic credentials, is one way to do it.

Local and international rankings of universities and promotions of individual academics depend on key performance indicators (KPI), which put direct pressure on them to perform.

“A significant portion of KPIs is given for research output including scientific publications,” the academic told FMT on condition of anonymity.

Academics, therefore, are required “to publish or perish”.

“In fact, job contracts are renewed based on performance. As a result, everybody is keen on publishing research papers by hook or by crook,” he added.

It is not difficult for academics and researchers to get their names listed as “co-authors” without giving any contribution, said the lecturer.

Is this why some academics have their names on multiple research papers in a year?

“It is simply impossible for someone to publish, for instance, 30 academic papers a year,” he told FMT.

He said there were times when professors who had their names on research papers could not explain the topics they supposedly wrote about.

“If we ask them to explain further about the research, that person may not be able to give us an answer straight away as they lack understanding,” said the academic, who is a senior research fellow.

He said it was normal for critical tasks to be passed to another person.

There are certain ground rules for putting one’s name on a research paper.

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, for example, recommends that authorship be based on substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work, or the acquisition, analysis or interpretation of data for the work.

An academic would have to draft the work, revising it critically for important intellectual content before giving final approval for publication.

He also has to be accountable for all aspects of the work especially when questions are raised on its accuracy or integrity.

The lecturer gave one specific example of how co-authorship is earned.

A professor could allow students the use of the lab and facilities under his control.

Others are less circumspect, asking students to include their names as first authors, sometimes through force.

“As a result, we have no original scientific research that really has value,” said the lecturer, who has almost a decade’s experience in research.

He said he had met many lecturers who published research papers without contributing to them.

“It’s common in many universities, both public and private,” he added.

He recalled an occasion when he was in the midst of completing a research paper and went to a nearby public university to get access to a piece of equipment.

“From the beginning, I tried my best to be very polite to ask for permission to use the equipment.

“But the permission was denied because I did not offer any money or co-authorship to the person who owns the lab.

“Here, if you have a very well-established lab, you can get your name listed as a co-author on the research paper simply by letting people use your lab without any scientific contribution from your side.”

But not all is lost: there are still genuine professors, although they are few in number, he claims.

If the problem continues to be tolerated, there is little chance for Malaysia to make significant progress in its higher education ranking.