Reset needed for sustainable, high-quality research outputs from Malaysian universities

A Jan 10 Nature article, citing a December 2023 study in PLoS ONE, highlights the unusually high self-citation rates in about a dozen countries.

The study, using Scopus data from 1996-2019, identified anomalous self-citation trends in 12 countries, including Malaysia, while most countries showed a decreasing trend.

During this period, Malaysia had 310,874 recorded publications on Scopus, with Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand having 292,723, 150,879, and 188,262, publications respectively. Of Malaysian papers, 35.5 per cent were international, reflecting a commitment to global collaboration. However, Malaysia faced unexpected attention for having the highest retractions in 2023, and the highest self-citations.

Unesco’s 2014 report revealed Malaysia’s emphasis on global rankings, pressuring universities to increase publication rates. The National Higher Education Action Plan 2011-2015, aimed at producing world-class research universities, had set an outcome indicator for faculty citations. The PLoS ONE study suggests the rise in Malaysian self-citations aligns with government interventions during those years.

While citation quantity doesn’t guarantee publication quality, the study warns that retractions and abnormal citations harm Malaysia’s standing as a regional education hub. Unfortunately, there’s no “undo” button to erase these records, impacting Malaysian researchers’ reputations.

But imagine having a “refresh” button for a clean and prestigious future in higher education policy: A reset at this level is crucial to define quality and sustainable research, addressing the urgent need for a reputable future.

Here are considerations for policymakers to ponder, aiming to refresh and reset action plans for sustainable, high-quality research outputs in Malaysian higher educational institutions:

  • Shift the focus on the appointment and promotion criteria from the sheer quantity of publications and citations to considering the role of applicants in publications, distinguishing between primary and/or principal authors.
  • Establish a qualified pool of researchers by making a minimum of two years of postdoctoral training a requirement for individuals starting at university faculty positions.
  • Re-evaluate postgraduate requirements, ensuring strict publication criteria and reconsidering the obligation to pass anyone who enrols, while also revisiting the criteria for completed postgraduate supervision for the sake of quality research and supervision.
  • Replace the current trend of evaluating academic and research staff based on grant amounts with a ratio of the grant amount to research outputs.
  • Extend the time to complete a research grant based on actual reasons and a case-by-case basis. While there should be a set timeframe, termination of projects for failing to finish within that time should be avoided if justified reasons are provided.
  • Revisit performance indicators for Malaysian Research Assessment Instrument (MyRA) ranking, scaling down obligatory indicators and aligning them with global university ranking indicators, making many optional.

This approach aims to foster a culture of quality and sustainability in research, while promoting fairness and effectiveness in the academic environment.

Professor Dr Mohammad Tariqur Rahman is Universiti Malaya’s associate dean (continuing education), Faculty of Dentistry, and UM LEAD associate member.

The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of Twentytwo13.