An article published in Nature on January 10, 2024, referring to a study reported in Plos One in December 2023, articulates that “self-citations in around a dozen countries are unusually high”.
The article continues to emphasise that “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 in the period between 1996 and 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.
Some 35.5 per cent of those published papers by Malaysian scientists are categorised as international publications, i.e. publications with authors from different countries.
In this category, Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand had their shares at 51.5 per cent, 27.9 per cent, and 39.6 per cent respectively. Indeed, those numbers reflect the commitment of Malaysian researchers in the pursuit of science.
Nevertheless, the accompanying ‘fame’ 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 emphasised global university rankings that needed an increased publication rate by the targeted universities.
Consequently, those university faculty members are 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 is evident that a good number of papers published in reputed journals were retracted because of fraud or other forms of misconduct, before those were cited hundreds of times.
Clearly, retractions and anomalous citations are hardly good news in efforts 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 is needed to define quality and sustainable research and address the urgent need to build a clean and prestigious future.
Let me suggest a few considerations for the policymakers in order to refresh and reset their action plans for sustainable quality research output in higher educational institutions in Malaysia.
- As long as publications are considered, appointment and promotion criteria must not be considered as 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.
- To have a qualified pool of researchers drawn from newly appointed staff members, with a minimum of two years of post-doctoral training used as the minimum requirement to appoint an individual at the starting level of university faculty positions.
- The requirement for completing postgraduate studies with strict requirements of publication 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.
- As far as research grants are concerned, the current trend of evaluating 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.
- An extension of the time to complete a research grant must be based on the actual reasons and a case-by-case basis. While there must be a given time frame to complete a research project, it does not necessarily mean the termination of the project if it fails to finish within the time frame, as long as justified reasons are provided.
- 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.
Prof Dr Mohammad Tariqur Rahman is the associate dean (Continuing Education), Faculty of Dentistry, and associate member, UM LEAD, University of Malaya.
- This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.