How not to improve your country’s research output

(postingan aslinya)

Carrying out high quality research that contributes to mankind’s body of knowledge is no mean feat, particularly when we are talking about academic research, which demands a deep understanding of the field, follows a rigorous methodology, and is subject to intense scrutiny by fellow experts to ensure validity.

One general indicator of a nation’s ability to contribute to this noble pursuit of the advancement of mankind’s knowledge is the absolute number of published academic documents. According to the SCImago Journal & Country rankings, which compiles its statistics from the Scopus academic publishing database, between 1996 and 2007 Indonesian academics published 12.776 citable documents, i.e. peer-reviewed journal and conference papers, which is far less than neighbouring countries Malaysia (53.979), Thailand (57.509), and Singapore (105.665), and pales in comparison to research powerhouses such as Japan (1.429.881), the UK (1.392.982), and the United States (4.972.679).

There are many reasons why Indonesia’s academic output is so low, the chief of which is a chronic lack of research funding. This in turn results in poor research facilities, incomplete libraries, and insufficient human resources with proper research experience. Perhaps more damaging, however, is the absence of a research culture at most universities, which are primarily teaching institutions. Research is often seen as an afterthought. Small wonder, given that the highest possible salary for a researcher on a government-funded research grant is a fairly modest 4.4 million Rupiahs per month before tax. While some may consider this amount adequate given the cost of living in Indonesia, if one considers that research institutes should be attracting the brightest minds in the country, it is not surprising to learn that these minds are turning to the private sector instead, or moving abroad, where universities are prepared to lure top quality researchers with much higher salaries.

Of course we must acknowledge that there are many good researchers doing solid work at top universities such as Universitas Indonesia (UI), Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB), Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM), Institut Pertanian Bogor (IPB), and several others, where various research labs are advancing the frontiers of science and technology, such as the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology. However, such instances remain the exception to the rule.

So what is the government’s solution to this sorry state of affairs? A very simple one, it seems. If you can’t pay your academics and researchers to do it, just force your students to do it. For free.

This is essentially what the Director General of Higher Education, Djoko Santoso, has decreed to rectors and directors of higher education institutions across the nation in a letter dated the 27th January 2012. In it, he states that starting August 2012, before they can graduate from their respective degrees, all undergraduate students must publish a paper in a ‘scientific journal’, all Masters students must publish a paper in a ‘national scientific journal’, and all Doctoral students must publish a paper in an ‘international scientific journal’.

This audacious policy is harmful on many levels, particularly the requirement concerning undergraduates.

First of all, what is the aim of an undergraduate education? Although it varies among institutions, it is primarily to equip students with the necessary skills and attitudes to become independent and critical thinkers who are knowledgeable about their respective disciplines or professions. The vast majority of graduates do not subsequently pursue research careers in academia. Publishing journal papers is not a required competency.

In an interview with Kompas.com on the 3rd of February 2012, Djoko Santoso states that “graduates must possess the ability to write scientifically”. Whilst this is a laudable outlook, and one which I agree with completely, it is not a reason to force students to publish journal papers. There are many other ways and opportunities to train students to write scientifically throughout their years of study. Surely the commonly practiced requirement of writing a skripsi is one (and some academics feel even that is debatable whether it should be compulsory). However, this is not the real reason. The real reason behind his decree, which is actually stated in the first paragraph of his letter to universities nationwide, is the dearth of academic publications coming from Indonesian universities. It even explicitly mentions a comparison with Malaysia, citing that our neighbours are approximately seven times more productive. One can only conclude that this is a cynical attempt to artificially boost the academic output of Indonesian universities in terms of published papers. For free.

One could argue that so long as no harm is done, there is nothing wrong with this policy. Alas, if only that were the case. The issue of academic publishing is a complex and difficult one. On one hand, it is in the interest of the academic community to maintain the highest standards of quality and soundness of journals and conference papers. Research is greatly facilitated by the fact that one can rely on previously reported findings in the literature to be valid. As Isaac Newton is famously attributed as stating, researchers stand on the shoulder of giants: they can see further into the far reaches of undiscovered knowledge due to the outstanding efforts of their predecessors. It is crucial, therefore, that this giant stands strong and firm. The most common way to ensure this is through a thorough peer review process.

On the other hand, researchers are always under pressure to publish more and more papers to sustain their careers. Publish or perish, as they say. Unfortunately, less principled parties are very willing to exploit this fact. There is a burgeoning industry in publishing journals or hosting conferences that are, shall we say, more forgiving in their review process. Since many researchers and academics are evaluated quantitatively in terms of sheer volume of publications, such as in Indonesia, they are all too happy to turn to these less illustrious avenues to get published. There have been many cases of so-called bogus conferences and journals, which have been exposed as having little to no peer review process. Plagiarism also becomes a massive problem. Such practices are detrimental to the research community. Newton’s giant now becomes fat and bloated with cancerous cells, and is in danger of tumbling down.

Let us examine the reality of journal publishing in Indonesia today. Many universities in Indonesia publish their own journals, which are filled with papers written by their own staff members, whose own colleagues make up the majority of the review board. Papers in such journals are often never cited anywhere else. This practice already exists today, as university faculty members must reach their publication targets to achieve promotion. Think of what would happen if all undergraduate students in Indonesia were required to publish journal papers as well. There are approximately 2.800 higher education institutions in Indonesia, each of them producing hundreds, even thousands of graduates annually. Whilst undoubtedly amongst them there are many exceptional graduates who are capable of producing good work, such journals would become inundated with vast amounts of poor quality work. Simply imagining the herculean efforts required to conduct an adequate peer review of these submissions is an exhausting exercise. The official Twitter account of the Directorate General of Higher Education, @dikti, recently tried to clarify the decree by repeatedly pointing out, in all caps no less, that undergraduates are only required to publish in “scientific journals, not national scientific journals”. Without even attempting to decipher what this statement really means, one can see how they are already implicitly agreeing to a lower standard journal.

Furthermore, this policy has the potential to undermine positive efforts that are designed to improve the quality of research in Indonesia.

Firstly, academic journals are assessed for their quality and impact on research through various metrics such as average number of citations. Think of what effect these undergraduate papers would have on the journals. They would almost certainly lose all credibility, and by association, many of the other reputable journals published by Indonesian associations. Genuinely high quality publications would drown in an ocean of dubious papers.

Secondly, what message does this policy send out in terms of building a culture of research among academics in Indonesian universities? Why bother wasting time laboring over research grant proposals? Why bother doing a PhD at all? Get students to write your papers for you. For free. The audacity of DIKTI to even think of implementing such a policy reveals the low levels of regard they have towards improving standards of research in Indonesia.

The irony of all of this is that the decree is unlikely to bring about the changes that DIKTI craves. As stated earlier, the decree starts by stating that Indonesia’s academic output is only one seventh of that of Malaysia’s. This is very likely referring to the statistic, again from the SCImago Journal & Country Rank, that in 2010 Indonesia produced 1.975 citable documents, whereas Malaysia produced 14.103. Such numbers, as are most other measures of academic output, are computed from recognized academic indices such as Thomson Reuters or Scopus. The scientific journals that would most likely be the destination of these enforced papers would almost certainly not be counted among these indices.

Actually, the numbers bear a closer look. The numbers at the beginning of this article simply stated the sheer volume of citable documents from 1996 to 2007. However, they are not a fair reflection of the true impact that these documents have towards the research community. For that, we must turn to the wonderful world of citation analysis, where the basic intuition is thus: the more often a paper is cited by another paper (and taking into account self-citations, where a researcher narcissistically refers to their own paper), the more impact it has. SCImago produces another key statistic: citations per document. And here, we have reasons to be cheerful. For while we may lag behind Malaysia and Thailand in sheer number of documents, Indonesia’s citations per document is 10.36, which beats Thailand (10.18) and Malaysia (7.24), and stands toe-to-toe with Japan (11.72) and Singapore (11.82). To put these numbers into context, the UK (17.42) and the US (20.18) still lead the way, but Indonesia beats even much more established countries such as South Korea (9.82), India (7.27) and China (5.66). It would seem that Indonesian researchers give you more bang for your buck.

The problem of Indonesia’s low academic output is a serious one that needs addressing. The reasons have been stated above, i.e. funding, policies, culture. We cannot magically solve these problems overnight by implementing such a haphazard policy.

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