Wed, Jul 23, 2014 - Page 8 News List

Authorities’ non-reform root of woes in academia

By Ku Chung-hwa 顧忠華

The recent storm over the academic fraud scandal and subsequent resignation of Chiang Wei-ling (蔣偉寧) as minister of education have blindsided attempts to clean up corruption within academia, while, after an initial groundswell of anger and criticism, public outrage has subsided, almost as if nothing had happened.

This is a perfect reflection of the root problem behind the state of affairs of Taiwanese academia: The authorities simply do not have the capacity for self-reflection and also lack the resolve and courage to undertake much-needed, sweeping reforms.

Let us take a look at how things came to this: About 10 years ago, there was an economist involved in policymaking who strongly advocated that academic contribution evaluations be based on how many papers a given academic had published in overseas journals. This met with strong opposition at the time.

Some objected on the grounds that “you cannot compare apples with oranges,” saying that applying standards such as the Science Citation Index and the Engineering Index — designed for use in the natural sciences — wholesale upon social science research in the nation, which is simultaneously diverse and very specific to Taiwan, was of questionable utility.

Others were critical of the enforced implementation of evaluations based upon the Social Sciences Citation Index, saying that this was open to abuse of power and could lead to the unintended consequence of reinforcing systemic elitism.

The trouble was that, back then, these voices proved about as effective as a dog barking at a speeding locomotive. Before long, academia in Taiwan was enveloped in a preoccupation with university rankings based on a numbers game of who had published how many papers, with hiring and promotions being decided through a narrow reading of these citation indices.

Shockingly — though perhaps not all that surprising — this preposterous situation, in which reviews only take into account quantitative indices, originated within the field of science and technology, a discipline that prides itself in its rigorous precision, and the minister of education was complicit in this.

Not only, then, have previous repeated announcements to the effect that the government will raise standards in academia proven hollow, or suggestions to apply the same review standards to the social sciences as are used in the natural sciences been proven wrong, but the recent turn of events has also revealed the rampant mendacity and fraud within academia in Taiwan. Who now will trust these citation indices, or believe that Taiwanese academics did not doctor the figures of papers they submit?

At its root, the problem derives from the failure of the academic world to address how best to assess an individual’s academic contribution in a fair, effective way. The result of this preoccupation with quantitative indices to the exclusion of any other criteria has been the reinforcement of the vested interests of overseas — and English-language — periodicals, while academics in this country taking part in genuinely useful research do not get their due recompense.

Over the past decade, the humanities and social sciences have fallen on bad times at Academia Sinica, and its natural science departments have been discredited. How has it come to this? Is it not time for those responsible to own up and apologize? And rebuild the entire system from the ground up to allow the errant world of academia to get back on the right path?

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