EDITORIAL: Perishing through publishing

Sat, Jul 19, 2014 - Page 8

Publish or perish has been the mantra in academia for decades. In the eternal battle to climb the academic ladder or receive research grants, it is not surprising that scientists and academics might be tempted to trim a corner or two. However, in an ever more connected world, the repercussions of such chicanery can be both national and global.

The nation was rocked earlier this month by the announcement by the Journal of Vibration and Control that it was retracting 60 papers it had published because it had discovered that its peer-review process had been breached by a Taiwanese academic.

At the center of the scandal is Chen Chen-yuan (陳震遠), a former associate professor of computer science at the National Pingtung University of Education, who allegedly set up a “peer review ring” by creating accounts on the ScholarOne platform used by the journal’s publisher for processing submissions and peer reviews, using fake names as well as the names of real scientists and professors.

The repercussions have been swift. Chen quit the university earlier this year, months after the publisher began an investigation into the papers. Five of the retracted papers were written by his twin brother, Chen Chen-wu (陳震武), and listed former minister of education Chiang Wei-ling’s (蔣偉寧) as a coauthor. Chiang defended his name amid the uproar, but resigned this week, he said, to spare the ministry further trouble.

While the Washington Post said the scandal “may very well go down in academic history as one of the most brazen on record,” it is not on the same level of that of South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk. Hwang gained notoriety about a decade ago after it turned out he had fabricated the experiments in which he claimed to have created human embryonic stem cells by cloning, work that had been published to much acclaim in the journal Science.

In May, two papers published in Nature by Japanese researcher Haruko Obokata on reprogramming adult cells to become a kind of stem cell were called into question and she has since withdrawn both papers.

Few now remember the Sokal hoax perpetrated by New York University physics professor Alan Sokal, who in 1996 “wrote” an article about quantum gravity as a social and linguistic construct just to see if he could get it published by Social Text, a non-peer reviewed journal. He did, easily, even though it was simply a mish-mash of quotes and nonsense, sparking a debate about the need for peer review.

The fuss over academic integrity created by these incidents overshadows a deeper problem, which is the use of published papers by governments, academic institutions and sponsoring corporations as a measure of the quality both of research and teaching, as well as the demand for research to have immediately identifiable results.

It is common practice for research papers written by masters’ and doctoral students to also list their supervisors as co-authors. Everyone wants a little bit of credit. Credit is crucial because personnel evaluations — as well as those of departments or schools — are based on the number of papers mentioned in key publication indices, which has a trickle-down effect on research grants and funding.

“Academic productivity” has come to mean the number of articles published, not the quality of teaching or value of the research. This is true in many nations. For example, the research output of academics at British universities is assessed every five to six years by measuring the quality of four papers published in peer-reviewed journals. Starting next year, those assessments will be used to decide how much research money each university department in the UK will receive.

Scholarly writing and research publication are crucial, but they should not become the be-all and end-all by which academic excellence — and funding — is measured. Basic research loses out, as do the students of those more focused on writing than teaching. In the rush to make a name, reputations can be lost.