Sunday September 26, 2010
The KPI dilemma
Stories by HARIATI AZIZAN, RICHARD LIM and JOSEPH LOH
Even as the debate on the relevance of world rankings to our public universities rages on, a third rankling argument has emerged: the race to be counted in international tables may be turning our institutions into research mills.
MEET Professor X. He is everything that an academic should be: popular on campus, well respected in the community, and of late, very active in research. The number of research papers he has published in the last three years is impressive, and he expects to notch a high “score” for his key performance indicator (KPI).
But look closely at his research papers and one will notice some glaring details: three are published in low-tiered academic journals while two are co-authored with five other academics. There is even one published in a journal with a reputation for selling publication space at RM2,000 each.
Next, meet Professor Y. He is so preoccupied with meeting his research publication KPI that he has spent more time on the phone dealing and wheeling with fellow academics to find partners for his “collaborative” research than lecturing or mentoring his students. The rest of the time is spent on his sole valid research, with the bulk of the work being completed by his two best students.
According to some local academics, the pressure to publish research papers – an important facet of the KPI in public universities – is creating an unhealthy intellectual culture.
Prof Dr P. Raveendran from Universiti Malaya’s Electrical Engineering Department, for one, highlights how many academics are finding unethical ways to “beat the system” in their bid to fulfil their KPI requirement.
“You have many tumpang academics – those who hitch on other people’s paper for the credit without actually putting in any work. I have even seen a paper with 10 authors,” he tells.
A young lecturer from the Engineering and Built Environment Faculty of a local university who declines to be named agrees that some of the papers submitted were not written by a real expert in the field.
“There are many papers with names of ‘free riders’ who just want to fulfil the quota and promotion purpose. As a result, the university may produce unqualified professors/associates.”
Former deputy vice-chancellor (Research and Innovation Affairs) Prof Datuk Dr Ibrahim Komoo at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) agrees that this “cutting corner” phenomenon is growing rampant.
“Many are not only just submitting papers in low quality journals but there are also those who are plagiarising work and demanding money for their papers or paying to get them published.”
KPI, in some form or other, has long been implemented in public universities to measure the performance of academics. It is used not only to gauge an academic’s performance but also eligibility for promotion.
With the changing landscape of higher education, however, Malaysian universities have imposed stricter KPI targets on their staff. The targets are further prioritised as the global borders close, forcing our public universities to play catch-up with the more established top universities of the world.
Many like Dr Raveendran accepts that it is a necessary tool if our academia wants to be recognised internationally.
“Everyone is grumbling that they are rushing to publish papers to meet the KPI, but is there anything wrong with that? It is the practice all around the world because they want to be recognised internationally. Before we became academics, we already knew that we needed to do research and publish. Basically, that is what KPI is but still many people are grumbling, mainly because we don’t have a proper research culture – it is new.”
What many fear, he says, is that those who cheat will be rewarded while those who slog but fail to meet the criteria set in the KPI will be left behind.
This, he adds, is creating a lot of resentment among those who are producing genuine research work or publishing papers in top-tiered academic journals.
“I can send my work to around 25 journals but I will only be respected if I send it to the high-ranked publications. It is easier to publish 20 papers in low-ranked journals than, say, getting two papers published in top-ranked journals.”
Dr Raveendran attributes this academic malaise to another cause: low morale among academics due to the salary scale.
“Everyone is getting the same pay in spite of the amount of work put in. I hear that this is what many people are grumbling about – everyone is enjoying the same cake even though some are not contributing anything. If we want to boost our standards, we should also study the salary scale of the top universities and make the pay more comparable to the quality and amount of work you put in.”
Straying off real path
Islamic architecture expert Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) feels that the KPI, specifically the research publication criteria, is an unrealistic yardstick of what a good academic is (see accompanying story).
In fact, he stresses, it is setting academics astray from their real purpose.
“What is happening is that academics, especially the young, think their only role is to fulfil whatever KPI that has been set by the university in order to gain promotion.”
Calling it a tragedy, he recounts his experience with his fellow academics,
“After the customary greeting and ‘How are you?’ the reply has become quite standard: ‘What else, fulfil KPI lah;’ or ‘You know, our KPI is crazy – how are we going to fulfil it?”
For the young, he adds, it’s “Ala, Prof, two more papers before I can request for the promotion interview.”
Instead of bringing meaning and improvement in the lives of the people in this country or in the world through research, writing and disseminating knowledge to all levels of society and peers, they are more preoccupied with promotion.
A postgraduate student in Architecture who wants to remain anonymous also feels that the KPI system has indirectly had a negative impact on the spirit of the university.
“For one, it is turning the university into an academic mill – where it is producing those who are smart in manipulating the promotion system which more often than not does not reflect their real ability or contribution to their field’s knowledge or the country’s development.”
Professor Dr Ahmad Ismail from Universiti Putra Malaysia biology department is also of the opinion that academic excellence cannot be measured by publications alone.
He strongly believes that other aspects of academia should be considered.
“Publication alone is not enough. Teaching and supervising of students, attending conferences and seminars, extension and dissemination of knowledge and new findings to the public (among others) make an academician complete.”
As a professor of wildlife ecology and ecotoxicology, his area of expertise does not lend itself well to publication.
“We would like our papers to be published in reputable, high-impact journals – but we can’t because there are none,” he says.
“What is important is what we can contribute to our own country – at a local level. If you just concentrate on writing, then you are just a writer.
“A lecturer must develop areas of knowledge and then teach it to students, and not rely on textbooks alone.”
This is a problem faced by most arts, humanities and social science academics.
However, says Dr Ibrahim, most universities are already addressing this conundrum and accepting books published by respected academic publishers as well as writings in the media.
He nonetheless reiterates the importance of research publication.
“Publishing research papers is crucial to upgrade our quality. If we fulfil this fundamental, we will improve the quality of our public universities and standings in the world.”
He breaks down the role of an academician into three parts – research and subsequent publication; teaching; and finally extension (dissemination of knowledge to the public).
Important to improve
To Prof Dr Kurunathan Ratnavelu, UM’s deputy vice-chancellor (Development), the question is simple.
“Do we want our children to be taught by the best in the world?”
If the answer is yes, then we cannot run away from increasing our research work and publication. This was the question asked by the former Vice Chancellor of the National University of Singapore when they embarked on their internationalisation programme some 25 years ago, tells Dr Kurunathan, who is also a member of the secretariat for ranking and improving performance at UM.
He admits that “cutting corner” attempts like multiple authorship or publishing in low ranked journals are detrimental to the academic standards of our universities “but we have to start somewhere”.
He adds that eventually the culprits will be caught and those playing this game will find out the truth the hard way.
As he points out, this can already be seen in our low standings in the world’s university rankings such as the recent QS World Best University Rankings.
“It is not about obsession with KPI or rankings. It is about productivity in research and certain facets that capture the quality of a top class university. Even though we are publishing more research papers, the recent rankings clearly imply that our quality is not there yet.”
UM, he says, is taking steps to address the quality issue.
“We are trying to attract the best brains, especially Malaysians working overseas, and constantly improve our research facilities and support staff. Another thing is to wake up the academics we already have here to produce more quality work.”
The problem is that the benchmark is constantly evolving, he warns.
“There is no handicap in the race. So we will always play catch-up if we don’t correct our fundamentals.”
Dr Raveendran agrees. However, he feels, for now, having quantity is half the battle won.
“It is acceptable for younger lecturers to publish in low ranked journals, but they need to prove as they move up that they have the ability to publish in top ranked journals. And the university needs to monitor the frequency – it should not be a one-off.”
Dr Ibrahim is optimistic that the declining academic integrity can be arrested.
“We are in a transition period in the transformation of our higher education landscape as it tries to streamline with international standards. The bad apples will naturally be weeded out along the way. However, that doesn’t mean that we cannot do something about it in the meantime. I strongly believe that this phenomenon should and can be addressed strategically.”