Singapore

'Publish or perish' puts pressure on profs

Singapore at greater risk of academic fraud

Singapore is at far greater risk of academic fraud now given the increasingly competitive academic environment here, scientists and researchers told The Straits Times.

The danger has always been around, but the pressure to "publish or perish" has steadily been increasing in recent years, in light of the recent rise of the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in international league tables such as the closely watched Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

A university's research quality and output play a key role in the assessment so academics have a compelling incentive to make a mark.

NUS is now ranked 22nd in the world according to the Times rankings, up from 40 in 2011, while NTU has leapt from 169 to 52.

Overall, the number of papers that have been retracted due to academic malpractice in Singapore still ranks modestly internationally.

There have been about 60 retractions involving misconduct or duplicated findings here out of 14,000 international cases in the database of Retraction Watch, a website that tracks such cases, since 2007.

Singapore has produced 11,845 research publications since 2007, according to SCImago Journal Rank, a public portal run by the University of Granada.

But that could be just the tip of the iceberg, said observers including Professor Chong Siow Ann, vice-chairman of the medical board (research) at the Institute of Mental Health.

“...if you give people such huge rewards (for groundbreaking research), they may think that the reward is worth the risk.A scientist who declined to be named

"A large number of cases may be undetected, but it is difficult to arrive at an actual figure," he said, adding that this is in line with international trends.

In one of the largest cases of scientific fraud in Singapore, it came to light earlier this month that former Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) scientist Sabeera Bonala admitted to falsifying data in her research and doctoral thesis.

Four researchers were disciplined for falsifying data in six scientific papers, which were partially based on research funded by A*Star and the National Research Foundation Singapore. Two of them, including Ms Bonala, had their PhDs revoked, and all either quit or were sacked from their positions at research institutions here, including A*Star and NTU.

But many could still be willing to play the high-stakes game, given that one can be rewarded handsomely for producing cutting-edge research published in top journals.

A scientist who has worked at both NTU and NUS said research has become a key performance indicator tied to a professor's remuneration and performance bonus.

"The consequences for (fraud) can be very, very harsh and can destroy your career, if not your life. But if you give people such huge rewards (for groundbreaking research), they may think that the reward is worth the risk," said the scientist, who declined to be named.

An NUS spokesman said "rankings do not inform the university's policies or research directions", and that research performance is evaluated on factors beyond just research output and quality, such as teaching quality.

But like all research-intensive universities, NUS still expects its faculty to "carry out cutting-edge research and have it published in leading journals".

Last year, A*Star, NTU, NUS and the Singapore University of Technology and Design adopted a unified set of standards for academic publications to enhance research integrity. In addition to reporting suspicious practices, researchers must also maintain accurate and detailed records of procedures and results.

Prof Chong said: "But you can't have a system that is perfect; those of us who do science have to adhere to an implicit understanding (of the) honesty and transparency that is expected of us."

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