Science output grows fiftyfold but quality questionable

Iran’s annual rate of publication in scientific journals has surged fiftyfold over the past two decades – outpacing the global expansion of scientific publication, which increased threefold over the same period.

However, a focus on quantity has led to low-quality scientific papers and an increase in research malpractice, including endemic plagiarism and the emergence of a black market in academic papers, a new report on Iran’s scientific output has found.

"The overemphasis on quantitative measures of scientific productivity has given rise to a publication bubble with two undesirable consequences: inefficient use of the country’s human resources and the growth and entrenchment of academic corruption,” according to the just-published report, The Scientific Output of Iran: Quantity, quality, and corruption, published by the Stanford Iran 2040 Project at Stanford University, California.

"Iran needs to take major steps to improve the integrity and ethics of science before its achievements in research productivity become (even more) damaged by the presence and dominance of such corrupt activities,” the report stated.

For example, the growth in the black market in academic papers in Iran is largely driven by commodification of academic research, distorted incentives and overuse of quantitative metrics that measure quantity rather than the quality and impact of research output.

Low-quality output and misconduct is also due to Iran’s rulers’ propensity to regard scientific output as equivalent to scientific advancement, and their desire to portray a positive image of the country’s performance to fuel national pride, according to Pirouz Azadi, a San Francisco-based Iranian-American professor, speaking to University World News. It is “in part assisted by political rhetoric and sloganeering", he said.

The report found that the number of papers published annually by Iranian researchers increased from around 1,000 in 1997 to more than 50,000 in 2018, boosting Iran’s contribution to the world’s annual scientific output from 0.1% to 2.6%.

"With this rapid growth rate of publication, Iran leaves other fast-developing countries like China, South Korea, India and Turkey in the dust," the report said.

Demographic trends and a rapid expansion in university capacity resulted in a nearly tenfold increase in the number of graduate students over the past two decades, providing large and inexpensive human resources for research, which partly explains the rising trends in scientific output, the report said.

The government’s policy to make academic promotions and student graduation contingent upon publication of papers in scientific journals also contributed to the rise in the number of papers.

The University of Tehran, Tehran University of Medical Sciences, and Islamic Azad University (all branches) have had the highest number of publications. However, other institutions – IPM (Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences), Sharif University of Technology and Amirkabir University of Technology – showed the highest faculty productivity, with an average of 7.4, 4.5 and 4.4 papers per faculty, respectively.

Low research quality

The quantity and quality of publications varied depending on the field of research. Basic sciences – chemistry, physics, biology and mathematics – accounted for the largest share of published papers at 41%, followed by medicine and health at 22%, engineering at 22%, agricultural, environmental and veterinary sciences at 10%, and social sciences at 5%.

But Iranian papers only make up 0.5% of papers published in top journals, meaning the country’s scientific output is disproportionately published in lower quality journals. Also, Iranian papers’ citation rates are low at less than 0.1% of papers.

"Therefore, it can be concluded that Iran’s scientific output has underperformed when it comes to contributing to the innovative and groundbreaking work that drives different fields," the report said.

The report indicated that new faculty recruitment has failed to keep up with the growth in the number of students, resulting in a significant drop in the faculty-to-student ratio, from 18% in 2005 to less than 8% in 2018 and this could have led to “a plausible reduction” in the quality of teaching and research.

Meanwhile, an absence of proper training in the ethics of scientific research, and lack of punishment for those who plagiarise have led to systemic academic corruption.

Research misconduct

As a measure of scientific misconduct, research institutions were evaluated in terms of the average number of retractions per 10,000 papers.

Since 1997 there has been a large variation in retraction rates, but with a very high average rate of around 13.3 retractions per 10,000 papers. This is four times the global median for retractions – and puts Iran at the top of the list of countries with the most retractions.

Analysis of retractions reveals that misconduct is prevalent in all types of institutions – medical schools, technical schools, underperforming universities and even elite universities.

The report found so-called research consulting companies that publicly offer their papers. Publishing a paper via these agencies, including the fees for the agency and the journal, would typically cost about US$300 to US$600, according to the report.

"Particularly disturbing was our observation that the agencies have formed partnerships with predatory journals and dishonest editors, which in turn allows them to guarantee acceptance of their papers in periods of time as short as a week,” the report said.

“To solve the issue of impact factor, databases of journal metrics exist that provide fake information (eg impact factor) for the (predatory) journals introduced by the agency,” it added.

Hyper-prolific authors

Another dubious activity is the publication record of some hyper-prolific professors. Some 144 unique authors, from a total pool of over 72,000 researchers, published 20-plus papers in a single year. The probability of being (co-)author of a retracted paper is about five times higher among the hyper-prolific researchers compared to randomly selected researchers, the report noted.

A large majority of the 144 hyper-prolific authors, who published more than 20 papers in 2018, obtained their PhD (or other latest degree) from Iranian universities. On average, 19% of all the papers of these authors were published in Iranian journals and 9% in predatory journals.

Nonetheless, hyper-prolific researchers also included distinguished researchers, often at one of the country’s top universities, with cohesive publication records, a small share of self-citations, and a large number of external citations from high-quality journals (especially by researchers from developed countries).

But they also included academics who concurrently hold important organisational or political positions. There is a reasonable amount of anecdotal evidence of a lack of meaningful contribution by these individuals to the many papers on which their names appear as co-authors while they are serving in office, the report noted.

Overall, with a government tendency to exaggerate the country’s scientific progress, without change “the ultimate outcome of such scientific policies will be nothing but a facade of scientific accomplishment with a disproportionately small contribution to real scientific progress and an even smaller impact on the welfare of the nation," the report concluded.