Ministry attempts to end ‘publish at all costs’ culture

Thailand’s Higher Education Ministry has instructed universities to check the sources of all research papers produced by academics to ensure strict compliance with academic ethics. It is expected to make it necessary for those applying for academic positions and promotions to include ‘community-based studies’ among their citations in a bid to move away from a ‘publish at all costs’ culture.

Details on which disciplines will be subject to the new requirements, and for what academic posts, are still being finalised.

The current emphasis on publications is said to be fuelling research misconduct, including allegations that academics have hired others to write research papers for them, or purchased papers with their names inserted to get them published in internationally accredited journals in order to secure promotions or even jobs.

Thailand’s Minister of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation Anek Laothamatas ordered an urgent probe last month into claims that Thai academics have hired others to do research or writing. The minister announced the investigation on 10 January after allegations raised by fellow academics were shared widely via social media.

The minister called on the Council of University Presidents of Thailand to thoroughly monitor academic research and writing with an emphasis on community-based research.

However, some academics have said it is far from clear what constitutes ‘community-based studies’ while others have described the announcement as “empty rhetoric” that is unlikely to change the ‘publish or perish’ culture.

The spectre of ghostwriters

While the problem of ghost-written papers to secure academic promotions is not confined to Thailand, with many other countries also reporting problems, the ministry emphasised that Section 70 of the Higher Education Act explicitly bans people from hiring others to do research or writing in a bid to gain academic posts or promotions. The penalty for such action is three years’ imprisonment or a maximum fine of THB60,000 (US$1,800).

The latest actions were sparked by a social media post on 7 January by Dr Anan Jongkaewwattana, a virologist and researcher at Thailand’s National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, in which he claimed research papers were being sold to interested buyers in Thailand to claim as their own. The name is placed in the study depending on the amount of money the buyer is willing to pay.

The ThaiPBS (broadcaster) report on 19 January that followed up on this allegation and the subsequent ministerial instructions, said it found one company advertising itself openly on the internet, offering “public support services for academic, scientific manuscripts and papers”.

This company’s readymade articles allegedly cover a wide variety of topics; fees for getting a name accredited to the articles range between US$800-1,000. The so-called authors can even seek reimbursement from their employer under the pretext that they had to pay for research assistants, or they can put in a claim for promotion up the academic ladder citing such publications, the advert notes.

Weerachai Phutdhawong, an associate professor of chemistry at Kasetsart University, in his capacity as secretary of a centre for state universities’ staff, speaking to ThaiPBS, claimed at least 10 Thai university lecturers have bought research papers written overseas. They were mainly employed by private universities in Thailand, but he knew of at least two from public universities.

He told the broadcaster these lecturers also aroused suspicion by having their names listed alongside academics they are unlikely to have ever met.

“You won’t see the students they are advising or mentoring listed as co-authors. Instead, their co-authors will be foreigners from countries like Iraq, Iran, Hungary or Russia,” he continued.

Another point that raised doubts was their choice of subjects. For instance, Weerachai said, it was strange to see someone from the field of education produce a paper on complex medical topics.

What is community-based research?

While the government is hoping that making community-based research mandatory for promotion and jobs will address the problem of fraudulent publications, a number of academics at private universities told University World News the issue of ‘community-based research’ was a sensitive one at the moment.

They noted that while a lot of community-based research work is done by academics in Thailand, because they are mostly written in Thai, it does not attract the attention of university administrations when it comes to promotions or jobs.

“Universities need to promote papers published in Thai in equal value to the international [journal] publications,” argued Kamolrat Intaratat, director of the Research Center of Communication and Development Knowledge Management at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University. “And if there is international interest in Thai research, [these papers] can be translated [for international exposure].”

Intaratat told University World News she had long advocated for community-based research to be given prominence in Thai universities. However, she said the ministry needed to provide clear guidance on what constitutes community-based research.

According to some international definitions it is a participatory approach where research projects are driven by community priorities and the community is involved throughout the entire research process.

Intaratat has produced many Thai-language papers based on her community outreach work, addressing sustainable development goals and sufficiency farming, as well as ICTs in development.

Many other Thai academics have produced papers on issues such as community-based tourism development, community participatory methodologies in studying public knowledge of strokes among ethnic minorities, application of sufficiency economics theories to community development and others.

“Collaborative research designed for public services must be the fundamental issue of all research in Thailand,” Intaratat argued. “All research results must offer a tangible solution to any public issue and [should] also have to be submitted to all the relevant agencies to make it happen. Social needs and all kinds of challenges must be included in all the research.

“I would say public service and society concerns must be the core issue of all research that could be claimed for any academia promotion,” she added.

Rankings-driven pursuit of publishing

However, Professor Jirayudh Sinthupan, director of the South Asian Studies Centre at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, is sceptical of the latest ministerial instructions.

“Community-based research as a criterion for academic advancement is just an ill-conceived policy and empty rhetoric,” he told University World News. “I don’t think that they [the ministry] even know what it means.

“From my understanding, one needs a letter of confirmation from a local government [authority] or a relevant government agency to justify your research as a community-based research project. In this regard, it will be just another bureaucratic procedure added to a failed system,” he said.

He is in no doubt the problem lies in the way universities give credit for research publishing. “It is not just for individual promotions or contract renewals, but it is also an issue for research grant applications at every level.

“Grants are not given on the value of knowledge production or of public benefits. It will likely be granted to projects or individuals that can promise a publication in an indexed journal,” he noted.

Sinthupan added that “the ‘publish or perish’ mentality has destroyed Thai academics as individuals and as a community,” and he blamed a “corrupted system” of university rankings and academic publication indices that drive them.

“I don’t think we should allow our public education institutions to be dominated and guided by these profit-oriented conglomerates,” he said, referring to rankings organisations and noting that individual academics “just do what they are required to do, that is, publishing in an indexed journal to move their universities up the rank.

“I blame policy-makers and university management teams for encouraging them to do whatever it takes to achieve that goal,” he said, adding: “They are happy to turn a blind eye as far as they can reap the benefit.”