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Sunday, August 28, 2011

A short break

Aidilfitri is just a couple of days away. Merdeka is a day after Aidilfitri.

So, I am taking a few days off blogging, unless of course I have something very important to blog on. Besides, a few days off the Internet is a good detoxification exercise.

Before I sign off, I would like to wish my blog readers and visitors, Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri, maaf zahir dan batin. And at the same time, let us really understand the true meaning of Merdeka beyond the usual pompous celebration.

Until we meet again, have a look and think at the content of following video clip.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Research integrity - Part 8

The above picture really does not have anything to do with this posting. It is just for fun. I want to continue my comments on research integrity by focusing on fake professors. While I am not a follower of the Harry Potter series, I am somehow reminded of the professors of Hogwarts, hence the picture above.

Anyway, I read somewhere that "if there are fake students, there can also be fake professors". Sounds scary, doesn't it? But the reality is indeed such that there are frauds who pretend to be professors. In 2007 for example, Wikipedia was rocked by a "scandal" of a contributor (who was actually just a student) pretending to be a professor of religion. This no doubt affects the trustworthiness of the popular free reference portal. This scandal can be read at this link.

In Malaysia, the 2010 National Higher Education Act looks into this matter. Fake professors and bogus PhD holders can be subject to legal action under this act. Under this act, the Ministry of Higher Education is also able to set up a directory of everyone who holds the title of professor, everyone who holds a doctorate degree and everyone who is conferred honorary doctorates. I am not sure whether this database is up and ready, but if (and when) it is available, this database would be very useful.

These are necessary ingredients to safeguard the integrity of research being conducted in research institutions as well as institutions of higher learning. If bogus PhD holders and fake professors are left to carry out research, would their findings be authoritative? What would happen if they are researching in areas that are deemed to be critical to the nation and society? If they hold teaching positions, what will become of the quality of higher education? These are some of the basic concerns if these people are left to their own devices.

At the end of the day, there should be some way to monitor the ever-increasing number of doctorate holders and those who are appointed professors. I have seen some people using the title "professor" which apparently has been conferred to them, usually by overseas institutions. I wonder if they are really professors in the true sense of the word. Do they even know how to carry out research? Do they even teach at universities? Like PhD, the title "professor" commands a certain recognition, prestige and position in society. They are well-respected for their informed opinions and wisdom. If bogus professors are allowed to run free, then the true value of a professorship is diminished significantly.

Let there be quality, not quantity. Then there will be integrity.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Research integrity - Part 7

Earlier this year, I met my very first boss of my working career, Dr Abdul Razak Abdullah, whom I have not seen in many years. He holds a D.Phil. from Oxford University. We had an interesting discussion covering many things. The discussion started to veer from current issues to my doctorate study. When he inquired about it, I told him that I was finishing up my thesis-writing. He was happy to hear about the progress and went on to make an interesting remark, "Some people who enrolled for PhD did not manage to cross the finishing line. They did all the review, data collection, analysis and writing. But they did not submit the thesis for examination." In other words, people who ran the race but did not cross the finishing line.

Dr Razak's comment got me thinking. I know of people who did three or four years of doctorate studies, but at the end of the day, came off it empty-handed. Some of them are my friends who, during their course of study, faced some unforeseen and unavoidable personal problems that affected their studies. These are usually sponsored scholars who were unable to extend their duration, and hence had to abandon their study after the expiry of the sponsorship. These, to me, are genuine cases. It is a pity that they were not able to finish because of certain difficulties that had befallen them. This is akin to an athlete who is not able to cross the finishing line because of an accident somewhere along the racing track.

Unfortunately, I have also heard of some who did not finish their PhD (for whatever reason) and yet were bold enough to use the doctorate title in front of their names. In the past, there were some similar cases that were highlighted in the media. In another discussion with another former boss of mine, Datuk Dr Abdul Monir Yaacob, I was told that in countries like Egypt, it is normal for PhD candidates to use the title "Dr" as soon as they enrol in a doctorate course, way before they actually finished their studies. This got me thinking, if for some reason, these candidates who are already using the title "Dr" fail to finish, do they still keep their title because people are already used to calling them with that title?

In any case, the norm in Malaysia and most other countries like the UK, USA and Japan, doctorate is conferred only upon fulfilling all the necessary criteria such as submission of thesis, viva voce and other criteria as set forth by the university (which may differ from one university to another). You don't call yourself "Dr" until and unless you receive a letter from the university saying that you have obtained your PhD. It is, without a doubt, unethical on the part of the person who uses the title "Dr" before being officially granted the esteemed academic qualification. To do so would mean to cheapen the value of the doctorate degree and is adds insult to those candidates who really earn the title.

I have no idea how many people out there who go around claiming to have a doctorate without actually properly completing their studies. This is just like athletes who cheat by not running the full course of the race, but instead suddenly appearing after the finishing line as if they had run the full race. None of us really checks if a person is really a "Dr" or otherwise. Most of us take people's claim in good faith.

But really, if these people are men of faith, they would not be claiming to have something that they in reality do not own.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Research integrity - Part 6

Doing a doctorate is never an easy feat. Just ask anyone who has done it or who is doing it. The task requires perseverance, hard work, consistency, diligence, discipline and many other virtues required to carry out a doctoral research. As such, it is a personal achievement to finish a doctorate research and write its thesis. Most people take between three to four years to complete their PhD. These are very meaningful years, full of memories for PhD candidates and serve as useful experience in the coming years, especially to those who continue their career in the academia.

Interestingly, we have also heard of those who undertook so-called online doctorate programmes which are not recognised. They would enrol in these online doctorate courses, pay the fees, write a few essays and the next thing you know, they have their doctorate done. How I wish things can be that easy. What is equally fascinating is that these people have no qualms to use their quickie PhDs before their names. Some of them are quite well-known: Motivators, businessmen, politicians, self-help gurus, artistes, etc.

I have the experience of encountering one of them some years back when I was still attached to IKIM. It was during tea break in one of the seminars that the institution organised. I was introduced to a famous (at that time) motivational speaker who always appeared on television and radio, and had a number of books and novels to his name. He was there as a guest of the programme. Truth be told, I have never heard of him before that. In any case, we sat down for a chat during the break over some kuih and teh tarik. I innocently asked him where he got his doctorate from. He casually replied, "United Kingdom." Hearing that, my interest piqued because I studied there. I then asked, "Really? Which university?" He uttered a university's name (which I can't recall now). In a rather confused voice, I said (again innocently), "Oh? I studied in the UK between 1992 and 1996. I have never heard of that university. Where is it located?" My questions began to rattle him, I guess. His face changed. I could sense he was not comfortable when he answered, "It's not in Britain. It's on one of the smaller islands under UK." Fortunately (for him) and unfortunately (for me), I was not able to dig deeper as a colleague interjected and changed the subject.

I felt suspicious because I have never heard of the university's name (to the extent that it is forgettable). He was also unable to name the island in which the university is supposed to be located on. I may not be an expert on the UK, but at least I would have heard of the name of the university. A couple of years after this interesting encounter, the media highlighted the issue of fake and unrecognised online PhD courses. This motivational speaker's name was one of those who was mentioned (albeit not directly).

I do not think that it is fair that there are those who cut corners by "purchasing" their PhD online. It cheapens the value of the doctorate degree. Genuine candidates have to struggle for years just to get the doctorate. They are exposed to conducting methodically-correct research, think critically, analyse accurately and conclude convincingly. They are trained to put forward hypotheses, test these hypotheses and prove and/or disprove these hypotheses. They have to present papers in international conferences, write academic papers for refereed journals and have to go through the viva voce session before being conferred their PhD. In short, they are being prepared to become true and genuine researchers. Those who "purchase" their PhD degrees are not only unethical and lack integrity, but at the end of the day, they are mainly imitators who may not even know how to formulate research questions, what more come out with a thesis.

These days, the number of PhD holders are growing. This, to me, is a positive sign. However, bogus PhD holders should not be allowed to be counted in this growing group.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Research integrity - Part 5

It usually starts with the smallest of things, and starts rather "innocently" at that.

Remember when you are in the laboratory conducting an experiment, say titration between an acid and a base. You collect the data required until the pH indicator used, for instance, phenolphthalein changes colour. You tabulate the data and try to plot a graph from the data. The theory says that you should get a perfect straight line for the neutralisation process. However, the data you collected does not even give a hint of a straight line.

What should you do, what should you do? You need the straight line in order to get marks for your laboratory assignment. A curve wouldn't do. A zig-zag is definitely out of the question. There is only one thing to do. Adjust the data that you collected so that you will be able to draw the best straight line.

This scenario is perhaps familiar to some of us who have done laboratory work before (in particular during the undergraduate years). Changing the data so that the result would match the theory taught seems to be the best solution. But is it?

Often, researchers forget that an experiment should be repeated in order to get the best results. Experiments are proned to errors either human errors or apparatus errors. [Trivia: It was al-Biruni who suggested that experiments must be repeated to minimise errors]. However, most (especially during the undergraduate years) would opt for the short cut since most know what the result should be anyway. This is in fact a folly made by many. The point of a laboratory experience is to instill patience, perseverence and integrity. If you get it wrong the first time, then repeat and do it again. Of course, many would dismiss the idea by saying that they don't have much time to complete the experiment and that they have other assignments to do.

This small misstep would lead the undergraduate to a path that is paved with decisions that lack integrity. Science is not just about drawing the best straight line. Science is also about treading the perfect straight path of honesty and integrity. Whether researchers and scientists like it or not, integrity and ethical research goes hand-in-hand. This includes data collection, tabulation, analysis and reporting - aspects of research integrity that should never be taken lightly.

Whether one realises its importance or not, integrity must be inculcated from the very first day a person is trained to be a researcher.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Research integrity - Part 4

Earlier this month, Professor Dr A Murad Merican of Universiti Teknologi Petronas wrote an article in Utusan Malaysia entitled "Kegiatan 'boncengan gratis' hakis kesarjanaan dan hikmah universiti". Among other things, he wrote of some academics who become free-riders who put their names on research papers and academic articles while in actuality, they are not really involved in the research.

Free-riding is a phenomenon that should not be encouraged. This sort of thing actually happens anywhere, even outside the academia. Imagine someone doing all the hard work, and suddenly someone else who does not do anything joins in to take the credit. A person with integrity will never take credit for something he/she is not involved in.

Free-riding in the academia can be seen as early as the undergraduate years. I remember one incident pretty well. I taught a compulsory subject for a few semesters. Every semester I would give out group assignments to the students as part of their overall assessment. In one semester, one group came up to me after lecture complaining that one their members did not contribute anything. They actually asked my permission to drop this student's name because they felt that he did not deserve any marks since he did not contribute. I agreed with their request. After all, it was a group assignment. The assignment was meant for each team member to contribute. It would not be fair for someone who did not contribute anything to be rewarded based on the hard work of others.

I have also been told of incidents involving the academia who would chip their names in on journal papers so that they can meet their key performance indicator (KPI). In truth, they did not do much in terms of the actual research for the paper. I remember writing a paper to be presented at an international conference, and I asked my supervisor to be the co-author. She declined, saying that it would not be right for her name to appear on a paper which she did not have any contribution to. If only all academics are like her.

I was also told of academics who took sole credit for papers written by their postgraduate students. This, to me, is uncalled for. This is plagiarism of the highest order. Could it be that in the race towards meeting one's KPI, one is willing to do anything even things which lack integrity? KPI is a measure of performance, but to achieve the KPI, I believe integrity should be upheld and observed. That is why I think that the suggestion of a research integrity officer (which was put forward in Part One) should be implemented. Otherwise, we will have people who will cut corners and be free-riders just for the sake of achieving their personal KPI.

As a concluding remark for this posting, I would like to share a reminder by my former boss, Datuk Dr Syed Ali Tawfik Al-Attas before I left my position at IKIM. He said to me, "Whatever you do, don't let other people take credit for your ideas." Although it has been more than five years ago, his words are still loud and clear.

Free-riders are in essence people who take credit for ideas that are not theirs. Where is the integrity in doing so?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Research integrity - Part 3

Continuing on my ranting on research integrity. This time, focusing on "translation".

I have noticed some researchers (this time, mainly postgraduates) who would refer to a material in one language (for example Arabic or Japanese) and would translate it into English. The way it is done is as if the researcher himself/herself wrote the text without actually indicating and crediting the original source of reference.

There is no problem if one wants to refer to sources in other languages. However, to uphold integrity of the research, the original material should be given due credit. Just because the researcher translates the text, say from Japanese to English, that does not give him/her the right to say that it is his/her original work. We have to remember that plagiarism is the act of presenting other people's work (even in other languages) as our own.

I remember listening to a talk given by Dr Zahazan Mohamed recently. He said that Imam Malik (who lived nearly 13 centuries ago), the author of the renowned kitab, al-Muwatta', had his work copied and imitated by other so-called scholars of his time. Some even used the very name of the kitab without changing it from al-Muwatta' and yet claiming that it was their original work. Imam Malik knew of this but he let it be. The irony is that after all these centuries, people today only refer to the original al-Muwatta' written by Imam Malik. This, according to Dr Zahazan, is due to the fact that Imam Malik wrote the magnum opus with sincerity and integrity. It is these qualities that helped the original al-Muwatta' to stand the test of time.

As such, I believe research work which is copied-and-pasted and translated without giving due credit will never stand the test of time. Sooner or later, people will dismiss such work as lacking originality, or worse still plagiarised work. At the end of the day, people will forget such work.

On the other hand, research work which is done with sincerity, honesty and integrity will stand the test of time, and will continuously be referred to by others.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Research integrity - Part 2

Continuing on what was written in the previous posting, I would like to shift gear a bit by focusing on one of the major problems in research writing. There is a tendency for those who have only started to do research (read: undergraduates) to copy and paste from other people's work. The simplest way is of course with the assistance of the very famous Mr Google. When given a written or a research assignment, many would simply google the keywords, download the related articles, copy and paste parts of the article, and voila the assignment is done. Interestingly enought, most of the copied articles can be found on Wikipedia.

[As a side point which is not really relevant to this posting, is "google" an accepted verb in the English language?]

Anyway, the copy-and-paste article would be handed to the lecturer for grading. The lecturer reads the assignment and notes that there are numerous grammatical and spelling errors in the introduction. Interestingly enough, the next sections and subsections contain perfect English. There is flair, there is substance, as if one is reading from a book written by the expert in the field, complete with references. Then comes the conclusion, which contains too many grammatical and spelling errors, similar to the introduction. When you get to the last part, which is the reference or bibliography, there is not a mention of the references that were used in the body of the article. What is there is just a list of a few books which are not even quoted in the write-up.

Of course, the lecturer would easily suspect that the article has been copied from the Internet. He/she can easily use softwares like Turnitin to verify his/her suspicion. One very simple way is just to pick at random a few sentences and use Google to search. Chances are you can easily get the exact parts that are copied, and more often than not (in the case of undergraduates), the copied articles are from Wikipedia.

The above is something that I believe most lecturers have come across with. I would always penalise those who simply copied and pasted from articles without citing or crediting the original author and publication. I also remind my students not to rely on Wikipedia as an authoritative source of reference. The nature of Wikipedia is such that anyone can contribute, hence the authoritativeness of the article can usually be disputed. The articles in Wikipedia can be used to identify references and points of discussion. In other words, they can be used as a starting point, but not as the only point of reference.

It is critical that undergraduates be aware of the "sin" of the copy-and-paste culture. Usually, research misconduct begins with this very simple act of copy-and-paste. This is the seed of plagiarism. Undergraduates must be made to understand that research integrity should be the priority. Cheating by copy-and-paste to get good grades is an act of a person with no integrity whatsoever.

If this copy-and-paste culture is allowed to be part of an undergraduate's culture, what is there to stop them from committing the same offence when they become postgraduates and members of the academia? In this day and age of the Internet, it is easy to plagiarise. Having said that, it is also equally easy to get caught.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Research integrity - Part 1

This piece of news is not really new. Those in the academia would probably be aware of this development at the esteemed Harvard University. It involves a well-known behavioural psychologist, Professor Marc D. Hauser. He was accused almost a year ago of eight counts of scientific misconduct which Harvard did not really specify. But we do know that this misconduct includes "data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results". While investigation is still on-going, the professor has recently resigned from Harvard.

I chose to highlight this matter because I feel there is a need to instill and adhere to integrity when conducting research. Those in the academia would understand the race to be the best, to conduct novel research and to publish research findings in top-tier research journals of international standing. While this may spur research activities, I sincerely hope that no one would cut corners by committing scientific misconduct, especially when it comes to research methodology, data collection, data analysis and reporting.

I really hope no academics in the country would stoop this low. Perhaps it is a good idea for all universities to have a unit called "Research Integrity Unit" to monitor, educate and prevent scientific misconduct. Most, if not all, well-known universities in developed countries have this unit and a "research integrity officer". I am not sure whether we have this in Malaysia. If there is none, it is high time to establish this crucial office and important position.

However, I know for a fact that most local universities have their research ethics committee to vet, approve/disapprove and monitor research projects involving human subjects. This committee may be at the faculty level or at the university level. I am privileged to sit in Universiti Teknologi MARA's research ethics committee under the Research Management Institute of the university. However, the scope of this committee does not include research that does not involve human subjects. I believe that all research projects should be monitored by the research integrity officer. There should also be a code of conduct for adherence by all researchers.

Oxford University for instance have a code of practice and procedure on academic integrity in research. This can be viewed through this link. Research institutions, aside from universities, like the National Institute of Health in the United States also has their own policy on this matter. From my perspective, these two examples can be viewed as useful and practical guidance for local researchers.

Don't let the race to improve rankings result in this kind of shame.

Monday, August 15, 2011

University sense of humour

A friend posted this on her Facebook page. I thought it is quite hilarious (with a certain amount of truth in it). I thought that I would share it here.

The original source can be found here.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Good things don't (change)

"The only thing constant in life is change."

I think many of us have heard of this phrase many times over. Change is part and parcel of life. We change according to our personal, familial, societal and organisational needs.

Change is also usually (though not always) for the better. This kind of change is similar to the concept of hijrah in Islam. "Make today better than yesterday, and make tomorrow better than today".

Sometimes, however, our eagerness to change result in unexpected outcomes which seem worse than before. If this happens, then we have to persevere to correct the mistake that we have done. Oft-times, "change just for the sake of change" is not advisable. We have to find viable options that are better than what we have before we decide on changing.

While change is a constant, sometimes we feel as if "the more things change, the more things remain the same". This is sometimes a matter of perception. We may see change happening, but we don't actually feel it simply because we are unaffected by the change.

Having said that, I believe that "good things don't change". It is usually the bad ones that got changed.

P.S. As a trivia, the last quote, "Good things don't (change)" is from the cult 1980's series' last episode of MacGyver.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Manners matter

I posted on my Facebook status a true incident involving a teacher in a secondary school who asked one of her students to help out by cleaning the white board. The student refused, instead he answered something to the effect of, "You have hands, you clean the white board yourself".

I think everyone can agree that this student - who is only 13 years old - is downright rude. It is one thing to refuse to help the teacher, but it is another thing altogether when the student replied in such a manner. He may think that he is cool by responding in such a way. At that impressionable age, so-called quick and witty response especially towards a figure of authority is a form of showing off to his peers.

Bottom line though, the boy has no manners.

I hate drawing comparisons to the time when I was in school. But after having listened to the teacher's story, I cannot but help thinking how much things have changed. Back then we did not dare to speak rudely to the teacher. We may not like the teacher, but we would never want to be seen to be kurang ajar.

Things have changed no doubt. These days, it is difficult to discipline a student without the parents crying foul and/or suing the school and the teacher. I remember reading postings from ex-students of my alma mater in Kulim about our former principal, Allahyarham Haji Harun Rejab. Most remember his famous slap-on-the-face as a form of penalty. Sure, no one liked being slapped or being disciplined for that matter. He was not popular among those who played truant, cheated in exams or had any other form of disciplinary problems. But I am touched by what was written by a former student, "Kalau tak kerana penampaq Pak Harun, aku tak jadi orang sekarang", loosely translated as, "If not for Pak Harun's slap, I wouldn't have turned out right today".

Ask any student, I am pretty sure most would remember the name of the principal and the discipline teacher. They play an important role in shaping the student's manners, ethics and character. At the end of the day, however, I still believe it is parents who play the most important role. The old adage, spare the rod and spoil the child, probably has some degree of truth - and wisdom - in it. I was brought up under a strict discipline regime by my father. I am who I am today because of the way my father brought me up, and because of the way my schooling years shaped me.

Even in Islam, emphasis on good character or akhlaq is given due attention. So, it is indeed sad to see today's students (Muslims at that) behaving badly, ignoring the akhlaq as ordained in Islam, tossing aside the rich tradition of good manners of the East and instead prefer to be just plain rude.

The said student got a tongue-lashing from the teacher nonetheless. Whether or not that will change him, only Allah knows. Having said that, I think the best thing that we can do is to pray that this teenage boy will be shown the light and mend his ways.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Spiritual recharge

I trained to fast when I was around six or seven years old. Back then, I could only do half a day instead of a full day. I remember I had a small blackboard that my father bought that was hung in one of the rooms in the house. I would write down how many days I had fast. If that particular day, I managed to fast for half a day, I would write down 1/2. At the end of Ramadan, I would add all the days up. Say, for instance, I succeeded in fasting half a day for every day of Ramadan, I would tell my parents that I had fast for 15 days.

Those were the days. Back then, there was no monetary reward given by my parents for fasting. I fast for the simple reason that it was a religious obligation. Needless to say, I did not fully understand this back then, but I remember understanding that I must fast because Allah commands Muslims to do so.

Since I was 14 until today, alhamdulillah, I have not missed a single day of fasting in the holy month of Ramadan. During my teen years, fasting was looked upon as something that all Muslims must do. I did not really think much of its philosophical and/or spiritual significance. When I started working, I began to understand how fasting teaches one to be sympathetic to the plight of others.

As the years gone by, my understanding and appreciation of Ramadan and fasting have gone up to a different level. While fasting in itself is a physical and emotional endeavour, this year in particular I have started to feel its spiritual importance. The act of fasting feels like a spiritual recharge. When I pray at the masjid, I felt as if I am really standing in Masjid al-Haram in Makkah in front of the Kaabah. When the imam recites the verses of the Holy Quran, I could feel tears on my cheeks.

It could be that I feel all these because I am getting older (and hopefully wiser). I really hope that this wonderful spiritual upliftment can be sustained in the days after Ramadan. This Ramadan is indeed special in that I feel really at peace with myself. For this, I can only utter the word alhamdulillah.