Get me outta here!

Friday, November 12, 2021

Academic Citizenship Post-Pandemic: A Call for Praxis, Fairness, and Quality




Sometime back, I highlighted a bit about perverseincentives, hypercompetition, and hyperprolific authors. My hope at that time was that these practices will not catch on. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. But one can still hope. I wrote the following article recently. It was originally published by IIUM Today and reposted here with permission.


Before 2000, not only do we hear little of perverse incentives in the news; we know almost nothing about hyper-competition and academic capitalism. Now, these phenomena have seen widespread uptake both in academia and universities, including those in this country.

Evidence has been stacking up on questionable or unethical practices, such as plagiarism and self-plagiarism, fabrication of research data, salami-slicing, publication in predatory journals, guest authorships, and falsification of expertise or credentials as a publishing strategy and authorship abuse. Another, more insidious practice includes "gaming the system" by manipulating the peer review process or forming citation cartels to boost ratings.

The days of universities promoting altruism and good academic citizenry are fading away. Like a second skin, these phenomena have imprinted themselves upon the academics’ psyche. After 19 years of service, I do wonder about the strange climate that the universities and academia as a whole have ended up pursuing.
Funding, Ranking, Standing

In 2017, Professor Marc A. Edwards and Dr Siddhartha Roy published a paper warning of the tendency of academic research and universities to create perverse incentives and promote hyper-competition for funding, ranking, and high standing. Since then, more and more experts have written journal articles, policy papers, books, and op-eds on the need to address issues ranging from university rankings, intellectual culture, and academic freedom to academic citizenship, collegiality, and professional values. Concerns raised by these experts are now a reality – the "What ifs" have turned into "Now what".  

So, now what? The great critical dilemma, to which acclaimed luminaries such as Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, Professor Datuk Dr Asma Ismail, and the academic body Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia (GERAK) have rightly directed our attention, has had its long roots in the pressure on universities to generate income and increase their status in global rankings. This, in turn, resulted in brutal competitions and demands for research grants, publications, outputs, industrial commercialisation, and public engagements. Often, all these have to be achieved with dwindling resources and little administrative support. Academics are told what to teach, how to teach, what research to conduct, where to publish, and which route to commercialise, with increasingly high key performance indicators - sometimes with promotion, tenure, and compensation penalties attached.

Unrecognised But Catastrophic

There is a common perception that teaching and research are the sole activities carried out by academics. The reality is that there are a multitude of service duties and responsibilities that academics have, both within and outside the university, beyond the core tasks of teaching and research. Hours are spent conducting consultations for students and parents; supervising postgraduates and researchers; mentoring colleagues; serving on university committees; undertaking leadership, management, and administrative roles within the university; working as an external examiner; and serving on public inquiry committees. Yet, there are still much more to do - peer-reviewing for journals or funding bodies; organising conferences, webinars, or other scholarly activities; participating in professional and academic societies; editing journals and books; bidding for grants and other potential sources of funding; developing links with industries; and ultimately, engaging with local communities and the general public.

Even before the pandemic, this pace was already daunting for many overstretched academics. COVID-19 further added to this where hurried responses to the urgent need for remote teaching and learning had to be done. Such pressure led to declining student mental health over the years. Faculty members do not sleep well too. Academics in the USA, UK, and Australia have reported that COVID-19 triggered emotional exhaustion, anxiety, and fear. Supporting students in mental and emotional distress has also taken a toll on their own mental health. At length, the struggle to meet stringent performance specifications and expectations can irreversibly harm one’s health. Other pitfalls also include work withdrawal behaviours, fatigue, and burnout - certainly not a pattern to be followed by new academics eager to deliver outstanding records for the better of science and society.

Praxis Not Vanity; Quality Not Quantity

In these moments, when doing the right thing hinges on explicit ethical stance, greater coordination and rigour matters. Despite the many systemic and deep-seated problems surrounding universities, I take heart from the new expectations about how academics are appraised now, at least in IIUM. Changes to the Ihsan Indicators (IIs) that take into account fair output assessments, equality, diversity, and sustainability or other society-focused agendas can measure what matters the most. Ultimately, if universities change the policies and performance metrics, everything will be in place again. The culture of collegiality will be restored, and academic citizenship will be acknowledged for advancements.

More crucially, we need to return to depth and quality instead of quantity. This means developing skills for quality teaching, investing enough time to investigate and understand a phenomenon in research, and focusing on substantive, knowledge-generating and thought-provoking publications. Equally important is to avoid placing too much credence on vanity projects and metrics that only promote selfishness and individualism. All these would require trusting academics to exercise their intellectual faculties and professional autonomy.

Concentrating on praxis and quality could better align the university's and academics' expectations for fair and responsible performance metrics. It might also help relevant authorities to wise up to the existing rankings' limitations and to exercise due caution when using them for decision-making. Either would be progress and solutions for all.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Viva voce: Scripting the ends ahead of time

Life has taught me to always plan with the end result in mind. Learning scenario analyses, usability assessments, risk assessments, and various methodology and technical courses in Ergonomics and Psychology further reinforced my impression that this “thinking backwards” approach is valuable and productive, and this is what I always stress to students and researchers alike. A talk by Prof Datuk Dr Asma Ismail and a recent consultation with some ECRs have suggested the need to re-emphasise this approach.

While this approach is best undertaken in the early stages of a project, focusing on and preparing for the end product is especially crucial in the last few miles of a PhD journey. So, if you are at the stage of focused writing, finalising thesis for examination, or preparing for a viva voce (Latin for ‘by live voice'), answering the following questions is the best course of action to begin this process.


  • In one sentence, what is your thesis?
  • What is your thesis about?
  • Explain in your own words what you have done?
  • Why did you undertake a PhD?
  • What have you done that merits a PhD?
  • What is original in your thesis?
  • What's original about your work? What is your original contribution?
  • Summarise your key findings.
  • How would you describe your methodology, and why did you decide to use this?
  • How do your findings relate to the literature?
  • What are the contributions (to knowledge) of your thesis?
  • How did your research questions emerge?
  • What are the motivations for your research? Why is the problem you have tackled worth tackling?
  • Why is the problem you have investigated worth investigating?
  • What is the relevance of your contributions to other researchers?
  • What is the relevance of your contributions to industry?
  • Who are your envisioned users? What use would your work be in situation X?
  • What are the strongest/weakest parts of your work?
  • What have you learned from the process of doing your PhD?
  • What do you consider the weaknesses of your study? (acknowledge the weaknesses but don’t take up too much time here)
  • Has your view of your research topic changed during the course of the research?
  • What have you learned from the process of doing your PhD?
  • Have you achieved your research aims? 
  • What is the contribution of your thesis to scholarly knowledge? 
  • Summarise your key findings 
  • Why did you choose this topic? 
  • Why have you chosen to organise your research into these stages/chapters?
  • Is it possible to draw a general rule from your single observations? 
  • How have you evaluated your work? 
  • How do you know that your findings are correct? 
  • How do your findings relate to the critical literature in this field of studies?
  • What have you done to be awarded a PhD?

 Basic knowledge in areas related to the topic

  • Who are the main stakeholders in this research? In which way will they be able to benefit from the results of your research?
  • What have you done?
  • Why have you done it?
  • How did you do it?
  • What have you found?
  • What are the implications of these?
  • Why did you do the research this way?
  • Why not that way?
  • What do we know now that we did not know before you started your PhD?

Questions about specific aspects (e.g., for topic X)

  • How does your work relate to X?
  • What do you know about the history of this particular aspect of your research?
  • What is the current state of the art in X? (capabilities and limitations of existing systems)
  • What are the recent major developments in this topic?
  • Which are the most important papers concerning this aspect of your research?
  • Why have you tackled this problem in this way?
  • Where do current technologies fail such that you (could) make a contribution?
  • How does/could your work enhance the state of the art in X?
  • Who are the main ‘players' in X? (cluster together papers written by the same people)
  • Who are the competitors or critics in X?
  • Which are the three most important papers in X?
  • What are the recent major developments in X?
  • How do you expect X to progress over the next five years? How long-term is your contribution, given the anticipated future developments in X?

Research question(s)/ theory

  • What was the original problem/research question?
  • In which theoretical frame of reference were you able to place these research questions?
  • How was the research question modified as a result of the literature question?
  • Why was it changed?
  • Specifically, which authors most influenced you thinking about your research question?
  • In what way does your research question seek to establish a new theory, refute an old theory or develop an extension of the old theory?

Method(s) and defending methodology

  • How would you describe your research methodology?
  • Describe your methodological approach.
  • What influenced you to choose this approach to your research?
  • Why did you choose this method to analyse your topic?
  • What other research methods did you give serious consideration to, and why did you reject them?
  • What are the alternatives to your approach?
  • What would you say were the methodology difficulties you experience whilst doing your research, and how did you overcome these challenges?
  • How would you advise your research students on the choice of the research process and methodology?
  • What are the philosophical assumptions underpinning your methodology? E.g., epistemology, positivism, etc.
  • Did you undertake a pilot, and if so, how would you describe its outcome?
  • How did you locate a suitable interview people for the interview?
  • How do you know the people that you used representative? If it is not how do you defend its use?
  • What sort of research protocol did you use?
  • How did you decide when you had enough information to proceed with your analysis?
  • How would you describe the achievements of your fieldwork?
  • What, on reflection, are the limitations, if any, of the approach you used in your fieldwork?
  • Would your approach be as effective for other periods and places?
  • What have you learned by carrying out your PhD?
  • Why have you done it this way? You need to justify your approach - don't assume the examiners share your views.
  • Why didn't you do it the way everyone else does it? This requires having done extensive reading?
  • What are the alternatives to your approach?
  • What do you gain by your approach? 
  • What would you gain by approach X? 
  • Looking back, what might you have done differently? This requires a thoughtful answer while defending what you did at the time.
  • What would you do differently if you were starting now?
  • What would you do differently today if you were to start again?
  • How have you evaluated your work?
  • How have you demonstrated that it works, and how well it performs?
  • How have you demonstrated its usefulness for a specific application context?
  • What do your results mean?
  • How would your system cope with bigger examples? Does it scale up? This is especially important if you have only run your system on `toy' examples, and they think it has `learned its test-data'.
  • How do you know that your algorithm/rules are correct?
  • How could you improve your work?
  • How do your contributions generalise? 
  • To what extent would they generalise to systems other than the one you've worked on? 
  • Under what circumstances would your approach be useable?

Analysis and results

  • What analytical techniques/methods/tools did you use to help you understand the data you collected on your case study?
  • Why did you choose these specific tools?
  • What other tools did you consider, and why did you reject them?
  • How would you describe your thesis?
  • How did you arrive at your final thesis?
  • In what way does it contribute to the theory, methodology, and practice?
  • How do you regard your work from the point of view of the validity and reliability of the findings?
  • What are the important lessons from your research in terms of personal development and from a contribution to X area?

Future dissemination and plans

  • Outline where you think future development of your ideas could lead and how this might be done?
  • What is the area in which you wish to be examined? (particularly difficult and important if your thesis fits into several areas, or has several aspects, or seems to fit into an area of its own as mine does).
  • Which topics overlap with your area?
  • Where will you publish your work - which journals? Think about which journals and conferences your research would best suit.
  • How might the results of this research be converted into a practical application or outcome?
  • What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of your research?
  • What questions have you discovered in your research that still need to be explored by further work?
  • Where might this research go from here?
  • Do you have any plans for publication?
  • Which aspects of your thesis are worth publishing?
  • Where will you publish your work?
  • What is the relevance of your contribution to other researchers?
  • How do you expect the research in your field to progress over the next few years?
  • Where do you think your research will move in the future?
  • What have you learned from undertaking this study?
  • What are the wider applications of your findings – empirically and theoretically?
  • What now?
  • What is the best advice or recommendation can you give to the future candidate related to this topic?
  • Can you now consider yourself as an expert in this field? Why?
  • Why do you think that your thesis has achieved the PhD /Master standard / level?

Sources for these questions

Other relevant / important resources:

Final note

There are considerably more resources available now, so this list is really just a selection (just google viva PhD examination or its variations for more). Also, this list is only a guide and by no way comprehensive, so do not take these questions literally. Each viva, topic, field, and examiners are unique, and examiners may ask differently. What's usually the areas of concern are (i) research problems or issues and their rationale, (ii) research questions, (iii) justifications for methods undertaken, and (iv) significance and contributions of the study. Either way, preparation and practice will help decrease anxiety and give us an idea of what to expect. It is best to overprepare rather than to appear complacent. So, prepare, prepare, and prepare. Then, practice, practice, and practice again.