Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The graduate student squeeze

I am told the recent research fraud allegations flying around the Singapore biomedical research environment have produced some rather grim ashened faces. I don't blame them. The uncertainty about how the die will fall can be somewhat unsettling even if you are innocent.

It is likely however that the investigations will point to the guy (or gal) who occupies the lowest position of the food chain (usually the graduate student). This does not necessarily indicate some high level conspiracy, and merely point to the reality that he/she is the one who is in the position to generate the raw data and to output the findings. Often the supervisor is really unable to verify every bit of data generated as gospel truth.

In such situations people often overlook the weaknesses in the environment leading to the wrong doing. I am not trying to justify any wrong doing here.... but merely pointing out that a dysfunctional environment can predispose and even encourage such malpractices.

The graduate student does not have an easy lot in Singapore. Cost of living is high. And even though scholarships are quite generous, the tenure of of the scholarship is strictly limited to 3 .5 years with almost zero chance of extension. Students are well aware that at the end of this time, they are pretty much out on their own. And if they cannot get a job and convert perhaps to a part-time studentship, they are out of the programme. Which means really research and development for graduate students in Singapore is really about the predictable production of data for publication in high impact journals. It is really all about D rather than R&D. The problem is compounded by the reality that the support for graduate student research is funded through research grants, whose granting agencies also impose a very high expection on the promise of a translated product, as well as very tight constraints of the tenure of the grant. The flow of money is switched off as soon as the clock strikes twelve.

Under such conditions the students know that if they do not produce results before midnight, the golden carriage they ride in will be turned into a pumpkin and they will revert to being field mice.

Contrary to expectations, graduate students generally do not have any say in the shaping of their projects. How can they when the project is regulated so tightly by the terms of the research proposal designed by their supervisor even before they have been accepted as students. And since their supervisors had to inflate expectations in order to win grants, they are left in the unenviable position of having to meet unrealistic expectations in generating publishable results in high impact journals in the shortest possible time, even though the hypothesis may be flawed.

Under such conditions, one can understand if the student is tempted to 'generate' the results that their supervisors expect to see.

Plagiarism? It is easy to see how this often happens. The graduate students from other Asian countries do not often have the language skills to write their reports/theses. This is especially so for the introduction and discussion sections. It is very tempting to snip and paste from a source that has explained so well the concept you want to present. I am not refering to the student misrepresenting that new knowledge or ideas originate from him/her, but just that he/she repeats chunks that are already in the public domain, unfortunately without citation.

I don't think that the situation here in Singapore is very different from many other high performance univeristies. But I do think that it is quite a bit more exaggerated because of the impatience in the system to compete and achieve blobal recognition almost at all costs.

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