‘Buy papers or lose your job’: the dilemma facing Thai academics

Linking salary rises to publication record has fuelled research ethics violations, with early career academics struggling the most

March 18, 2023
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Pressure from universities on individuals to publish research papers or potentially fall off the career ladder has pushed Thai academics to extremes, causing an acute “research shopping” crisis in the country, scholars have claimed.

Although publication pressure is not unique to Thailand, scholars said it has recently reached new heights in the country, with cases of academics suspected of paying for papers to pass off as their work drawing media attention and scrutiny from the Education Ministry.

An investigation in February found that 33 academics at eight institutions had violated publishing and research ethics, national news reported. At the Prince of Songkla University alone, 12 academics were suspected of violations, according to media coverage.

Researchers believe that these incidents represent just the tip of the iceberg. The problem has skyrocketed in recent years, with particularly egregious cases of researchers who had been publishing a couple of papers a year suddenly expanding their output to 50 to 100 papers annually, said David Harding, an associate professor of chemistry at Suranaree University of Technology.

“Universities also invariably provide little to no start-up money [for research], and of course, faced with losing your job, you might be tempted into doing something stupid,” he said.

Even as Thailand’s research output has “increased markedly” in the past decade, more than doubling from 12,400 articles in 2012 to 27,500 in 2022, funding for research has grown little, leaving researchers “struggling to get the money” their work requires, Dr Harding noted.

Pinkaew Laungaramsri, an associate professor in sociology at Chiang Mai University, agreed.

Publish or perish has become the only means for survival among academics in Thai universities as everything has been tied up to publishing in Scopus-indexed journals, including salary raise,” she said. “This crazy system has backfired…as it has also opened room for scams.”

Some universities have exacerbated the problem by requiring all new academic staff – and even some postgraduate students – to publish in Scopus journals, said Pandit Chanrochanakit, deputy dean for research and a professor in the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University (Chula).

“We have been underpaid, overloaded with extra missions and put under heavy pressure to achieve our goals as a professional academic in very risky conditions,” he said, adding that there had been “political polarisation in the academic realm”.

Dr Chanrochanakit said that “what destroys the system” is the monetary reward for publication that researchers receive, typically amounting to between Bt25,000 and Bt250,000 (£600 and £6,000).

The incentives are intended to boost institutions’ visibility in international journals, but ultimately, he said, they feed predatory journals, creating an environment in which such unethical operations can thrive, which leads researchers to shop around for papers they can pass off.

“These measurements totally destroy moral and ethical practices in every discipline,” Dr Chanrochanakit said.

Viengrat Nethipo, also in the political sciences department at Chula, said “research shopping” often involved networks of academics across the region. She said she was aware of one that included faculty members in Thailand as well as their peers at institutions in other Asian countries.

“The majority were from China and Vietnam, with over a hundred from Thailand. They took turns acting as authors, reviewers and editors – without actually writing, reviewing or editing – in order to ensure that all of the papers in their networks were published and cited,” she said.

In many cases, administrators are aware of the issue, Dr Nethipo said, but she was pessimistic that the problem would be resolved soon.

“Like many other problems in Thailand, such as prostitution, drugs and human trafficking, they have no intention of solving the problem because those in power benefit from it.”


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Reader's comments (1)

Thai researchers joining authorship selling were only 33 people in the public news. They may increase to 100-200 researchers who ever brought the authorship. But the number of authors from Thailand is more than 100,000 people (data from SciVal 2017-2022)—approximately 0.1-0.2% of the participating researchers in this problem. And the publication reward in many Thai universities is less than APC for Q1 open-access journals. However, authorship selling, research support/funding and academic staff workload are very important problems. Therefore, research shopping or authorship selling has been widely discussed since January 2023.