Dr. Nguyen Duc An
A few years ago, on the occasion of my trip back to Vietnam, I was invited to visit by University X to discuss opportunities for cooperation. They took me to tour the university’s facilities and visit specialized facilities, see student products, meet many responsible people from the rector board to the deans of the faculties, the lecturers, and the lab staff.
But on the way back, I felt very sad. Sadness followed me and arose in the past few weeks when the domestic press and social networks were buzzing about “buying and selling” scientific works.
That day, they proposed me two basic forms of “cooperation.” In one, my name is on the basic team for them to do specialized opening procedures. No need for me to do anything, just stand in my name (because I have the required academic status according to the regulations of the Ministry of Education and Training – MOET), and I will receive a decent salary every month. If I can arrange the time, I can involve in teaching, but not necessarily.
Two, they asked me to support the university’s science, by signing me under the name of X school in my works around the world. In return, they will pay each article a pretty high amount, which is specified in an economic contract (depending on the rank of the journal posting, the order of the author’s name …).
A few weeks later, after a series of emails discussing but it didn’t seem to get anywhere because the two sides understood the concept of “cooperation” differently, I had to write a letter to clarify. That I will not be named in any of the works I do here under the name X. That I will only be on the team if I am truly engaged in teaching, not to give them enough prominence. The reason, I also tell them, is that it is not in line with the principles and professional standards that I want to preserve for myself.
Telling the story above is not to criticize any single unit. X is not the first place where I refuse these things: there were several universities in China and Vietnam that asked me to do the same to receive large sums of money.
A series of investigations in the Thanh Nien newspaper in mid-August showed that this was an entire industry, serving a lucrative market between many domestic and foreign individuals and organizations. The series – despite a few small, misleading technical flaws – shows that buying a scientific reputation takes many forms. In addition to the schools that pay to enjoy the reputation of international works (and to improve their ranking), there are many individuals who hire to write dissertations to get degrees, buy articles in bad science journals in a bid to get being qualified for promotion to a professor or associate professor.
Many times I brought this story to confide in my colleagues in the country, I received shakes, annoyed but resigned. Perhaps because it was so popular, when recommending the above “collaborations” to me, the X school friends were very natural, like nothing to fret about. It seems an out of the ordinary is being normalized.
Over the past few days, following the controversy surrounding this, I see many arguments in favor of “buying and selling.” They said it is through the hard work of spending heavily on these things that some young universities (“buyers“) overcome and put pressure on older universities to promote more research. Secondly, it would help scientists (“sellers“) to have a living income before dedicating themselves to science. And third, it will help Vietnam appear a little bit in world scientific literature. That it wouldn’t violate the law.
These arguments, in my opinion, ignore two radical aspects of the problem.
First, science cannot develop on the mindset of “living in tense” and running after the ephemeral before the eyes. When I turned down the X school, I said I really want to help the school, but if I do what they want, I won’t help them develop sustainably. Before that, I suggested that they set up a core group of lecturers, every year I would arrange to go home, maybe even invite other colleagues to come home to teach students, help them draft the teaching programs, guide research skills as well as work with them on topics for international publication.
Doing so will work both ways – I satisfy my desire to bring experience and knowledge to share with colleagues and students, contribute to the country’s academic background, and the school to get a team of skills, in a long term, they can self-research and produce international scientific articles. But these real things seem far from the goals as they just want to immediately reap from “cooperation” with me.
Did they ever think that their lustrous appearance could not long hide the inner emptiness? The castle on the sand is as magnificent as it is time to fall.
Second, this is a moral story, with many social implications. It is impossible not to “shiver” when the above acts take place in an elite class, having a profound effect on the country’s future and national destiny. The buyer is also bad, the seller is not better. Where is integrity? Where is the scientific self-esteem? Where the spirit of learning? Where is perseverance exploring the world? Where is the desire and humility before knowledge?
Without those foundational pillars, there will never be a solid science – and, more broadly, a level of development – that is dignified and sustainable. Imagine that these professors and doctors who follow this path of buying and selling will become experts, advisors, and scientific leaders at schools and outside society, where will the country go to? What if society unfortunately put its trust and invested in famous universities thanks to international projects not made by them?
I must say right away that I still meet in the country a lot of talented and successful scientists on the above moral pillars. But bad news spread faster than good news. Just a few cases like the above are enough for many people to pay taxes to support science, many parents pay money for their children to go to school and especially students think negatively about the world of people who are leading research and spread knowledge in the lecture halls.
In other words, if the Vietnamese academic community does not join hands to turn the above problems into unusual things, they will be easily questioned, shunned, and looked down upon by society. And when science is no longer respected by society, science loses its legitimacy. Science will no longer be science.
Dr. Nguyen Duc An, formerly a journalist in Ho Chi Minh City, is currently an associate professor of journalism and media at Bournemouth University, UK.