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Cutthroat Competition: Ethical Issues in Arab Academia

posted on: Mar 15, 2021


By: Grace Friar/ Arab America Contributing Writer 

Scientists and researchers in the Arab world have been facing barriers to research within their own communities. What exactly have they been facing? Arab nations have long prided themselves with the contribution of algebra, the alphabet, astronomy, and many other important world-changing technologies, but have been focused on the oil industry for the last 70 years. In recent years, Arab countries have started to re-shift their focus onto research and development, but the full potential has not been realized as a poor academic culture has yet to change.

Despite new universities, increased funding for research and higher education increased student numbers, and more activity in research, R&D is still behind due to complex and multi-factorial issues like limited and institutionalized investments, extreme competition for private investments, and very little GDP investment on research

Scientists and scholars each have a responsibility to be ethically and professionally honest in their production, interpretation, and communication of information. Any commonplace knowledge society has come from the reporting of a scientist or scholar, which stresses the importance of accuracy and integrity if a well-educated society is to ever exist. The academic culture of Arab nations remains conflict-oriented in both the internal structure and the culture itself. The structure lacks organized education, ethical guidelines, proper training and leadership, and overall funding.

The “market of prestige” and the misleading idea of “excellence” shifts the focus of many scientists and policymakers, especially in the Arab world. The subjective values of excellence and prestige create an “at all costs” attitude that often comes at the expense of ethical principles. These ethical issues range from poor communication ethics to misconduct in research or medical practice. These issues stem from poor ethical guidelines, lack of funding, and the practice of “wasta.”

It is argued that ethical guidelines can be superficial and can be broken with, or without intention. In countries with strict guidelines, researchers can accidentally break code if they are never taught or do not fully understand the complexity of what constitutes intellectual theft, plagiarism, and misconduct in that set of guidelines. Within the Arab world, these same acts of plagiarism and intellectual theft are seen, but merely due to a lack of professional guidelines.

Despite obvious defects of citation practices, some Arab institutions spend a lot of money to lure “highly cited authors” or to affiliate their published papers with institutions abroad to appear with more “prestige” or “excellence” in biased ranking systems, like the Shanghai ranking. It is, however, not a question of citations but the utility of manuscripts in real life to bring concrete solutions to health, technical, or environmental challenges. Nonetheless, this issue (the focus on prestige and citation) is not specific to the Arab world but a global issue that needs more attention.

Many researchers face an inability to produce work as funding is incredibly difficult to find. In recent years, Arab countries only allocated between 0.03 percent and 0.73 percent of their GDP to R&D — compared to EU countries at 1.98 percent, or Japan at 3.39 percent. As of 2018, the largest allocations of GDP are UAE (1.30), Saudi Arabia (.82), and Egypt (.72).


Cutthroat Competition: Ethical Issues in Arab Academia
Percentage of GDP Spending on R&D

Many researchers feel the lack of GDP spending and face a complex web of other issues. Many researchers would prefer to emigrate from the country they are currently working in due to issues in addition to poor funding. In a survey of 650 researchers in Arab countries, nearly half responded saying that they had no reliable internet source at home. Another difficulty for researchers lies in getting institutional and government permission to do research and nearly 71% of those surveyed found difficulty in traveling to attend international conferences and work with international collaborators.

Barriers to research caused by institutions are often made worse by long procedures with bureaucracy to obtain funding or approval, and private investments are even harder to come by as they are often superficial and based on relationships. Enter the problem of “wasta” or “wasata”: the practice of using influence to gain favors or advantages that are usually not easily attainable.  Examples include university admissions, employment, privileged hospital services, or gaining exclusive business licenses for the import/export of valued goods without any competitors. This phenomenon and is observed all over the world and is typically outlawed, but not unavoidable.

Cutthroat Competition: Ethical Issues in Arab Academia
Wasta is the practice of using influence to gain favors or advantages that are usually not easily attainable.

Most of these issues are intertwined with similar causes and effects but can ultimately be chalked up to an underdeveloped academic culture that presents itself through social, economic, and political conflict. Inadequate funding leads to researchers leaving to work in other countries or obtaining funds through the practice of “wasta.” Researchers want to live up to policymakers’ ideals of greatness and prestige, but it often results in a destructive “at all costs” attitude that can overlook ethical guidelines. The Arab world is more than capable of establishing a healthy GDP expenditure on R&D and fostering a thriving research environment, but changes must first be made to policy and attitude alike.


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