It will come as no surprise to those following scientific news that Iran has one of the fastest growing scientific productivity levels in the world. Iranian media is fond of reporting that Iran ranks the highest in science output among Islamic countries and the region, and reports outline how Iranian scientific production has grown 11 times faster than the world average. According to the Web of Science database, “the growth in the Middle East — mostly in Turkey and Iran— is nearly four times faster than the world average.” Iran ranks seventh in nano technology, having started research in this field at least three decades ago. And, according to Mehr News, the country ranks 17th in medicine , and also performs well in all areas of engineering.

“The US, China, Britain, Germany, Japan, India, France, Italy, Canada, Spain, Australia, South Korea, Brazil, Netherlands and Iran are the world’s top 15 in science production in 2014, respectively” says Jaafar Mehrdad, Head of the Islamic World Science Citation Center, based in Iran.

But what does “scientific output” actually mean and how can it be measured?

Science output or production is the number of scientific papers published in national and international journals recognized by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). ISI is part of the Intellectual Property and Science division of global academic and news publisher Thomson Reuters.

ISI covers thousands of academic and scientific journals and has a wide range of databases in various science disciplines, all of which are designed to increase the impact of a published paper and research by giving them more visibility. This also allows a researcher to identify the articles that have been cited most frequently, and who has cited them. The number of citations indicates the reliability of the paper.

Does Iran’s Scientific Community Adopt Doping Tactics to get Ahead?

The Iranian government announced a 20-year Vision Plan of The Islamic Republic of Iran in 2005, outlining plans for the country to lead the way with regard to scientific output among Southwest Asian countries. Since it announced the initiative, the government has adopted a range of policies to ensure the country reaches its goal by 2025.

Since journals in the ISI only publish papers in English, Iran launched the Islamic World Science Citation Center to cover Arabic and Persian papers to increase figures regarding the country’s output. In this way, the government adopted a sort of “doping” tactic to ensure success.

Another key policy, which was set up during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government (2005-2013), was the practice of increasing the number of scientific papers (science output) in the country by pushing university teachers and students to publish papers in ISI journals.

For university educators, promotions, salary raises and research opportunities are all based on the number of papers they publish in ISI journals. Those taking decisions about candidates for PhD courses, scholarships or academic faculty appointments also rely on these published papers. Educators and students know the route to a successful academic career is primarily through publishing higher numbers of papers in journals.

As a result, a number of illegal businesses have cropped up to meet this demand for success. Many provide ISI papers for purchase. The businesses — mostly made up of alumni from Iranian universities — advertise their services on Enghelab Street, in front of Tehran’s most influential university. The street has become known for being a center for academic services.

Through phone conversations with some of these businesses, pretending to be a client, I discovered that they cover a majority of majors, including computer science, engineering, humanities and social science. They claimed to have a special group for medicine majors too.

According to an unnamed source from Iran’s Science and Technology Ministry, “many Iranian scientific papers are produced in underground businesses on Enghelab Street. Teachers and students are willing to pay these groups for their services, because they are under of a lot of pressure to get a promotion or to continue their education.” He said that many of the companies offering these services have “a connection with journals that aren’t very reliable. They can publish papers in those journals by paying money. Usually the fees fluctuate between 1,500,000 tomans to 4 million tomans ($532 to 1,418).

“There are several unreliable journals that claim they belong to the ISI and get money in dollars from university teachers to publish their papers,” says Masud, a teacher at Tehran University.

And, in some instances, cheating goes beyond simply purchasing papers. “My masters dissertation supervisor forced me to put his name on my paper,” says Fatemeh, an Iranian PhD student. “He threatened me, so I did it.”

These efforts have helped Iran to jump from 34th place in science production worldwide in 2005 to 16th place. Although Iran’s rank has increased dramatically, reports reveal that the number of papers cited has not; many articles are published but never cited from. In other words, science production in Iran has increased, but the quality of papers is in decline

Recently, the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, raised concerns about publishing and the ISI.

At a meeting with Iranian university heads, he said it was important that academics’ research “solved internal problems and issues,” adding that “teachers at universities should not just think about publishing papers in the ISI and getting their bonuses.”

It is clear that, when it comes to scientific productivity and publishing in Iran, a change of mindset is required. Yes, it is important to emphasize innovation and increased output. But academics and the wider scientific community should not only rely on the quantity of scientific papers. These figures do not give an accurate reflection of the country’s improvement and development. Moreover, applying pressure on academics to excel could be interpreted as an invitation to cheat. And, with a market for “achieving” scientific success through illegal means already in place, many scientists may find the temptation too difficult to resist. These tactics for success do not lead to a healthy academic environment, and they will not, ultimately, lead to a scientific output that will benefit the country. This article has been published on IranWire.