Sunday, 19 July 2009

academic matters

Idly browsing the web (as usual), I came across Academic Matters, the open access Canadian magazine. The latest (May 2009) issue is devoted to Ethics in the Academy. Incidentally, this enjoyable article by Sergio Sismondo deals with issue of ghosts in some detail.
Academic authors are well versed in the art of multiplying papers and, also, with complaining about it. However, in the pharmaceutical industry each publication is part of a marketing campaign and has an expected return. The professionalization and commercialization of publishing makes a science out of the multiplication of papers.
Key opinion leaders (KOLs) <...> are well-known specialists who “can influence other physicians.” In practice, the term is applied to a specialist with existing relations to the industry, not simply to a prominent expert. Publication planners make KOLs their authors on articles and their speakers at conferences and other events. Actually, in the process they make KOLs themselves, by making some specialists more prominent as experts.
For as long as there has been academic publishing, some authors have found it convenient to copy work of others, and some authors have taken credit for work done by their students and juniors. For the most part, concern about plagiarism is about fairness, as some people’s work is exploited while other people gain unearned credit. The pharmaceutical industry, always an innovator, has developed a different form of plagiarism, involving only willing participants. Moreover, it has created new reasons for concern: the hiding of interests that drive research and publication and the possible harm to patients that this may create.
Is there anything that can be done? Yes, but the measures that Sismondo suggests in conclusion are highly unlikely to succeed out of goodwill alone, for both academia and pharma industry don’t want to lose financially.
Medical schools should punish plagiarists severely, for the usual reasons plus the fact that plagiarists put patients’ health at increased risk. They should also stop valuing pharmaceutical company sponsorship of research. Medical journals should require authors to describe in detail their contributions to articles and should scrutinize those descriptions. They should stop dealing with publication planners or anybody other than authors. They should also stop pandering to the industry for important manuscripts. More controversially, they should stop publishing sponsored research altogether: the 10 or so most important medical journals have such a lock on prestige that together they could step away from the pharmaceutical industry and show off their clean hands. Finally, governments should sequester drug research and marketing.

If you are still unsure whether open access is right thing, check out this Web Exclusive Article by Leslie Chan.
Citation has gradually became the primary scholarly currency, conferring authority and prestige in the academy, which in turn translates into tangible benefits such as career advancement, reputation, and grant funding. Broad dissemination of research results and points of view also serves the public good, which is a central mission of our public universities.
University administrations facing continual budget hardship and funding shortfalls, made worse by the global financial meltdown of 2008, are likely to dismiss Open Access and the suggested actions as a distraction rather than a priority. This would be a big mistake and a missed opportunity. If universities do not act while they still can, they will find themselves once again at the mercy of private entities, this time it may be Google, and their roles and relevance in society will be increasingly diluted.
Chan dispels the popular myths such as poor quality of Open Access journals or that majority of Open Access publishers are charging author fees. But he warns that
for Open Access to be widely adopted across the academy, institutional inertia, cognitive conservatism, and the culture of risk-aversion promoted by the academic reward system needs to be addressed. This may prove to be the biggest challenge to Open Access if university administrations remain largely silent, as they have been, on the question of Open Access.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

guests, ghosts, gofers

Thanks to this paper by Peter R. Mason from Zimbabwe, I got acquainted with an interesting classification of the authorship of (scientific) papers.
Guest authors are those “important” persons who insist that their names appear on the papers of their juniors, even when they have made minimum contribution to the research. Ghost authors are those who make a significant contribution to the writing of a paper, but their names do not appear as an author on the publication. This is often a situation found in clinical trials sponsored by pharmaceutical companies. A “gofer” is a name given to someone who is regarded as very junior and so is sent to “go for” something and bring it back to the more important members of a team.
Ostensibly, the article deals with the situation in developing world; in fact it talks about the universal problem. Check the recommendations of International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICJME):
Acquisition of funding, collection of data, or general supervision of the research group alone does not constitute authorship.
Mason quotes this passage and says:
Many instances of authorship from the developing world may not be compatible with these criteria.
As if in the “developed” world the situation is different. Show me a researcher who was never bullied into accepting uninvited co-authors. It looks like the only way to ensure that you don’t have guests/ghosts/gophers is to write and publish alone. Even three co-authors (which IMHO is an optimal number for scientific paper-writing) may be one or two too much.

In his essay The demise of the lone author, Mott Greene wrote:
The appreciation of Lotka’s law has allowed the continuation, in a world of clearly shared credit and hazily specified responsibility, of citation counting as the principal means of establishing scientific prominence and reputation. No matter how many co-authors you have, the more times your name appears on a scientific publication, the more productive you are assumed to be, and the more worthy of support.
At least, current system of scientific funding favours “more authors, more publications” scenario. (Greene says that Lotka’s law may be not applicable to those mass grave papers with 100+ co-authors. I don’t think it changes much: in his original paper, Lotka himself only counted the primary authors.) Commenting on Greene’s paper and follow-up by Kevin Hallock, Writedit suggests that if the ICMJE authorship rules were strictly enforced, there will be a lot more lone authors in scientific literature, which could be not a bad thing — except
perhaps that would be interpreted as not being collegial or collaborative rather than as being independent and tenacious.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

how many scientists fabricate and falsify research?

Well, this illuminating study by Daniele Fanelli suggests that quite a few (without giving us any exact numbers of course). It all depends on how you formulate your question. For instance,
scientists were less likely to reply affirmatively to questions using the words “fabrication” and “falsification” rather than “alteration” or “modification”. Moreover, three surveys found that scientists admitted more frequently to have “modified” or “altered” research to “improve the outcome” than to have reported results they “knew to be untrue”.
That does not surprise me at all, but it’s good to have something like that published in peer-reviewed journal. Speaking of peers,
The grey area between licit, questionable, and fraudulent practices is fertile ground for the “Mohammed Ali effect”, in which people perceive themselves as more honest than their peers.
The decrease in admission rates observed over the years in self-reports but not in non-self-reports could be explained by a combination of the Mohammed Ali effect and social expectations. The level and quality of research and training in scientific integrity has expanded in the last decades, raising awareness among scientists and the public. However, there is little evidence that researchers trained in recognizing and dealing with scientific misconduct have a lower propensity to commit it. Therefore, these trends might suggest that scientists are no less likely to commit misconduct or to report what they see their colleagues doing, but have become less likely to admit it for themselves.
And now, from the past to the future (misconduct):
There seems to be a large discrepancy between what researchers are willing to do and what they admit in a survey. In a sample of postdoctoral fellows at the University of California San Francisco, USA, only 3.4% said they had modified data in the past, but 17% said they were “willing to select or omit data to improve their results”. Among research trainees in biomedical sciences at the University of California San Diego, 4.9% said they had modified research results in the past, but 81% were “willing to select, omit or fabricate data to win a grant or publish a paper”.
Now, really difficult question. Are San Diego guys more fraudulent than their San Francisco colleagues? Or more honest because thay admit being more dishonest?

Monday, 6 July 2009

we are all Iranians

Sometimes (and quite often) I wonder whether the “international scientific community” can do anything useful at all. Useful and noble. The recent editorial in Nature suggest that it can, actually that it has to.
The international scientific community has been laggard and passive in responding to the current situation <in Iran>. But Iranian scientists say that the solidarity of the international academic and scientific community is needed now more than ever.
Research bodies and universities — and perhaps a few Nobel laureates — need to speak out louder. They should encourage, rather than discourage, collaboration, and replace past discrimination by welcoming Iranian researchers and students.
Iran is not the only country in the region where human rights and democracy are violated; and the West has hypocritically been relatively silent on similar abuses by several of its allies in the Middle East. But in Iran at least, the country’s long traditions of democracy, education and free thinking — suppressed for decades by the regime, and in particular the current hard-line leadership — are now out in the open.