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.

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