Recently read… (20 – 26 January)

A collection of articles, posts and stories that caught my attention in the past week:

The Reading Room at the British Museum
© ceridwen | CC BY-SA | Source:

University life getting uglier

Since the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees, there appears to have been a marked increase in the numbers of students who raise grievances with the assessment of their work, and more.  In this article in Times Higher Education, this trend is associated with the “consumerist nature of universities”, as well as ploys by students aiming to settle outstanding fees. Ms Stephenson, a former course director and university secretary at London South Bank University, is quoted as saying that:

Complaints about library opening hours, alleged favouritism by lecturers, “inappropriate behaviour” and “incorrect marks” were just some of the reasons she had encountered for students not paying their fees […] Ad hoc extensions to essay deadlines were unwise and could prove “costly” as universities were open to challenge from other students, Ms Stephenson said. “Academics are no longer able to have informal conversations [with students] in corridors [about work] – you need to schedule meetings and make file notes,” she said.

Researchers duped by teenagers

The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, also known as Add Health, is a widely cited study of the biological, behavioural and social development of young people in the USA that has been going on since the mid-90s. However, there is reason to think that some of its more striking findings may be, not to put too fine a point to it, farcical. Taken at face value, the findings suggest that the prevalence of homosexual or bisexual orientations plummets as high-schoolers transition into adulthood. While there may be valid reasons for such a demographic change, this article suggests that many adolescent respondents “might have found humor in pretending to be gay or bisexual”. In the same article, we read that:

“We should have known something was amiss,” Savin-Williams [Director of Cornell U.’s Sex and Gender Lab] says. “One clue was that most of the kids who first claimed to have artificial limbs miraculously regrew arms and legs when researchers came back to interview them.”

Heavy-handed retraction?

Other researchers seem to take a harder stance against shenanigans: According to a post in Retraction Watch, a paper was retracted for a single failure to cite a source. Given the prevalence of scientific misconduct, I would certainly not want to create the impression that I condone plagiarism, but in this case, the editors’ decision appears to have been somewhat extreme. Apparently, the author cited the paper in question several times elsewhere in her article, but neglected to do so in the discussion of her conclusions. Under the circumstances, perhaps a correction would have been a more appropriate course of action, but the author claims that:

As I have only published once before and never encountered this, I did not give any additional comment. I was too shocked and hurt and afraid I would only make the situation worse. Also, since the decision was already made and I was never offered an opportunity to fix my error, I did not ask.

You don’t quite get it…

Heavy-handed editors and litigious students are probably not the worst the Academe has to offer. Here’s an article, penned (one presumes) by an adjunct lecturer, who has decided that, since they are not getting tenure, tenure cannot be important. Call me an ideologue, but I see tenure as a fundamental requirement for academic freedom, and the ability to make a stand against mainstream thinking without fear of repercussion is why we have universities on the first place. With academic freedom increasingly under threat by administrators and politicians (here’s a blatant example), it is rather surprising to see that anyone related to the academic world would ask questions such as this:

The 70 percent of professors who are currently employed in contingent positions wouldn’t even notice if tenure were wiped out tomorrow. So why should its preservation be Priority #1 in academic labor discussions?

Princeton enrolment falling to zero, study finds

Chances are that you will have already read about a recent study by two Princeton researchers, which uses an epidemiological model to predict that 80% Facebook users will abandon the social network by 2017. Reaction to this (unpublished) study has been swift, detailed and to-the-point. One of the most responses came from a group of Facebook data analysts, who use the methods reported in the paper to predict that Princeton is “in danger of disappearing entirely”:

We found a strong correlation between the undergraduate enrollment of an institution and its Google Trends index [graph] Sadly, this spells bad news for this Princeton entity, whose Google Trends search scores have been declining for the last several years. [graph] This trend suggests that Princeton will have only half its current enrollment by 2018, and by 2021 it will have no students at all.

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