Recently read (10 – 16 March)

This week’s collection of noteworthy articles reports on the Obama administration efforts to curb student debt; offers a reminder that ‘visionary’ is not always an accolade; invites comparisons between failing higher education systems and our own academic culture; draws attention to underhand practices used to censor criticism; and presents ground-breaking research involving chicken.

The Reading Room at the British Museum
© ceridwen | CC BY-SA | Source: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/433966

Gainful employment

Earlier this week, the Obama administration released the ‘gainful employment’ rule they hope to put into effect. The proposed regulation sets strict standards on federal financial support for vocational training. It is estimated that between 16% and 24% of currently covered programmes would be affected, as they seem to generate unacceptable student debt without significantly improving their graduates career prospects. This would certainly include most for-profit institutes, and many community colleges. Inside Higher Ed provides good coverage of the story:

“Widespread evidence of waste, fraud and abuse” among for-profits prompted the Obama administration to begin its multiyear negotiation with higher education over gainful employment, [education secretary Arne] Duncan said. “Too many of these programs fail to provide students with the training they need.”

More to read: The Chronicle provides some more information on the proposed regulation, in a helpful Q&A format. For insights into the reactions by for-profit higher ed providers, you may want to read a letter by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities.

On being branded ‘visionary’

In the UK, concern is being expressed over the way some universities have expanded overseas. In a recently released briefing document, the University and College Union recently described the University of Central Lancashire’s five international campuses as “an empire built on sand”.  The University of East London also suffered a major setback after its Cyprus campus failed to attract more than 17 students.

According to this story in Times Higher Education, in some cases at least, global strategies have been ‘visionary’, a term which readers versed in UK culture will recognise as a euphemism for ‘not sufficiently grounded on evidence’. Mark Jeynes, head of the education practice at the strategy consultants OC&C, is quoted as claiming that:

“A number of the institutions we spoke to acknowledged that they had been opportunistic in their pursuit of an international strategy […] It was quite apparent when we were talking to leadership teams that in many cases there were very few people with what I would call a professional and commercial background.”

Elsewhere in the world

A story about higher education in Kossovo might seem as an unusual topic for this blog, but it does offer insights on the irrational expansion of higher education provision, which tie in with both the previous stories. Readers, especially in Greece, may want to reflect on how the following description compares against the higher education culture in the southern tip of the Balkan peninsula. Here are some excerpts from an op-ed by Peter Geoghegan, which appeared in the Times Higher Education:

Academic dishonesty and plagiarism are rife in Kosovan universities, claims Dukagjin Pupovci, an academic working in the country and an expert on Kosovo’s educational system. One reason for this is the number of higher education institutions that have sprung up since independence from Serbia in 2008 – about 30 for a population of 2 million. About 100,000 Kosovans are in higher education – some 60 per cent of the 19-24 age group.

Applicants for academic posts in Kosovo need publications in international journals, which makes “predatory” open-access journals with low or no standards attractive. At the same time, a culture of fraudulent multiple authorship of papers has spread. Such underhand practice is not surprising given the paucity of original research conducted in Kosovo. Total public spending for research in Kosovo in 2012 was less than 0.1 per cent of GDP, far below regional standards.

A luta continua

For those of us who have, on occasion, been critical of the academic establishment and research malpractice, the following story seems particularly important.

Earlier this year, Retraction Watch was served with a DMCA notice to take down several articles that reported on academic malpractice by a cancer researcher named Anil Potti. The articles in question had been copied by an news site in India, which subsequently claimed that RW was violating their copyright, in a transparent effort to have the news coverage suppressed. Although Auttomatic, the WordPress parent company,  had to comply with the notice, to their credit, they fought back with a lawsuit against the Indian website.

Earlier this week the case was brought before the US House of Representatives, where the company’s legal representative, Paul Sieminski, had the chance to explain that:

While there are statutory damages for copyright infringement (even if very minor) there are no similar damages, or clear penalties of any kind, for submitting a fraudulent DMCA notice. […] The DMCA system gives copyright holders a powerful and easy-to-use weapon: the unilateral right to issue a takedown notice that a website operator (like Automattic) must honor or risk legal liability. The system works so long as copyright owners use this power in good faith. But too often they don’t, and there should be clear legal consequences for those who choose to abuse the system. I’d urge the Committee to add such penalties to the DMCA to deter and punish these types of abuses.

And now, the story about chickens…

To close off this week’s collection of stories, here’s something bizarre. In a research article published in the  International Journal of Poultry Science, a group of four Algerian scientists compared two methods of slaughtering chicken. In the experimental group,  33 chickens were slaughtered “according to the Islamic ritual and Allah’s name has pronounced“, whereas the control group consisted of 33 chickens that were slaughtered without ceremony. The scientists report significant histological differences between the groups.

Jeffrey Beal, who spotted this article, notes obvious methodological flaws in the study, and shows remarkable composure as he raises a number of questions:

1. Are the results reproducible? If not, what are the implications for scientists who repeat the research and get contradictory findings?
2. Is it a good idea to bring religion into scientific research?
3. Are scholarly journals a proper venue for such research?
The article doesn’t explain exactly how the histological changes occur, or whether the process is biological or not. Is this article a valuable contribution to poultry science?

More to read: While this article would, hopefully, not be considered serious scholarship by anyone, research articles which report non-reproducible findings are too commonand it is embarrassingly easy for bad science to be published.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s