The Reading Room at the British Museum

Recently Read (15 – 21 September): Academic fraud, assault rifles and conference coffee breaks

This week’s collection of noteworthy articles looks into academic publishing and problems associated with research malpractice. There is also a report about how campus security teams prepare to deal with extremely rowdy students, and advice on how to behave in an academic conference. 

Randy Schekman on scientific publishing

Randy Schekman is perhaps best known for winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2013. He is also known for leading a boycott against ‘glamour journals’ such as Nature, Cell and Science, which he accuses of promoting their brands in ways “in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research.” In a recently published interview, Schekman repeats his view about these journals, talks about problems facing scientific publishing and discusses open access (Methode, Issue 82). Here’s an extract:

Are open-access journals less rigorous?
It’s not a question of whether they’re open-access or not. That’s a false distinction. There are other journals that are commercial or run by scientific societies that also have low standards. And I don’t think that just because a journal is open-access, that makes them somehow more suspicious. It’s true, there are businesses out there, they are looking to exploit the open-access movement to make money, and the buyer must be aware. As I said earlier, if you want to publish in one of these new journals, look at the composition of the editorial board and see who’s actually putting their time in to make it a successful venture. And that should be the deciding factor.

More to read: In an attempt to disassociate Open Access from academic malpractice, the Directory of Open Access Journals recently purged its list and asked journals to reapply, on the basis of what are described as stricter quality criteria.

Is it time to criminalise scientific misconduct?

In another interesting interview that appeared in the New Scientist, Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal and founding member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) argues that research malpractice is a crime akin to fraud and should therefore fall under the purview of the justice system. Here’s part of his reasoning:

After 30 years of observing how science deals with the problem, I have sadly come to the conclusion that it should be a crime, for three main reasons. First, in a lot of cases, people have been given substantial grants to do honest research, so it really is no different from financial fraud or theft. Second, we have a whole criminal justice system that is in the business of gathering and weighing evidence – which universities and other employers of researchers are not very good at. And finally, science itself has failed to deal adequately with research misconduct.

A retraction penalty?

While on the subjects of scientific publishing and misconduct, Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky (who run Retraction Watch) have suggested that a retraction penalty might be introduced to adjust the Impact Factors assigned to journals. This would mean that when a paper is retracted, a journal’s impact factor would be recalculated to remove the citations from the retracted papers. Here’s part of their proposal, which appeared in LabTimes:

In other words, what if journals were penalised for retractions, putting their money where their mouth is when they talk about how good their peer review is? Clearly, if a paper is retracted, no matter what excuses journals make, peer review didn’t work as well as it could have.

More to read: It can be hard for a journal to recover, if it is associated with research malpractice, as attested by this account of how one journal has attempted to tackle the problem.

Does campus security need assault rifles?

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran a disturbing report on a US federal government program that delivers surplus military equipment to police departments across the United States. The programme, which has come under public scrutiny after the Ferguson riots, but it appears that local police departments have not been the only ones to over-equip:

Campus police departments have used the program to obtain military equipment as mundane as men’s trousers (Yale University) and as serious as a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle (Ohio State University). Along with the grenade launcher, Central Florida acquired 23 M-16 assault rifles from the Department of Defense.

More to read: Apparently, mine-resistant vehicles have found their way in the vicinity of many universities, but have not always been welcome.

Conference etiquette

Pat Thomson, whose blog is a must-follow for anyone involved in research and writing, has published a great guide for conference-goers. In it, she addresses questions like: what one should do if they are late for a session, if it is appropriate to start a conversation with a stranger, and whether one should carry copies of their conference paper to distribute after the talk. Here’s a short extract:

If it’s someone who’s given a paper there might be a bit of a queue to speak to them afterwards, so wait in line rather than just butting in. You might want to say that you liked their paper, or you like their work, or you could take up an issue they referred to and that you’d like to know more about. You might want to ask if you can email them later and you can ask for their business card or offer yours with a note on it about your interest. The idea is to create the opportunity to either have a conversation at the time or later.

More to read: I have written a couple of blog posts for first-time conference presenters [1, 2], which I hope you find useful.


Image: ceridwen | CC BY-SA

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