The Reading Room at the British Museum

Recently read: From mental health to killer fish

This week’s collection of articles and news stories begins with a rather grim reminder of the pressures associated with the publish and perish culture. There is also an inspiring account of what a junior researcher might do when they find out an obvious mistake in the literature. The third article looks into the shady publication practice of conducting one’s own peer-review, and problematises the lax password security in academic publishing. Finally, I look into creative and interesting food-centred research.

Mental health and the Academe

I believe that the most disturbing story in this week’s academic journalism was the death of Stefan Grimm, professor of toxicology at Imperial College London, after he had been placed under performance review. The following statements, from Times Higher Education, tell a familiar story, and highlight some important warning signs:

He is understood to have been unsuccessful in a number of grant applications, and to have been told that if he continued to struggle in this regard his job would be at risk. […] Professor Grimm had felt let down by Imperial and did not feel he was given sufficient support in the months leading up to his death. THE understands that shortly before he died, Professor Grimm asked not be named as the corresponding author on one of his recently published papers, and one of his colleagues took on the role instead.

More to read: While the circumstances of his death have not been disclosed, there is mounting evidence of a mental health crisis in academia. It has been argued that mental health issues are hard to recognise in academic world, that they are often dismissed because of a “culture of acceptance around mental health issues”. I am happy to read that ICL are conducting a review “in order to see whether wider lessons may be drawn”, and while I doubt that Professor Grimm’s tragic death will challenge the core of the Publish or Perish culture, one can only hope that it highlights the need for more appropriate support for those who need it.

Standing up against the big boys

Elsewhere in the academic world, Ray Carey, a PhD student at the University of Helsinki narrates how he became aware of a problem in a widely-cited article, failed to replicate the results, and attempted to correct the scientific record. Here’s an extract from the beginning of the article:

Last year I read an article by Prof. Hilary Nesi in the Journal of English for Academic Purposes (JEAP) entitled Laughter in university lectures. It contained an obvious error in the word count of the Corpus of British Academic Spoken English (BASE), which resulted in erroneous claims about the frequency of laughter in this linguistic database. The natural response, again, might be who cares?. Several people should care, because the author, two peer reviewers, and the journal editors apparently didn’t look very carefully at the figures reported in two of the tables in the paper.

Carey’s narrative is interesting as an account of how science self-corrects (?), and offers multiple interesting insights on topics such as the role of paywalls in scientific debate, reserach blogging, and power imbalances in academia. Definitely worth reading!

More to read: It takes a certain degree of courage to challenge the writings of established scholars. There was a story, last April, of how a PhD student discovered that the respected sociologist Zygmunt Bauman had been involved in systematic plagiarism. Readers of this blog might remember that the good professor’s reaction was not quite as dignified as what Carey had to deal with.

Peer review: Scams and vulnerabilities

While still on the topic of academic publishing, Nature recently ran a story on how some scholars managed to exploit vulnerabilities in the content management systems used by major publishers in order to conduct peer review of their own articles. There is lots of interesting information in the article, including a handy check list of red flags for editors (hint: “Even reviewer number three likes the paper”). Disturbingly, it seems that the same vulnerabilities could expose researchers to risks of identity theft, and publishers have been slow to recognise the problem. In the words of the authors:

Security loopholes can do more than compromise peer review. Because people often use the same or similar passwords for many of their online activities — including banking and shopping — e-mailing out the password presents an opportunity for hackers to do more than damage the research record. [Mark] Dingemanse [a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics], who has published in a number of journals that use Editorial Manager, including PLOS ONE, says: “It’s quite amazing that they haven’t got around to implementing a safe system.” Neither Aries nor PLOS ONE responded to several requests for comment.

More to read: This article appears to have been prompted by a large scale investigation, by SAGE, which resulted in uncovering a “peer-review ring” and generated 60 retractions. You can read about it here.

Researching food

While this blog primarily caters to the ELT and Applied Linguistics research communities, readers who are contemplating a career change might find some inspiration in a Guardian article titled Academia and food: stale snacks and strange research“. I am sure readers will not be interested in the paragraph on “rectal salami”, so here’s another choice extract:

Particularly odd is the rich literature on the swallowing of whole live fish. You’d think we’d have figured out the difference between live fish and dead fish (also known as seafood) by now, yet I found at least four reports of this error. One is entitled Return of the killer fish, and I can’t help but think that this is more a case of stupid human than killer fish.

More to read: Readers whose culinary tastes research interests lean towards sweater flavours may also consider research projects such as a PhD in Chocolate.

Featured image Credit: ceridwen @,  CC BY-SA

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