Sunday, March 27, 2011

Webmedcentral - an early 1st April joke?

A few days ago I received an invitation from a computer to review a manuscript. The computer's name is Webmedcentral, it seems, and it's the latest incarnation of Open Access file uploading. At the moment you can publish (ie upload a file to said computer) free of charge, but that's gonna change by January 2012. None of the computer's content is indexed in any databases at all, except tragically by google scholar. 

The paper I was asked to review consisted of 427 words and 2 references. The computer explained to me that the paper had been published already, and that the review would take place after publication of the article in question. Authors could then publish revised versions of their article in response to the reviews received, or ignore the reviews altogether. Either way, said computer (hardwarewise not that different from other Open Access 'journals' - and neither quality wise in all too many instances) explains on its website that it has 'have full faith in the honesty and integrity of the scientific community and firmly believe[s] that most researchers and authors who have something to contribute should have an opportunity to do so.' Despite strong evidence of widespread cheating in academia trust is what drives this computer.  

How does this thing work then? 'We have introduced a novel method of post publication peer review, which is author driven. It is the authors' responsibility to actively solicit at least three reviews on their article. During the submission stage the authors are asked to provide details of three reviewers who are contacted by the WebmedCentral team when the article is published. Authors can seek more reviews, if they so wish. We discourage authors from choosing their reviewers selectively.'

'Our peer review process is author driven. With our innovative method of publishing, peer review takes place after publication. It is authors' responsibility to organise at least three reviews for their articles. We aim to generate an open debate on the article after its publication. WebmedCentral reserves the right to invite additional reviews as and when necessary.

All pretty clear: any crook can pick his or her best mates to 'review' content they have already 'published'. They're strongly encouraged not to be crooks, of course. That should just do the trick.

The computer mentions in passing  that it has neither an Editor nor an Editorial Board: 'With our model of publishing, we do not need an editor or editorial board for our journal. Authors are completely in charge of the entire publication process including soliciting reviews and submitting revised versions of the manuscripts if needed.' It's kinda unclear how a journal without Editor or Editorial Board is going to solicit  further reviews, 'if needed', but hey, minor detail in the big swing of the Webmedcentral universe.

There is a bit of confusion, too (well, I remained confused about the modus operandi). It seems as if you'd upload your papers free of charge to the computer, then have the article send to your three best mates whose compliments will also be 'published'. If they review more than three other files they can send more of their own non-reviewed drivel for publication purposes to the Webmedcentral server. Basic maths would suggest that soon review co-operatives identifiable by one's three best mates will monopolize much of Webmedcentral's file uploading activities. According to Webmedcentral the comments are also considered publications. It goes without saying that in this uploading orgy minor details such as doi identifiers are missing, but hey, it's a minor detail while you 'publish' a paper per hour to beef up your publications record. 

It's all pretty random and no doubt databases controlled by people as opposed to algorithms will not index stuff emanating from webmedcentral. Google scholar at least is happily indexing the contents on the Webmedcentral server. The price you pay for letting machines do the job humans arguably should be doing. 

The only nice thing is that webmedcentral could easily be confused with biomedcentral. It couldn't hit a nicer 'publisher' :-). 

Oh, the list of shame, aka academics prepared to be associated with this charade, is here. What people confuse with academic publishing here is academics publishing anything they feel like. No different to my blog really... feel free to comment (aka 'review' in Webmedcentral lingo).

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Freshco and friends, why are you doing this to us?

I'm sure you also get those flyers during the weekend where supermarkets and other retail outfits try to persuade you to do your shopping with them. Invariably they've also sorts of special offers for us, usually involving buying more than we need of something (you know 5000 for the price of 1). Hence our ever growing mountains of rubbish.

Anyhow, so Freshco (a Canadian outfit) today sent me the flyer  that I am displaying to the left. You see the cheaper price guarantee. If I find the same product in some other store or some other flyer they will not just give the product to me at the same price, no, better even, they will 'beat' it. - The usual conditions apply. 

So, here are just a few of Freshco's conditions. They are both hilarious as well as offensive. They are unsurprisingly also more difficult to display, because they're longer than the original, seemingly straightforward deal. At least there's some information as to what 'beat it' means. And I quote: '... and we will sell you that item for 1c less'. Prior to getting that 1c discount on their best competitor you have to take the flyer to their store (yes, drive there for the 1c discount instead of buying it where it's cheaper to begin with, without the haggling). 

Anyhow, you might still think that it's worth it (for reasons unbeknownst to me), so to make things ever so slightly more complicated,here are a few minor additional conditions: 'Our major supermarket competitors', 'geographical trade areas' and 'comparable items' are determined solely by us and are based on a number of factors that can change from time to time.' So, you'd well head to Freshco, competitors' flyers in hand, to get your 1c discount per product, only to discover that, according to the store manager that you start haggling with, the flyer ain't from Freshco's 'major supermarket competitor' (ie your flyer doesn't count), or that the competitor is in the wrong part of town (ie 'geographical trade areas') etc etc. Random excuses are possible (you really would be bothered subjecting yourself to this sort of nonsense for 1c???).

Tesco in the UK was a tad bit more certain that its products really are the cheapest, so it offered to refund double the difference (as opposed to the ludicrous 1c Fresho is offering its price conscious customers). Well, that certainly flopped. They had to abandon the offer quickly because they could not afford paying out all those claims. No doubt Fresho ain't serious about its price guarantee otherwise it would not qualify the amusingly low-brow 1c deal on no less than 4 lines of smallest print. Really...

My view on offers like Fresho's is to always purchase from the retailer who offers you a decent deal straightaway as opposed to doing business with someone who first tries to charge you more and then offers you 1c (after haggling, and with said conditions applying) so that you do business with them anyway. I must also say that this sort of offer would annoy me sufficiently to stop doing business with Fresho altogether, simply because its marketing people tried to fool me with its 'beat it' promise. 

Let the buyer beware, true then, true now :).

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Monday, March 14, 2011

Supporting the powers that are - Queen's Rector vs Queen's Principal

This likely is a first for me, at least on this blog. I agree with the powers that are (avid readers of this blog will know that I tend to enjoy being a thorn in their side).

It's a story about Israel (you might be tempted to say 'spare me the details'). I came across it because of Facebook. Facebook friends contacted me and asked me to sign a petition supporting the Queen's University Rector against demands that he step down. There is a lot of talk about academic freedom in that petition, please read it yourself. Now, our Rector is an elected student representative.  He wrote in his capacity as Rector to the leader of the federal opposition, Mr Ignatieff, defending Israel Apartheid week against criticism of that event, uttered by the Liberal politician. Israel Apartheid Week likens the state of Israel to - you guessed it - apartheid South Africa. I won't tell you what I think about Israel Apartheid Week, because that is not what this blog entry is all about. You are welcome to agree or disagree with the main proposition of Israel Apartheid Week, and yet you should be able to agree with me regardless.

The Queen's Rector was called in to the University Principal's office. Principal Woolf essentially told the Rector, Nick Day, that it was inappropriate for Rector Day to use his title as Rector to make the statement that he made. After all, the student body of Queen's University has taken no stance on Israel Apartheid Week (let alone Mr Ignatieff's statement), and so Mr Day had no reason at all to pretend he was representing Queen's University's student body when he wrote to Mr Ignatieff. Woolf here is showing himself to be way more sophisticated than his predecessor who did not hesitate to declare a few years ago that Queen's University would never support academic boycotts of Israel for reasons of academic freedom and whatnot, when (of course) Queen's University's governing bodies had taken no stance on this matter. Woolf, on his blog, makes quite rightly clear, that one could hold legitimately differing views on Israel Apartheid Week. At issue is that Mr Day chose to use his Rector moniker to impress Mr Ignatieff, instead of writing to Mr Ignatieff as Mr Day.

If the relevant student governing bodies at Queen's had taken a stance on Israel Apartheid week then Mr Day would have been entitled to write to Mr Ignatieff, especially if these bodies had tasked him to do so.

What's a bit puzzling is said petition claiming 'academic freedom' for the undergraduate student Rector. This strikes me as a rather bizarre complaint. Mr Day could have written to Mr Ignatieff and express his views as Mr Day (even as Mr Day, undergraduate student at Queen's University). Nothing would have stopped him. Asking that he refrain from using his title as Rector when he is not entitled to speak as Rector is not an infringement of academic freedom (if we assume there is such a thing for undergraduate students). I wonder what the same petitioners would have said if Mr Day had chosen to write as Rector in support of the establishment of a 'Keep Asian students out of Queen's Week'? Academic freedom? Really? Nonsense.

The question remains whether Rector Day should remain Rector Day or whether he should resign and become Mr Day again. If past experience is precedent setting, one could argue that given that the past Queen's Principal who confused her personal views on academic boycotts with those of the University was not forced to resign (over this matter), perhaps the Rector should not be treated differently. At the end of the day, this is a political decision the students need to make. I have no strong views on this one way or another.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Scientific misconduct

The news on research misconduct is coming in hard and fast. A Bradford University professor was reportedly caught having published content that he plagiarized from Indian academics.  Germany had its fair share of significant scandals fairly recently. Retraction Watch reported on Professor Joachim Boldt who had some 90 or so papers retracted because they involved academic misconduct of some kind or other. The country defense minister was forced to resign (mostly because of outrage among the conservative middle classes and widespread anger among academics) because his doctoral thesis basically was a patchwork of stuff he copied elsewhere. Der Spiegel weekly magazine reports that the head of sport medicine at Freiburg University is currently under investigation by university authorities for having plagiarized parts of his habilitation (a German kinda second doctorate that you need if you wish to go for professorial jobs - a waste of time by any stretch of the imagination, but that's a story for another day). As yet unsubstantiated rumors have it that he delayed his PhD student's thesis defence so that he'd be able to publish his habilitation first. The university also investigates claims that said professor's wife, in order to speed up her doctoral thesis defense misappropriated content from doctoral theses her husband supervised for her own thesis.

At Bioethics, a journal that I am associated with as an Editor, we had to face - in this year alone - two plagiarism cases, each time involving stuff we published being plagiarized elsewhere. One paper has since been retracted by BMC Medical Ethics, an Open Access electronic publication operated by Springer Publishing. The retraction did not occur until significant pressure was exerted on the reluctant publisher. In case of doubt, strangely, publishers and editors seem quite happy to cover their authors' tracks and opt for Errata as opposed to retractions, the dreadful word 'plagiarism' is avoided at nearly all cost by publishers and editors. It's unclear to me whether that is due to legal reasons as opposed to lack of insight on the relevant editors' part. The other plagiarism claim is still investigated. When you realize that we publish only between 55 and 65 manuscripts in any given year, that's quite a bad start into 2011.

In Britain the conservative paper The Telegraph reports the results of a nationwide survey suggesting that some institutions had to face down hundreds of cheating students in just one year. You'll be pleased to know that the supposedly best universities in the country, Oxford and Cambridge (where likely the pressure to perform is highest) reported in 2009/2010 12 and 1 instances respectively of cheating amongst their students. I guess, the good news is that once you've been admitted there you don't have to worry too much about getting caught while you engage in academic misconduct. Their  enforcement of academic standards is likely to be pretty lax indeed. Cambridge having caught one student cheating in said academic year seems to be the perfect place to study these days. I recommend the league table to you in case you consider enrolling in places where you stand a fair chance at getting away with cheating because nobody seems to bother checking too carefully. Go for those universities that report close to no students cheating, and you likely are on to a winner. To my academic colleagues asking for evidence I have to say that I do think students everywhere cheat in significant numbers. It's simply the case that some institutions care more so than others about catching cheats. A low number of caught cheats in my reality is not evidence of fewer cheats, rather it is evidence of lax enforcement and monitoring.

In unrelated news, the BBC reports that Germany is today the world's most popular country, closely followed by Britain...