Category Archives: Ethics, and the philosophy and practice of science

Crowd Science

Malice and/or mendacity are not the sole ways to get on unfairly. A mild form is somehow to join a team, preferably with a role that involves little actual work. ‘Brownie-points’ in the promotion stakes are guaranteed nowadays by authorship in peer-reviewed journals: senior or sole author is best; next being in a small authors list in a journal that demands an account of the role of each; but even being an also-ran or last of a great many can go nicely on your CV. Does one have to have some je ne sais quoi to be accepted by a team? Well it depends on what the quois might be. Some might say seniority or prestige as that helps the paper to be accepted; others that having the only accessible scientific machine for the topic more or less guarantees a place; but is it possible merely to lurk in the corridor and still get on board?

The vast majority of author lists are surely completely honest, but there is a definite tendency for them to get longer as time goes by. During the days when analysis of lunar rocks from the Apollo Missions was booming a team of geochemists – the Lunatic Asylum – was formed at the California Institute of Technology (incidentally, in 1920 Caltech changed its name from Throop University – after Amos Gager Throop, former Mayor of Pasadena). Its founder and leader was and remains Gerry Wasserburg, and occasionally papers were published under the anonymity of the group, so it is hard to tell just how many of them were involved. The Atlas experiment at the CERN Large Hadron Collider has given rise to a paper authored by 230 individuals from 169 institutions (The ATLAS Collaboration et al. 2008. The ATLAS Experiment at the CERN Large Hadron Collider. Journal of Instrumentation, v. 3, doi: 10.1088/1748-0221/3/08/S08003), but that consortium does not hold the record. As far as I know, the biscuit is taken, for the moment, by Members of the Genetic Investigation of ANthropocentric Traits (GIANT) consortium (Allen, H.L et al. 2010. Hundreds of variants clustered in genomic loci and biological pathways affect human height. Nature, v. 467, p. 832-838) whose title is self-explanatory. Of its 7 pages, 3 are taken up by the names of its 287 authors, their 203 institutions and a not inconsiderable number of funding agencies. At just under 3000 words (not including the names and affiliations of the authors), each author on average has just over 10 words to their name. Interestingly, 10 of the authors (the first 6 and last 4 ) ‘contributed equally to this work’ – how is not specified, and 4 authors are each affiliated with 5 institutions. By comparison, geosciences is definitely little league as regards collaborative ventures, but opportunities there surely are.


Watch out, watch out, there are burglars about

f the major journals are anything to go by, the gravest crime that scientists can commit is to make up data and publish the results after peer review. The only thing worse in the eyes of us ‘academics’ is to publish the same makey-up data several times without being rumbled by referees. Once discovered, all the hammers of hell fall on the miscreant: they lose their jobs; their faces are splashed on the news pages of Nature and Science; they are blackballed internationally and can never work in academic circles again. Pretty harsh treatment for what, after all, is a good old-fashioned con (and often one of some ingenuity). In general, most of us love a rascally grifter, so long as they haven’t trousered our life savings. So why is the academic equivalent of the death penalty reserved for what is little different from getting a gullible public to believe that politicians act in the best interests of humanity? If any geologist looked deeply into his or her conscience most would find several cases where they had fudged a bit of data – marked a geological boundary on a map where there was barely a shred of evidence, for instance. We have all speculated well beyond the realms of reality, and often that has passed peer review easily. It is in the very nature of a dominantly observational science to do the odd bit of grifting and have it accepted.

What we detest in real life is the burglar, who desecrates our homes and work. Having anything stolen leaves a life-long trauma and a feeling of being somehow dirtied. In our academic world, theft is called plagiarism. It is most generally applied these days to the actions of students who snip bits and pieces from published sources to get a good mark from a term-paper or dissertation. Like the fabricator of data, they are generally hammered if caught at it. Yet there is a real theft that damages its victims rather than merely soiling the ‘clean image’ of education, and these victims are usually ‘junior partners’ in research. It is rife, and in one form is actually condoned and even encouraged. These days many research students are forced to more or less sign away their intellectual property to their supervisors, often a sizeable posse most of whom do very little, if anything at all. If a research student wants to publish the posse must be in the list of authors. Many commentators have noted that this riding on the backs of the inexperienced is how CVs are built up and fast-track promotion is achieved. It could be called the ‘pillion passenger’ route to greatness. But this kind of institutionalised pillaging is by no means the worst form that plagiarism can take. Far worse is to find out accidentally that one’s original ideas, data, or graphics are being published or uttered by someone else without any acknowledgement, especially if they have yet to be published.

The police rarely catch a burglar, and even less-often recover stolen goods. Similarly, victims of this worst form of academic plagiarism also know that having the record properly set straight is unlikely. The academic burglar excuses him/herself with the defence that, “there is no copyright over ideas”. To accuse such charlatans invites being actioned for libel, because of legal vagueness over intellectual property. Last month I witnessed an attempted burglary at a conference in London. In that case the burglar not only published purloined ideas previously but clearly fed his student those ideas. Unwittingly, she presented them, suitably tarted up, but with him as second author – i.e. trying to have his cake and eat it. All would have gone smoothly for the snaffler, but for one thing. The victim was there and gave the genuine presentation only 30 minutes before the blagged one hit the floor. Quite clearly, she knew what she was talking about whereas the coached presenter obviously did not. Thanks to two or three acute, and honest people in the audience, the game was up. The perpetrator of the burglary was, in the most polite (and legal) fashion, academically savaged with not inconsiderable relish. In a way, justice was done, but not entirely.

Anyone who attempts to build a career by theft needs to be stopped in their tracks, but in the ‘halls of academe’ only con-artists who are caught have the book thrown at them. So, keep your eyes and ears open in 2008, on behalf of others as well as yourself, for that is the only way metaphorically to give burglars a touch of the old Black and Decker about the knee caps.

Anonymous referees

Anyone who submits their first paper to a journal soon becomes aware of the “peer review” process: probably the single greatest contributor to academic suspicion and anxiety.  Of course, these “peers” fall into two categories: the “esteemed colleague” (helpful); the “witless wonder” (negative, and prone to crushing your paper).  Write a book, a play or an operatic score, and your critics in the media have a name.  You could even find out where they keep their pet rabbit.  They are accountable. Yet, editors of journals claim to have a “duty of confidentiality” towards those referees who opt for anonymity: guess which category most often does. At one time or another, most academics asked for critiques by learned journals only to recommend rejection have succumbed to “taking the veil”.  Equally, there are few researchers who have not suffered a similar fate to one they may have meted out themselves.  Learning by experience is not necessarily a strong point among scientists.  A typical case came to my notice recently, but the identity of one faceless and repugnant referee eventually became clear.  I know him well.  He too had suffered acute stress from a grossly delayed manuscript and the vicious comment of an anonymous referee some years back, yet saw fit to indulge his own spleen when offered a place in the shade: goodness only knows why, but in this case I have my suspicions.

The whole scientific community grows increasingly uneasy about anonymous peer-review, and the abuse that it sometimes makes possible. Examples are deliberate delays by unnamed referees engaged in similar research or related commercial activity, plagiarism, incompetence and the self-indulgence of gratuitously destructive and belittling comment.  It is the near-universal policy of referee anonymity that allows these unwholesome practices to fester and grow.  Most journals give their referees the option of coming out of the closet, or remaining smugly behind its door.  Some assume anonymity, so that a referee has to ask explicitly for their name to be revealed.  Anonymous referees are simply moral cowards, along with editors of the journals that give them a cloak. What do they fear?  Are direct questions about their comments cause for timidity?

Referee malpractice can be removed completely by editors refusing to allow referees to skulk behind anonymity. Now, in the UK at least, it seems possible to challenge this unwholesome editorial prerogative, because of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (2002 Scotland), which came into force on 1 Jan 2005, and the Data Protection Act 1998.  Resorting to the Acts ought not to be necessary as regards the activities of scholarly journals, yet editors continue to defend the more faceless of their referees.  No doubt there would be a temporary shortage of referees should compulsory “outing” become the norm, but it would remove those who do engage in malpractice.  The most important result would be an increase in objectively constructive comment, which softens the blow of a rejection slip by showing a way forward to authors.   Peer-review should work both ways, and should be seen to be honest.


Protecting your intellectual property

Long ago, most students entered research by thinking up their own project, albeit with advice from potential supervisors.  That is rarely possible today, for many reasons.  Instead, gifted students are recruited to research topics proposed to funding agencies by established scientists.  More often than not, such projects slot into an overall strategy centred on an academic’s career or the ambitions of a research group.  There are advantages in having the sometimes undivided attention of a “boss”, a structured approach to work within a broader framework, access to a group’s equipment and funding, and support from several co-thinkers.  With the old style, there were risks in “ploughing a lone furrow”, such as abandonment by a disenchanted supervisor (the enchanted ones could be even more worrying).  The single most important advantage of designing your own project, hard and risky as that might be, was one of possession from the outset.  Such responsibility develops qualities that are otherwise not easy to get: independence of thought and action, time-management,  resourcefulness, an ability to argue your case, and self-discipline – if you can really “hack” it.  Except for the indolent and irrecoverably stupid, most people can, given some knowledge of where their subject is going and thesine qua non of curiosity.  In those “old days”, the risks were more than offset by the advantage of ownership, and it was rare for postgraduates not to be successful, and the majority gained their doctorates within three years.  Today, up to a third of enrolled graduate students withdraw or fail their degrees, and hardly any complete inside this reasonable period.

Funding agencies now demand guarantees that their outlay bears fruit.  They increasingly direct lines of research, so that studentships follow previous funding.  The funders are more accountable, and by the iron logic of the marketplace so too must be the recipients.  The upshot is continual assessment of research performance by departments, the creation of “centres of excellence”, and the crushing of departments that do not measure up to an amoebic growth of criteria and guidelines.  So, for anyone keen on testing their abilities to the limit and following their curiosity, the options are increasingly limited.  Even if you have independent means, it is now a very rare department that encourages self-motivated research by students, or even by its established staff.  In truth, most academics find it hard to be independent, because they no longer have the security that once guaranteed freedom of thought, action and expression.  In Britain, if an academic began their career or earned promotion after 20 November 1987, they can be dismissed solely on grounds of redundancy, rather than “with good cause”, which was the rock on which tenure used to be based.  “Gross moral turpitude” was, I believe, the operative and infinitely more expressive phrase in US institutions.  So for your average supervisor the world has turned upside down.  Now it’s a case of “publish or perish”, larded with citation and impact records, and bringing cash into your institution to boost its research assessment.  There are very few academics with the energy, imagination, brass neck and wit to jump through all these hoops and remain sanely independent.  So we see a growth of hidden but nonetheless unwholesome vices adopted by some to survive and prosper in this deranged environment.  There are many victims, but the new researcher is most at risk.  During the festive season it is customary to give and receive advice, as well as greetings.  Here is some that concerns the vice that dare not speak its name –plagiarism – in the form of a bestiary to help you memorise potentially risky people.

  1. Chameleons Check out potential supervisors.  The Science Citation Index will reveal their record of sole or senior authorship of papers (notreviews).  If they are what they claim to be, that will dominate.  Relative to that, how many times does their name appear within multi-author papers, of which they are not senior author?  If the latter dominates, their reputation probably rests on offering technical facilities that they control, or the research talents of other people.  You may find individuals who have a short publication list of either kind.  They are either at the start of their career, or beyond all human help (except perhaps your own).
  2. Beavers Never let anyone else do any work for you, unless they are a kindly technician (who then deserves at least an acknowledgement).  Where possible, keep your research materials under your personal control – in some institutions burial is a useful tactic.
  3. Curlews Be suspicious of a supervisor who shares your findings with the rest of a team; either you do that yourself or not at all.
  4. Moles Although communication with others is an essential aspect of research, until you are ready to submit a paper for peer review, do not reveal all in seminars and conferences.  Pay particular attention to your posters.  At every conference you will see people photographing them, whom you can safely assume are after your ideas.
  5. Hamsters Beware the friendly soul offering, without being asked, to read your first draft of a paper.  Instead, plead with the most curmudgeonly academic around, the one who hammers your every utterance, for he or she will probably be honest.
  6. Tapeworms Do not allow your supervisor to routinely add their name or others in a research team to your papers.  Authorship is not based on advice, basic training in research techniques or discussion of your work.  That is your supervisor’s duty of care, and a good one should give far more than they take. Acknowledgements are the place to express gratitude for such assistance.  Authors have to do real work, both analytical and intellectual, to deserve a place in the list.
  7. Squirrels Insist that your supervisor lets you read all drafts of their papers that bear on your own field, to check that your findings are not included, as well as to learn.  If your work appears, you have a right to authorship.
  8. Weasels Be aware of the relationships among academics and post-docs in your department, and theirs with others in outside institutions.  Keep an eye on “networking”, which often involves mutual sharing of information as well as gossip, particularly if joint bids for funding are in the offing.
  9. Ravens It is easy to be pressured overtly and subtly, particularly in a large research group.  That may be beneficial, but can be to get you to toe the “party line”.

10.  Wolverines Never tolerate anything that seems like plagiarism, manipulation, obstruction, exploitation, bullying or harassment.   Best to confront politely yet firmly the person responsible, but that is not easy.  Finding someone who can help is not easy either.  Your institution may well have a policy of pastoral care based on designated individuals, who are deemed to be disinterested and trustworthy.  In the real world there is a culture of protecting long-term colleagues, which extends throughout a university; you are transitory…  In case of difficulty, ask to change your pastoral advisor.  Other students of longer standing may know who is straight, or have similar experiences.  Whatever, it is essential that you get honest support to resolve such problems.  One useful tactic is to air your grievances as accurately as possible in writing, with a copy to someone that you can trust.

11.  Diverse enchanted beasts The most difficult obstacle to ownership can be, oddly, the genuinely honest, kindly and enthusiastic supervisor.  Because of their greater experience and breadth of knowledge, your work can easily become their obsession, usually because of their frustration with your progress.  They will not steal your thunder consciously, but can easily end up driving you rather than the other way round.  If you want to become their creature, fine.  If not, then you have battles ahead, but they will serve both of you well!


Credit where credit is due?

A recent book (Crewdson, J.  2002.  Science Fictions: A Scientific Mystery, a Massive Cover-up and the Dark Legacy of Robert Gallo.  Little, Brown; Boston) describes the role of pulling (and enhancing) rank in the history of HIV’s discovery.  In fact there were two histories: the real one in which two post-docs in Gallo’s lab, Bernie Poiesz and Frank Ruscetti, succeeded in isolating human T-cell leukaemia virus – the seminal step on the road to HIV; the “engineered” history, in which credit for the discovery seemed to pass entirely to Robert Gallo.  However that particular revision of reality emerged, building rank through annexation of credit is not uncommon in academic circles.  Peter Lawrence of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge University has expanded on Crewdson’s careful investigation to produce a useful warning, particularly for beginning and junior researchers in all disciplines (Lawrence, P.A. 2002.  Rank injustice.  Nature, v. 415, p. 835-836).

Lawrence’s thesis is that the scientific community allows experienced researchers to take advantage of the inexperienced, so that credit generally flows up the ladder of rank.  Part of the problem is that graduate students, and even post-docs, nowadays rarely generate projects themselves and increasingly work under the control rather than the guidance of a supervisor, team leader or major grant holder.  It is not always a case of high-ranking scientists mendaciously grasping credit for discoveries made by underlings, for various practices make misplaced credit inevitable.  Lawrence lists a whole number of these.  For me, one is particularly interesting.  It centres on how to stick in one’s peers’ memory.  If the same name appears again and again in publications – it makes little difference where it figures in the list of authors – it is that name that is remembered as an “authority”.  During the 1980s, Gallo managed to figure as an author in up to 90 papers a year, despite mainly travelling back and forth to conferences.

Most people’s view is that whoever does most of the work, discusses its ramifications and draws conclusions should be the first author in a list.  But are they the “senior” author?  In terms of rank that is often not the case, and one need only scan the publications of a large research team to see the same name appearing again and again, often in last position; that of the “owner” of the lab or the funds.  What they have done to appear on the list is rarely clear, but by sheer number of appearances it is their name that is remembered, and more importantly these days, figures in measures of productivity.  As they say, it is a “win-win” scenario.  Any paper, in whose list of authors the “name” appears, that meets peer acclaim serves to boost that “names” citation rating too.  If such a paper turns out to be sloppy or even fraudulent, then someone safe among the “also-rans” can shrug off responsibility.

The same issue’s Editorial (Thoughts on (dis)credits.  Nature, v. 415, p. 819) quotes from a letter submitted by Max Perutz (Peter Lawrence’s former “boss”), shortly before his death on 6 February 2002.  Perutz spent the first 25 years of his career in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, headed by Ernest Rutherford and then W.L. Bragg, neither of whom put their names on papers to which they had not contributed, despite the fact that a whole number represented epochal breakthroughs inspired by them.  And nor did Perutz.  That generosity damaged none of their careers or reputations, but made them properly respected, admired and fondly remembered.  Will careers based on annexation of credit (an excellent euphemism!) find the same fate?

Popper refuted

In mid-Victorian times, Lord Kelvin peered down his nose at Charles Lyell’s estimation of sedimentation rate from the historic silting of the port of King’s Lynn, as a means to judge the vast time span represented by the stratigraphic column.  His words were not kind; “…when you cannot measure [what you are speaking about], when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind”.  Geologists cringed, particularly when Kelvin went on to reckon an age of 20 to 40 Ma for the Earth based on its cooling from a molten mass, using the physical laws of conduction and radiation.  He was fundamentally wrong on most counts, partly because he knew nothing of radioactive heat generation nor convective heat transfer.  Sadly his corpse could not be revived to eat his mean-spirited words.  Nonetheless, the gibe of Earth scientists’ being “unscientific” has stuck.  We rarely stick to the “scientific method”, reputedly stemming from the Elizabethan philosopher, Francis Bacon and his rationalization of the inductive method of reductionist experimentation.  There are few universal “truths” in Earth history, and the interweaving of limitless processes with a vast spectrum of rates, scales and magnitudes renders reductionism absurd.  Even more prone to reductio ad absurdem is the chemist Karl Popper’s supposedly logical insight that “proper” science rigorously subjects hypotheses to a “risky test”; an experiment that should yield evidence of refutation if the notion is unsound.  Popper’s method of falsification consigns to the dustbin of research any hypothesis which fails the test, with the corollary that in is not “best practice” to seek confirmation for a hypothesis.

Carol Cleland of the University of Colorado (Cleland, c.e. 2001.  Historical science, experimental science, and the scientific method.  Geology, v. 29, p. 987-990) demolishes the “recipe-book” approach to science, which has laid a dead hand on not only the Earth sciences, from the standpoint of philosophy and reality.  She starts from the position of Thomas Kuhn, by pointing out that, for Popper, the whole of Newtonian celestial mechanics should have bitten the dust when 19th century astronomers discovered that the orbit of Uranus deviated from Newtonian prediction.  A sustained search for reasons why concluded that there must be gravitational forces from planets beyond Uranus, and sure enough astronomers discovered Neptune.

There is an air of bullying about the “scientific method”, which has warped investigations and dulled imagination and curiosity for centuries.  It provides ammunition for those who carp and pontificate from the sidelines, and in many cases from positions of considerable power.  Cleland does us all a service by discussing philosophical matters of science in the context of the realities that confront us all, in an accessible way.  Her analogy is Holmesian detection (Sherlock was a deductionist, by the way, proceeding from the general to the particular), which discovers events and proceeds to trace their circumstances – the search, to my mind, for the artillery rather than a single “smoking gun” is far richer than the events themselves, because that deepens our sense of context for particular events, however dramatic they might seem to be.