Sunday, July 23, 2017

Clippings from Sweden

A good friend in Sweden was kind enough to send me some clippings from Swedish newspapers about the academic integrity issues that he has been collecting over the past year or so. Here goes my summaries of the articles:

  • Uppsala Nya Tidning, 12 May 2016. Two professors of economics from the University of Uppsala and an assistant professor and a postdoc from the University of Stockholm, including one member of the Nobel Prize committee, have been accused of research misconduct. The accuser (named in the article) discovered his own work plagiarized in an article the accused published in 2011 that also somehow was used to prove an opposite result. The journal found the criticism correct, but decided not to take any action. The accused said that the plagiarized text was only in a preliminary version and was removed when they were made aware of it.
  • Uppsala Nya Tidning, 18 May 2016. A doctorate in the immunology of crayfish that had been awarded by the University of Uppsala has been rescinded after it was discovered that there was extensive manipulation of figures. This is the first time that this university has rescinded a doctorate. No sanctions were imposed on the advisor, as there are no rules for doing so. The thesis was a collection of five published papers, four of which had to be retracted. All attempts to contact the former doctoral student were fruitless. He was last seen working on a postdoc at a university in Texas, but was apparently fired there after just a few months for academic misconduct. 
  • Dagens Nyheter, 13 August 2016.  Three professors wrote an opinion piece on academic ethics demanding a reform of the current process of dealing with misconduct. Their four major points include a better definition of academic misconduct that differentiates between misconduct and badly-done research, making clear that the institutions understand that they have a responsibility to deal with academic misconduct, that there needs to be a national instance with sufficient resources to conduct investigations as necessary, and better protection the privacy of the whistleblowers and the accused. [Currently, the names of all concerned are open knowledge, according to the Swedish Freedom of Information laws.]
  • Uppsala Nya Tidning, 9 December 2016. A record number of cases of academic misconduct (17) have been reported to the Swedish Central Ethical Review Board (CEPN) in 2016. There were only 10 in 2016, and only 1-3 cases a year since the board was set up in 2010. The head of the board is not sure what has caused the surge, but states that it could be a result of the press coverage of the Macchiarini* affair that is encouraging other whistleblowers to come forward. The head of the Vetenskapsradet (the Science Council of Sweden) believes that universities are now referring more cases to the review board, as the Macchiarini affair showed the problems that arise when an institution makes the wrong decision. 
  • Dagens Nyheter, 23 February 2017. Commentary by the newspaper's medicine reporter Amina Manzoor about the suggestions proposed by Margareta Falhgren, the person appointed by the government to propose changes to how academic misconduct is to be handled in the aftermath of the Maccharini scandal. Her suggestions include a national body for investigating cases of suspected misconduct; forcing universities to register all cases with the body and permitting individuals to lodge complaints; the body taking a decision on whether misconduct happened or not, but leaving the sanctioning to the university; setting up a legal definition for misconduct to include FFP (falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism); other forms of cheating are to be dealt with by the universities themselves. It is expected that the changes will take effect by 2019. 
  • Uppsala Nya Tidning, 7 May 2017 (other reports on 31 March 2017, 29 April 2017 and 12 May 2017) A long article describes a paper on research conducted at a research station on the island of Gotland about the effects of microplastic particles on fish larvae that was retracted from Science. There is also commentary thanking the whistleblowers in this case, some of whom are from the University of Uppsala.  They had attempted to obtain the raw data on the study, but the laptop with the supposedly only copy of the data was registered as stolen 10 days after the first request for the data was sent. There were various other excuses for why the data was not available. The whistleblowers had been at the research station at the time the experiments were said to have been conducted, but they did not see anything of the magnitude of the study taking place. The University of Uppsala had at first found no misconduct, but the CEPN found multiple issues, including missing ethical permission for animal experiments. The university now has to decide if and how they will sanction the researchers. 
  • Dagens Nyheter, 7 June 2017. The number of students who are sanctioned for cheating is skyrocketing. 2016 there were 733 sanctions recorded, or 2.5 per 1000 full-time equivalent students. 2015 there were only 630 sanctions, 2013 only 533. The jurist in charge at the Universitetskanslersämbetet stated that the increase is due to the universities being more conscious of the problems and getting better and uncovering cheating.
I find it very encouraging that public discussions about academic integrity are taking place in Sweden. Other countries would be well-advised to follow suit.

* The surgeon Paolo Macchiarini implanted artificial trachea in three patients in Sweden, two of the patients died and one was badly hurt and recently also died. Karolinska Institutet, the institution at which the research was done, eventually fired a number of people in 2016 after a TV documentary forced them to take action. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Keeping tabs on cheating

I tend to keep tabs open in my browser for weeks with interesting articles I want to explore in more depth. Then Firefox decides to update and crashes so miserably, that the tabs are gone. So I'll try to at least post them here. No promises that I can do this with any kind of regularity, like Retraction Watch does with its Weekend Reads.
  • The Japan Times has an interesting article debunking an excuse typically used by students from the Far East: "Confcius made me do it." It seems that the difference between allusion and "literary theft" was well know many centuries ago.

    "If East Asian students and researchers plagiarize, it’s not because of some archaic cultural programming; it’s because modern institutional cultures tacitly condone plagiarism, or lack clear policies for explaining and combating it."
  • In the New Scientist there was an interview with Shi-min Fang that published in 2012, who was awarded the Maddox prize for his work on exposing scientific misconduct in China.  It seems that there is a lot of controversy around his work.
  • At the University College Cork in Ireland there was a spat about wide-spread contract cheating, as the Irish Times reports. Ireland is currently considering legislation to make advertising for or providing contract cheating services illegal.
  • Down under, the weekly student newspaper of the University of Sydney, Australia,  Honi Soit reports that the university had considered using some anti-cheating software that was created by former University of Melbourne students, but have decided not to after a trial. The idea was to analyse typing patterns and use multiple login questions in order to make it harder for students to submit essays purchased from contract cheating sites. Some of the issues included the necessity to be connected to the Internet to write an essay, forcing students to write with this system and not the editor of their choice, and a massive invasion of privacy that includes tracking the locations of the users and comparing it with the location of their mobile phones. The software was felt to be impractical and invasive.
  • Back in June the Daily Times reported that the doctorate of the prorector of the Comsats Institute of Information Technology has been revoked by Preston University.
  • The former head of the Toronto school board lost his teaching certificate for plagiarism. According to The Globe and Mail, he has appealed the ruling and is willing to testify under oath about who helped him produce the plagiarisms.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

German plagiarism cases in the news

There were four articles in German news this past week or so about a very diverse collection of plagiarism cases. Here are the links and short summaries in English:
  1. The taz published an article by Markus Roth about a biography that Stefan Aust, a well-known German writer, published in 2016, „Hitlers erster Feind. Der Kampf des Konrad Heiden“ (Hitler's first enemy - Konrad Heiden's struggle). Heiden, a writer in exile in France, had published a biography of Hitler in the mid-30s. It seems, however, that Aust liberally used text from Heiden himself, just changing the present tense to the simple past tense or adding an explanation of names that would be clear to someone reading in the 30s but not to present day readers. Some examples are given in the taz article.  Aust himself had apparently recently complained that people were looting Heiden's words, but stated that he was setting a monument to Heiden's works. Wer erzählt hier eigentlich?“ (who is speaking here) is apparently a question difficult to answer, unless one has read much of Heiden's work, as Roth has done (he is also working on a biography of Heiden).
  2. Stern reports on a Facebook posting by German folk music star Stefanie Hertel against hate on the historic occasion of Germany passing legislation permitting homosexual couples to marry. Her fans praised her words, but it turned out they weren't acutally hers, but from a TV game show moderator, Michael Thürnau. Ich fand seine Worte so toll, dass ich ihm einfach nur recht geben konnte, she defended herself according to Stern, "I found his words so awesome, that I just had to say that he's right." 
  3. The DFG, the German funding organization for research, announced that they were reprimanding a scientist "in writing". A life scientist (no name or research institut mentioned) was found to have had extensive word-for-word copies from other publications without reference in a grant application. The DFG investigated, and the scientist conceded that s/he had copied more for the "state-of-the-art" section.
    Since I don't know what a "reprimand in writing" means, I have written to the DFG to ask for clarification. 
  4. In other DFG news, a Leibnitz prize (2.5 million €) was awarded to a researcher after all. Just prior to the award ceremony in March 2017, plagiarism allegations arose. The DFG postponed the award in order to investigate. They are satisfied that there was no plagiarism, and thus have now given out the award. The allegations were not made public.
Update: Marco Finetti, the spokesman for the DFG, clarified for me: A reprimand "in writing" is indeed just a letter written to the scientist. But since it has been decided on by the Hauptausschuss, the main body of the DFG, all the scientists in that board and the representatives of the state governments (who finance the universities in Germany) heard the details of the case and decided on this as the weakest sanction. "It is a big blow to the reputation of a scientist", Finetti claimed.