Wednesday, June 5, 2019

WCRI 2019 - Day 2

Day 0 - Day 1a - Day 1b - Day 2 - Day 3

I was sooo tired, that I slept in and missed the first session. Sorry about that.
I wanted to see talks in two sessions, natch, so I had to do a session hopping.

Session: Retractions Lydia Liesegang, a sociologist with the TU Berlin, Germany, spoke on "The impact of published incorrect scientific information on the knowledge production of scientific communities."

The talk was not actually about retractions, but about incorrect information.  She assumed that when people cite a publication, that they are using it to support an argument. That may be the general case, but I have cited things that are used as examples of bad science, and I am not alone, so I don't buy into this argument. She did a citation analysis of 30 problematic papers, finding 126 citing papers. The problematic papers were among those found by
Byrne, J.A. and Labbé, C. (2017) Striking similarities between publications from China describing single gene knockdown experiments on human cancer cell lines, Scientometrics 110(3): 1471-1493
(which is a fascinating reading in and of itself). 

There was some citation and propagation, but in conclusion she found that usually, incorrect information dies in the periphery. But such papers lead on the scientific community about possible rewarding research areas, so this could steer future research in the wrong direction and thus allocates resources to exhausted research areas.

I then switched to the

Session: Whistleblowers

The room was packed, I stood at the back with a number of people until the speaker switch happened and then squeezed myself into an empty space, climbing over many people.

"The 'Murky Waters' of questionable research practices" was presented by Johannes Hjellbrekke of the University of Bergen in Norway.  He conducted a survey for the Research Integrity in Norway (RINO) on  Fabrication, Falsification, and Plagiarism (FFP) and Questionable Research Practices (QRP) that was distributed to 31 206 researchers at Norwegian universities.

They did find self-reported FFP and QRP and used a lot of statistics in the hopes of identifying a specific group that needs to have a whistle blown.  They defined three groups of researchers: The Ethical (82 %), The Generous (oops, we made a boo-boo, for example using gift authorship, not informing about limitations of a study, not whistleblowing on colleagues, 13 %) and The Murky (5 %). The Murky are the group at risk.

Overrepresented in the "Murky" waters were: Private research institutes, social science, postdocs, Researcher II [no idea what this is], Senior Researchers, 30-39 years age.

Underrepresented in the "Murky" group were: Humanities, PhD candidates, Associate Professors, 60-69 years of age.

He closed with an interesting statistical observation, based on the work of Abraham Wald (1943): Don't strengthen war airplanes that have been shot at where there are hits. Instead, strengthen where there are no hits, because we are looking at the ones that returned, not the ones that were shot down.

Fascinating was the next talk, by lawyer  John R. Thomas, Jr., Healy Hafemann Magee, Roanoke and his brother, biologist Joseph M. Thomas, "Perspective of the whistleblower." Joseph Thomas was the whistleblower in the case of US ex rel. Thomas v. Duke University, et al. in which the US Department of Justice sued Duke University and won $112.5 million in damages.

John Thomas sued under a quirky US American law called the False Claims Act or "Lincoln Law."  If you defraud the government, they can sue you. It is traditionally used in contracting law, and now more often in Medicare and Medicaid cases. In this case it was for research misconduct that occured while working on grants from the federal government. Qui Tam provisions allow private whistleblowers to bring suit on behalf of the US Government.  The suit is first sealed while the government investigates. If the government finds that the case has merit, they take over the suit. If they win, they recover triple damages and the whistleblower may recieve up to 30 % of the recovered amount.
More on the case in Science and the press release of the Justice Department.

During the discussion someone from Duke asked if this wasn't a bit too harsh, as such a ruling could bankrupt smaller universities. John Thomas answered that that is the point of the provision: the courts know that a lot of fraud goes on, so if one gets caught, they are severely punished in order to make the others decide to clean up their acts.

The session closed with epidemiologist Gerben Ter Riet, Amsterdam University Medical Center & Univ. Applied Sciences, Amsterdam speaking about his "Reflections of a passionate and almost excommunicated scientist."

He was doing his normal duties and teaching a course on the responsible conduct of research (RCR) as well as mentoring students. He became active in the RCR area and published a few papers (1 - 2), but was told by a new boss that he was not bringing in enough grants, so he should terminate his RCR activity and focus more on science.

He even managed to obtain a grant for research integrity in 2017, but that was when things exploded in his lab.  He tried to get help inside the system, but was stonewalled at every turn. He noted when reading the document that came out 5 weeks ago in the Netherlands that, except for the sexual harassment, it rather fit his case.
Harassment in Dutch Academia, Exploring manifestations, facilitating factors, effects and solutions.
Two of his colleagues have left academia, he has a nominal position at the university hospital with some doctoral students and is now teaching at a local college.

Plenary session: Perspectives for funding agencies in shaping responsible research practices  

Anne-Marie Coriat, Head of Research Management, Wellcome Trust, London, spoke about "Towards a more positive culture for Trust in research – a systems perspective." She introduced the Wellcome Trust and identified that there is a systemic problem in science.  She closed with the statement that change will not happen if we act alone.

Kylie Emery, from the Australian Research Council, Canberra, had "Simplifying and strengthening responsible research practice – the Australian experience as her title and showed the slides of the Australian research landscape, their framework, the focus on shared responsibility, the role of funders for the THIRD time. 

Qikun Xue, Vice President Tsinghua University, Beijing was supposed to speak, but he had to cancel at the last minute, so he sent a colleague who had the job of presenting a Powerpoint Karaoke on "Research integrity practice at Tsinghua University: Policies and Practice". 

Tsinghua University is a very large Chinese university with over 14 000 faculty and staff and over 36 000 students. There were the usual ideas for dealing with the topic: education and sanctioning. A few Chinese scandals from the university were mentioned:
  • 2005: Faculty member Liu from the Medical School fabricated research and was dismissed
  • 2009: Plagiarism in a postdoc's published papers was found and he was punished
  • 2014: A final project report by another faculty member Liu in the Dept. Of Mechanical Engieering turned out to be identical to the proposal, no acutal research was conducted, he was sanctioned.
  • 2017: Papers published by a graduated PhD student were self-plagiarizing, re-using images and fabricating experimental results. The PhD was revoked.
During the discussion the question was asked, it being the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, what the current state of academic freedom at the university is. The speaker appeared a bit flustered, but assured us that people at university are allowed to have different opinions.

I was frozen cold on account of the air conditioning being set so low, so I got some hot tea before I came back to the last lecture of the day.

Mark McMillan, Dept. Vice Chancellor for indigenous people and Aboriginal law at RMIT University, Melbourne, and a Wiradjuri man from Trangie, NSW, spoke about deep time (120 000 years ago) and Aboriginal ways of knowing in "Ethical and integrity dilemmas for engaging with humanity's oldest living knowledge system." I have no earthly idea what he was on about.

We then gathered for a boat ride to the conference dinner. I was happy to spend the time chatting with Tracey Bretag. We froze on the bus, then got out at the water and melted in the heat and rain for about an hour. It was decided that we couldn't get on the boat there, as the water was too choppy, so they had to re-order the busses to take us to another pier, where we were able to get on. The weather cleared up and we had a wonderful trip out to the old city airport that is now a cruise liner terminal. It has a restaurant that does not mind serving 1000 people at once. We were only 700, so that sounded good.

It was bit odd that the vegetarians were expected to sit together. Half of us did, the others stubbornly stayed seated with their meat-eating friends and significant others. We were looking forward to the eight-course meal that started off with white Chinese yams. Not to become my favorite, but okay, seven more to come.

Except that the next five dishes seemed to be more or less the same: mushrooms with something gooey, drowned in brown sauce and with the odd other vegetable stuck in. The "vegetarian shark fin soup" was so strange tasting, one vegetarian said it tasted like beef stock had been used as a basis, so the Indians rather went on strike. Then we each got a small bowl of rice with  few cucumbers sliced in, no sauce. For dessert there were two small squares of Jell-o. At least the wine was good.... As we left we saw piles and piles of noodles and rice on the other tables - that and a bit of sweet-and-sour sauce would have been wonderful!

We had a nice ride back, although Tracey and I rather got into an argument with an administrator from Canada who insisted that their university would punish students who reused more than four words in sequence without a reference. She wanted to know what software she should use to teach the students. I got ticked off about the text-matching software, as is not useful for that purpose, and Tracey insisted that the policy is crocked (it is!) and should be changed. We still have a lot of educating to do!

More to come on the last day of the conference!

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