Friday, July 11, 2014

Publish or Perish

The post title is an aphorism that riffs on how much of a college professor's reputation is based on how many articles or books he or she has in print. A mediocre teacher can gain an edge in angling for a tenured professorship if he or she has more articles than a better teacher.

But since most Ph. D.'s aren't required to take a single course on teaching in order to earn their degrees, the contest may wind up being between two mediocrities. Which makes me think the college should just save themselves the grief and put the mediocrities on a public ballot like political offices do.

Anyway, some folks connected to the Journal of Vibration and Control took the importance of published material seriously enough that they developed a fraud ring of fake peer-reviewers to support the value of a submitted article. "Peer-review" is the process by which other people in a field of expertise examine an article to see if the author's methodology is sound. A reviewer need not agree with the conclusions, but either way, if they come across serious errors in procedure or testing, they will alert the journal which will in turn contact the article's author and ask, "What's up?"

It seems the ring was using the fake identities to suggest that articles were good to go, thus expanding the number of "peers" who rated the submissions as acceptable in their methodology and scientific procedures. The JVR covers a highly specialized field of acoustics, and when the ring was uncovered it was forced to retract more than 60 articles that had been tainted by the ring's shenanigans. It's published monthly rather than quarterly like some academic journals, but still, 60 articles is a significant chunk of verbiage that the journal now says can't be vouched for.

That the problem was found out is a good thing, of course, even if it happened in a not-so-well-known publication read by a relatively small group of specialists. But it does make me wonder, at least, about the pressure the publishing drive brings if a professor dreams up a scheme like this, as well as whether or not "peer review" is the magic authenticity bullet it is claimed to be. This may be one more system of the higher education industry that needs either an overhaul or at least a squinty-eyed closer look.


fillyjonk said...

Oh, how long of a rant on academic publishing do you want? (I'm a prof at a primarily teaching-oriented school. I'm an OK researcher but a better teacher).

Anyway, a couple of thoughts:

1. Apparently one of the parties involved assumed the identity of other researchers in the field - a form of identity theft. Perhaps not as immediately financially damaging as the kind you most commonly hear of, but potentially-deadly to the reputation of the person who was being falsely used.

2. There's a new trend in publishing that irritates me, and it's this: when you submit a paper, you are also asked for the names of several potential reviewers. Instead of having a list of people "known" and willing to review, a journal depends on the author to suggest people. That seems lazy to me, and rife for exploitation. (And I always feel weird offering up names: it feels dishonest to me to name someone I suspect would be predisposed to say my paper was publishable even if it needed more work)

3. This is kind of a side effect of publish-or-perish. The honest folks either wind up working way too hard, or not getting tenure, or, if they're lucky, they work somewhere that they're not required to churn out a paper every year. The dishonest folks? Just find a way to cheat. It's distressingly like the classroom situation, where we get apprised of "this is the new method of cheating" on a regular basis.

4. Very often, it feels like the "deck" of academic publishing is stacked against those who produce the articles. (Especially if they're honest people).

5. I've reviewed articles for journals before. It's work, and you don't get paid for it (but can put it on your CV or your annual work-review), but it's important work and can be kind of interesting. (And I strive to do reviews quickly; they ask for returns within three weeks. Very rarely have I got a paper I submitted back within six months with reviews....)

Charles Darwin supposedly said "A naturalist's life would be a happy one if he had only to observe and never to write." I'm inclined to agree.

Friar said...

I would suspect that most higher-ed teachers harbor similar feeling about the publishing end of the business -- it's eaten the profession alive.

fillyjonk said...

Friar: I suspect you are correct in that. I went into this gig because I like teaching and I think I'm fairly good at it. Not because I wanted to chase after grant monies or deal with the hoops of publication. But on some level, almost everyone who is teaching college but not in a community-college situation has to deal with the publication beast.