Friday, 20 March 2009

Bloody Elsevier

Some time ago, I had a paper on normal fault evolution in the Gulf of Suez accepted for publication in the Journal of Structural Geology. This is an Elsevier journal, and the paper duly went off to the Elsevier production people to be published. Now, one of the figures in the paper is a large and spectacularly detailed geological map of the study area, done in the late 1990s by my co-author and former University of Manchester post-doc Ian Sharp. This is an excellent piece of work in itself, and it had never been published; we decided that this paper would be a good place to finally publish it. The level of detail on this map is such that we wanted to reproduce it in colour, at A3 size. We knew that this would cost money, but the industrial sponsors of the work were happy to cover the costs.

After a long and generally fruitless attempt at corresponding with the Elsevier production department (which has been outsourced to India, incidentally), I finally received a PDF proof of the paper in which the geological map was reproduced at A3 size. All well and good. Until the final version of the paper was published [paywall: for God's sake, don't pay $31.50 for this...if you really want a copy, e-mail me and I'll send you a PDF], and the map was back to A4 size, with much of the fine detail lost as a result.


Now, surely it isn't on for Elsevier to unilaterally make changes to an article without consulting the authors about it. I know some people who have been involved in editing this journal, and it seems they are unhappy with how it is being run by Elsevier. As Dr Aust points out, companies like Elsevier charge large amounts of money for papers, in just about the only example of publishing in which the authors don't want to be paid for producing all the content. Elsevier makes massive profits out of journal publishing, gets to hide all of the content behind ridiculous paywalls, and doesn't even make a particularly good job of the journal production. There must be a better way.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

What is the Russell Group for?

The Russell Group contains the 20 major research-intensive universities in the UK. The University of Liverpool is a member of the group, and has recently made the news by earmarking its departments of Politics and Communication, Statistics, and Philosophy for closure. The reason is that those departments are seen as having underperformed in the 2008 RAE (Research Assessment Exercise).

In the RAE, departments are ranked by the proportion of research they have in five different categories, as follows:

4*: Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.

3*: Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which nonetheless falls short of the highest standards of excellence.

2*: Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.

1*: Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.

Unclassified: Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment.

The three departments faced with closure had no research ranked in category 4*. According to Times Higher Education, "The university has questioned whether this is “acceptable” for a member of the Russell Group of 20 research-led institutions".

So, how did the threatened departments do overall? Here's their breakdown from the 2008 RAE (source):

Statistics: 4*, 0%; 3*, 35%; 2*, 50%; 1*, 15%; UC, 0%.

Politics and Communication: 4*, 0%; 3*, 15%; 2*, 55%; 1*, 25%; UC, 5%.

Philosophy: 4*, 0%; 3*, 25%; 2*, 60%; 1*, 15%; UC, 0%.

These results are surely not disastrously bad. In all cases, the vast majority of research is ranked at 3* and 2* levels: that is, it is considered to be internationally excellent or internationally recognised. Is this really such a poor performance that it requires the closure of the departments?

The threat of closure of these departments raises the question of what a university is actually for. If it only exists to receive as much research funding as possible, then closure is a perfectly sensible action. But if you consider the university as a community of scholars, with everyone (from undergraduates to professors) learning from each other, then closing these departments is going to contribute to the narrowing of the university experience for everyone. Is that really what the University of Liverpool wants to acheive? And is that what the Russell Group is supposed to be about?

Friday, 13 March 2009

Another example of bad science with serious real world consequences

Via Respectful Insolence, I came across this story: massive research fraud has been uncovered in the field of anaesthesiology. It appears that one Scott Reuben, MD, is accused of fabricating results in at least 21 studies he conducted in the field of multi-modal analgesia; this is discussed in more detail at Science Based Medicine. The studies are now in the process of being formally retracted by the journals that published them.

It's difficult to over-emphasise the seriousness of this. Recommendations about best practice for pain management have been made on the strength of these studies. It is now not clear that those recommendations are appropriate. Until further studies are done to sort this mess out, people are going to be denied the best possible standard of care. Bad evidence has consequences.

What is particularly galling about this case is that it was not uncovered through the scientific method. Peer review didn't uncover it, and neither did a failure to independently replicate Reuben's results. In fact, it was eventually uncovered because it was noticed that Reuben did not have approval to conduct research on human subjects for two abstracts he had submitted for presentation. The scientific community has nothing to be proud of here. Fair enough, it's largely impossible for peer review to spot fraud: there has to be a degree of trust that the data presented is not simply fabricated. But fraudulent research has entered the literature, and had recommendations based on it. Make no mistake about it, this is a massive failure. It's no good saying that the scientific method ensures that such fraud will eventually be discovered: it didn't ensure it in this case, and by now the damage is done. The science based medicine community needs to urgently consider how this sort of thing can be prevented in future.

Cheers for the measles, antivaccine campaigners...

The Manchester Evening News reports that there is a measles outbreak in northeast Manchester and Oldham. Three children have been hospitalised so far.

Here's an example of bad science having consequences in the real world. Take-up of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine fell in the 1990s, following research by Andrew Wakefield that suggested a connection between autism, bowel problems and the MMR vaccine. To say that this research has now been discredited is really an understatement. Not only was the research incompetent, but there is strong evidence that it was fraudulent too. All the authors of the article, apart from Wakefield and another who could not be contacted, retracted the interpretation that MMR was linked to autism and bowel problems. This piece of bad science has led, indirectly but inexorably, to three children in Manchester having to be hospitalised with measles (which is not a harmless childhood illness). That is why this stuff matters.

There is no evidence that the MMR vaccine causes autism. If you don't get your child vaccinated, not only are you putting them at risk, you're putting other children at risk. MMR is safe: tell your friends.

Monday, 2 March 2009

In the absence of other news... are some pictures from Harstad, north Norway, where I've been working with StatoilHydro on a new project for the last week. Harstad is in the arctic circle, and it's snowy and cold just now. But the scenery is breathtaking.

Here I am with my new friend, the stuffed polar bear that has pride of place in the entrance lobby of the StatoilHydro office. Apparently the bear doesn't have a name yet. That can be a project for my next visit (which will probably be in June). This polar bear isn't that big, but I reckon it could still rip your face off pretty good.

The view from the window of the StatoilHydro office in Harstad.

Mountains, fjords and beach huts

Mountains, fjords and stunted Norwegian trees