By Grant Jacobs 27/10/2017 6


(Or a taught course, or department.)

Reading about the latest retraction of a Shaw and Tomljenovic research paper on aluminium (with two ‘i’s!) and vaccines, I was reminded of topics I’ve ruminated on in the past: when to investigate a professor, and when do they no longer justify their position? What criteria might we use? What are the hallmarks of good academic work? And why won’t universities act?

I’m not going to (re-)deconstruct the retraction of the research: there’s plenty of that already out there, including by people who’ve been covering this group’s work over the years. The latest media report reveals a series of ridiculous excuses; more on this, and an entertaining diversion in Footnote 1.

What will it take for universities to develop simple criteria that can be used to throw out rotten eggs? They clearly will act in cases of (repeated) fraud, or (some) cases of harassment, but they are very, very reluctant to act in the case of simple repeated egregious nonsense.

Basic stuff like:

  • the scientist is clearly spending too much time on hobby projects, or gravy trains that lack sound academic basis
  • they’re clearly playing to and/or being played by advocacy groups (sometimes both as part of a self-congratulatory circle)
  • they are clearly not seriously critiquing their own work, and/or are not taking on board criticism of their work from others

Academic institutions have long played to a theme of freedom to explore topics. There’s a need for that, but surely there should also be some sane limits, some line beyond which enough is enough.

The freedom to explore any line of inquiry should be an opportunity granted, a privilege, not a “right”.

Senior academic positions are expensive. There’s a very large pool of of very capable candidates deserving them.

Yet university after university seems enormously reluctant to take wayward researchers to task. Why?

One reason might simply be that they’ve never sat down and written a process to handle the situation, so that when they’re faced with it they react in that ridiculously over-cautious way academic administrations can do.

Sourced from Twitter, image cropped.

If an incumbent is dilly-dallying around, review them and stop the pandering. But best have a procedure in place; it’d make it much easier.

This goes for researchers defending shonky “science” of all stripes. Water fluoridation. GMO “concerns”. Hare-brained futurism.[2] Anti-vaccine positions.

My previous thoughts stem from incidents I’ve seen in NZ universities from some time ago. These left me ruminating what it was that distinguished a good academic (or department). I felt a key thing characterising proper academic work is to properly critique whatever it is that they examine. (Or, in the case of teaching, to teach that critiquing.)

One important aspect here is that evangelism of a particular position is not good academic practice. Evangelism argues for one position regardless of evidence, not critically discusses or examines the thing. Being passionate about a thing can be useful, but it’s being critical that is the essential thing.

Sharper readers will note there is a parallel here to an argument I offered about the University of Otago hosted a screening of the Vaxxed movie: you can engage with controversial topics, but you must do so in the spirit of honest, open critical examination of it. What you can’t do is leave out, discourage or ignore criticism, or evangelise particular stances.

The way I look at it a staff member (course, department, university) who has moved past genuine critique to simple advocacy or evangelism has, to my mind, moved past what it means to do academic work — and with that they’ve effectively signed out from academia. The university kicking them out would only be formalising what they’ve already done.

All the universities would be asking is that they not act like that on their turf or under their name: either genuinely be an academic, or move out.

It’s clear the universities do take some activities seriously, mostly outright fraud and, sometimes, harassment.

Quoting from the British Medical Journal (the BMJ), Canadian researchers whose studies questioned vaccine safety face second retraction:

Gail Murphy, vice president of research and innovation at the University of British Columbia, said that the university “holds dear the value of academic freedom that allows faculty to challenge any and all established conventions” but “does not endorse any faculty member’s research findings, as it is up to the scientific community to evaluate research.”

She said, “While privacy law prevents us from discussing individual cases, allegations of scholarly misconduct are evaluated and thoroughly investigated where warranted.” Disciplinary action was taken if needed, she added. “We post online, anonymized summaries of cases in which scholarly misconduct was found.”

Note the two-step, with it’s shift to misconduct. The problem is not disallowing “faculty to challenge any and all established conventions”—of course they’re entitled to do that—but how those faculty do that. Do they do it in the spirit on open, honest critique, or do they do with dubious “research” and dismissing others’ concerns?

It won’t be an easy thing to put down in some testable way for universities to assess their staff, courses and departments, but I think they should try. After all, it seems to me it’s the nub their enterprise.

Footnotes

Others have voiced similar concerned elsewhere, e.g. “SkepticalRaptor” in UBC responded to retraction of Shaw and Tomljenovic anti-vaccine paper.

Shaw works in the Ophthalmology department. Vaccines and their adjuvants are a rather different thing than diseases and disorders of the eye. It would suggest his and Tomljenovic’s work on aluminium in vaccine adjuvants are a hobby project. Furthermore, funding for the work is apparently from the Dwoskin Foundation, who aims to “establish” links between a variety of things and vaccines.

University of British Columbia’s motto is Tuum Est: ‘It is yours’, ‘It is up to you’. No doubt they they mean this as encouragement to students, but you can’t help noting it could also be read as a laissez faire approach to administration!

I mention taught courses and departments because these are also open to misuse. I’ve had students bring to me concerns about some courses in NZ universities over the years. There are also some departments whose approach doesn’t fit well with strong academic critique.

I’ve left out the case of people who have simply become non-productive. It’s an issue, too, but a different one.

1.

I find it particularly odd that the Chinese researcher, though her lawyer, says that it’s between Shaw and the university, but she is apparently the one holding the data. If she has (had) the data, she must be involved, surely.

There is Lucija Tomljenovic’s statement that she “had nothing to do with either collecting or analyzing any of the actual data.” Let me get this right. She’s an author on a paper she says she had nothing to do with? Hmm.

(If you want a bit of light relief, there’s this entertaining take on it, Why do all these academics keep forcing me to co-author their papers? Let’s face it, there aren’t too many accounts that include an “argumentum ad cross-section-through-an-M&M”. A serious point you should come away with is the sheer extent that this little group help each other publish tripe.)

2.

Hey, look, speculation is fun, but there’s a point where it departs so far from reality, that it’s a bit kooky, right?!

Other articles on Code for life

What do you want in a science commission?

Vaxxed at University of Otago: venues should be able to decline

Green Party GM policy and discussion about GE or GMOs

Haemophilia – towards a cure using genetic engineering

Professors, lost souls with great oratory power?

Featured image

The featured image is a Sidney Paget illustration of Professor Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes novel, The Final Problem. (Wikipedia, public domain.)

 


6 Responses to “When to kick out a professor”

  • I’ve seen a comment online (Twitter) to the effect that “20 years ago science establishments still had force and authority to limit a Wakefield.”

    Anyone agree with this? I’ve been around longer than 20 years myself, and I’m not sure!

  • As a rather late follow-on to this piece —

    There are passages in this article at Canada’s National Post that are relevant, e.g. http://nationalpost.com/news/canada/ubc-journal-retraction-raises-controversial-question-can-an-activist-who-writes-an-anti-vaccine-study-be-a-scientist

    I’ve picked this up belatedly via ‘The Mad Virologist’ talking about it today (thanks!)

    UBC administrators said in a statement, “We are aware of statements attributed to Dr. Christopher Shaw in media reports that would suggest a clear breach of the university’s policy on scholarly integrity. If true, those statements would be of great concern to the university. While privacy law prevents the university from commenting on a specific case or the results of a specific investigation, we can say that breaches of the kind described would warrant an investigation under our scholarly integrity policy.” (As of Tuesday, Shaw said he was not aware of any investigation by UBC).

    Gail Murphy, UBC’s vice-president of research, also said in a statement that the university “holds dear the value of academic freedom that allows faculty to challenge any and all established conventions.”

    Science ethics experts told the National Post they don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with activism in science, as long as researchers don’t fudge their results or ignore findings to fit a particular agenda and are open about where their funding comes from.

    They said academic institutions should encourage scientists to engage the public more with the results of their research and shouldn’t be afraid if researchers pursue controversial topics.

    For me at least, it’s important to sound out if your hypothesis to be tested has realistic merit. For example, background reading that might include noting that removal of vaccines (e.g. in Japan) didn’t lower autism rates, that there is no statistical relationship between vaccines and autism from a large body of studies, etc. If vaccines aren’t associated with autism, the idea that part of the vaccine (aluminium adjuvant) might be associated with autism isn’t very plausible.

    Using advocacy groups as funding sources is always going pushing the line of integrity no matter how much you say you’re “doing your own thing”. That you’ve taken funding from them says that you accept the basic nature of the advocacy group. That, in turn, leaves you in a questionable position to critically judge, the essential thing (IMHO) you must do as an academic. There are also questions to consider in taking funding from a source that you are also on the science advisory board of.

  • Thanks, Alison – worth reading.

    The latest comment there points at another piece from Riddled:

    http://eusa-riddled.blogspot.co.nz/2017/10/you-maniacs-you-blew-it-all-up-divided.html

    It also notes some rather silly mathematical problems in the paper- e.g. presenting three data points as if they were a distribution [ahem], etc. The now blank images in the Riddled look to be links to images from the now-retracted paper.

    Towards the end it points out that a new book that was at that time yet to appear with these authors involved, alongside some people who have previously made (to be polite about it) dubious, and ill-researched, claims about vaccines.

    Best as I can tell from a quick inspection, that book seems to have vanished from the Elsevier site – no notice of retraction, etc., in it’s place. The links in the Riddled piece now lead to a 404 error page (page not found error). There are review pages (with no reviews) for this book, but a search at The reviews show the book is published by Elsevier Science & Technology Books, with Christopher A. Shaw, Claire Dwoskin as editors. Searches at the Elsevier site isn’t returning it. Perhaps there’s wider action that has taken place by Elsevier that we’re not hearing about?

    More on this later, perhaps, if further looking around turns up information.

  • This might be another case to use an example, this time someone who, apparently, has acted as a paid-for advisor in an inappropriate way. (I don’t know the details of the story; I’m taking the author’s word for it but it sounds like the university started proceedings against this guy, then let them slide.)

    Given the sheer number of people who would like academic jobs, there is no shortage of better-behaving replacements.

    https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/dec/07/a-mercenary-academic-produced-dodgy-data-to-sabotage-my-case