(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.
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. 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.
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.
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.)
Hey, look, speculation is fun, but there’s a point where it departs so far from reality, that it’s a bit kooky, right?!
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The featured image is a Sidney Paget illustration of Professor Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes novel, The Final Problem. (Wikipedia, public domain.)