Saturday, October 22, 2011

The culture of bandwagons, whale-ariums and the authorship mass-graves

Bandwagons are great things to have in the neighbourhood, but they are not something that Singaporeans are very familiar with. The closest we have to bandwagons would be the floats that used to be paraded across the grandstand during National Day parades. These floats would generally profile the organization and trumpet its most recent achievements. But few personalities ever get to reap any reflected fame by jumping on these bandwagons. Another version of the bandwagon is the local 歌台 ge tai's. Here's where aspiring politicians sometimes flaunt themselves during 'hungry ghosts' season hoping for some public attention.

The version of the bandwagon seen in academic circles is that associated with 'successful' and high profile researchers (or research). If you have one in the neghbourhood, you'd be very blessed indeed. By jumping on such a bandwagon, aspiring wannabe researchers collect instant fame and fortune. In the past, when few bandwagons were apparent in the local scene, we used to have to send aspiring researchers to high profile universities or research insitutes where they get access to high profile bandwagons. These researchers then return covered with reflected glory and certainty of an equivalently high profile career.

Nowadays of course, there's is a lot more money floating around and we can afford to bring in some of the bandwagons instead of sending our novice researchers out to them. Net benefit to us, as not only our young researchers but Singapore gets to bask in the limelight of these bandwagons. In order to not look so crass and obvious, the bandwagons have been camoflaged as travelling whales, as if we were recruiting for an oceanarium in Resorts World Sentosa.

It is of course, nice to have whales in the neighbourhood. Up to a certain point.

It's unfortunately been somewhat overdone. Nevermind that the rest of world also play this game. But the game of cultivating whale-ariums has taken on a life of its own, complete with its own set of KPIs. Senior management of universities, research institutes and other high profile research establishments spend enormous sums of money bidding for top performers for their whale-ariums. These senior management KPIs are based on how many whale Michael Jacksons (or Lady Gaga) they can attract. Don't worry about whether there is real transfer of technology or not, just make sure the whales perform, and as many as possible get to ride the whale.

Too cynical Gigamole is being?

Well, look at our grant agencies, and see how they look disdainfully down on local content. Woe betide your chances should you not have a significant performing whale leashed to your proposal, and are not part of one of these existing whale-ariums. Your career on the other hand, is pretty much secured for life if you can convince the grant agencies to advance you enough credit for you to lease your own whale-arium (otherwise called a programmatic grant) with at least one performing whale on board. All you need to is to sit back and collect the gate fees (otherwise known as research credits).

Correspondingly an entire culture has grown around the bandwagon/whale-arium 'ge tai'. The output of such whale-ariums has become a major KPI. Hence chalking up such research credits through being involved in publications can make or break a young scientist's career. Publication authorship lists have grown exponentially over the years. Endorsements of major performing whales become essential in providing gravitas to these publications. This gravitas is important because it provides better odds in getting your publication into major journals. Such heavy publications are referred to as having 'high impact' and secure much credit for the authors on these publications.

The university actually encourages the formation and farming of these whale-ariums.

Academic staff performances are graded according to their abilities in securing funding to lease a whale-arium or a significant bandwagon. Individual local efforts are frowned upon, regardless on whether they are meritorius (in fact a medical school Dean has been famously quoted as having disparaged his staff "How good can you be?"), or not. Involvement in journal publications are extremely important in the KPIs of academic staff. Here again the university/medical school also encourages long authorship lists to develop. It's a no brainer. Everybody stands to gain from long authorship lists. It's just a mathematical reality. More people benefit from a single publication. Young staff without an established reputation gets ahead on the (coat) tails of senior and more prominent whales. Senior academics without much research output get free rides on the backs of their more energetic and younger colleagues. The university glows with pride as all this light gets reflected back and forth. Of course the university ranking gets to climb a few notches.

Too cynical Gigamole is being?

Well, look at how the medical school computes research performance credits of it staff. Performance credits get elevated disportionately of the actual impact factors of the journals. These credits are freely awarded to co-authors without the main authors losing out on their own personal credits, resulting in total credit inflation. Hence total credits often exceed 100% of the expected credit score of any publication. Co-authorships are tacitly encouraged even if real participation is minimal. In fact, mathematically, it makes more sense to be a nominal participant on these bandwagons than trying to develop your own ideas and independant research.

Journals are supposed to require authors to decalre their actual involvement in any publication. But they seldom do. According to Wikipedia:
"In the medical field, authorship is defined very narrowly. According to the Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals, in order to be considered an author, one must have satisfied all three conditions:
Contributed substantially to the conception and design of the study, the acquisition of data, or the analysis and interpretation
Drafting or providing critical revision of the article,and
Provided final approval of the version to be published
The acquisition of funding, or general supervision of the research group alone does not constitute authorship. Many medical journals have abandoned the strict notion of author, with the flexible notion of contributor.

I have never seen these criteria being applied.

Wikipedia further elaborates:
"the U.S. National Academies specify 'an author who is willing to take credit for a paper must also bear responsibility for its contents. Thus, unless a footnote or the text of the paper explicitly assigns responsibility for different parts of the paper to different authors, the authors whose names appear on a paper must share responsibility for all of it.' "


Let's watch the Alirio Melendez story unfold as the investigations continue. The Straits Times recently reported on another investigation of a prominent whale-arium.

These whale-ariums have lives of their own. Time to re-boot the system?


Anonymous said...

Retraction Watch just announced that Halliwell will not be involved in the Melendez investigation. Interesting. He never told the news organizations he spoke with initially that he had publications with Melendez and that he would not get himself involved in any investigation. In contrary, he was just giving just the opposite impression internally and externally. Now that the Gigamole Diaries exposed the situation (Retraction Watch cites the Gigamole Diaries), he announces that he will not be involved! Congratulations Gigamole Diaries!

Anonymous said...

Things are still very secretive, and far from transparent. Even if he is not directing the investigations, it is indeed very odd that the Deputy President of the NUS, who himself ought to be among the investigated by virtue of the fact that he shares 2 publications with Melendez,is very much in a position to influence investigation proceedings.

Anonymous said...

Read this news report. It is people in Singapore who are at fault in Alirio case...

Anonymous said...

He would surely say that. From the superficial look of things he seems like serial offender across a number of countries.

Anonymous said...

do you think we would be hearing something about this investigation soon? it was mentioned in the Univ of Liverpool press release Dr. Melendez was suspended in April (Correct me if am wrong), till now no news on the progress of the investigation. Moreover, what about DSO personnel involved in this case as well as with Dr. Madhav Bhatia publications (see abnormal science). he seems to be running around as if business as usual. I have security question to Gigamole. How are you managing this blog when you are writing about NUS? Prof Ito case has just got mum...humans have short term memory and people will continue to excel...

Anonymous said...

recent developments make me suspicious of most of the research conducted here. It is mentioned in today's straitstimes about a research conducted in Genome Institute of Singapore by Prof Frank McKeon's group. This is just published in Cell - top journal in Biomedical Research. Curiously, i checked on pubmed...he has just published a Cell paper on a different topic (June 2011) and then previous on in February issue (2011) of Cell. Amazingly well done research - he seems to be everywhere - stem cells, cancer biology, infectious diseases, immunology, p53 family, personalised medicine. Kudos...A case of concern?