Open Access – and a little bit of piracy

So I thought the Open Access forum was great.  I honestly had no idea what open access was all about.  I was a little skeptical when I heard the term for the first time since I find some of the more idealistic terms and movements end up being just that, idealistic and not realistic.  From the name and the brief (and inaccurate) description I was given, I pictured the OA movement as just another “we want people to do all the work and give us stuff for free” type of thing.  Having had enough of those, I wasn’t overly interested.  BUT!  I was so happy to be proven wrong.  I think it’s awesome that the OA movement manages to be forward-thinking with a practical realism that somebody has to pay for things to make them work.  I totally agree with the idea that research should be distributed as much as possible.  I have often wondered about how people in poor countries get access to research (short answer – they don’t), but I had never thought about the impact that access limitations have on policymakers and even just average Joe government workers.  I think it’s unfortunate that the people who most need the research may be the ones least able to access it.  Not saying that your typical government official or employee would actually go looking for scholarly papers, but it’d be nice if that was at least an option.  As a taxpayer, I pay money for research and then don’t get access to the results.  Instead, researchers have to pay money for a 3rd party to publish the results and then charge me again as a student to access them.  That doesn’t make sense.  There’s a part of me that thinks, if people are willing to pay them what they do, I can’t actually blame them, but after learning that 10 publishers control so much of the market share, I’ve realized it’s no longer a free market.  But, I still don’t think piracy is the way to go.  I think when people make an agreement, they should stick with it, even if it’s some stupidly lopsided one between researchers/library/publishers.  I’m all for killing that current agreement by OA publishing and archiving and making legal alternatives for publishing through Elsevier or Springer.  A pirate server that hosts all research is not a way to establish legitimate alternatives to the current overprice journal system.  We still need technical review and we still need vetting of journals, and frankly, we still need to pay copy editors and journal administrators.  I think it’s awesome that people are willing to publish open access, but I think there is a huge difference between someone willing giving their work away and someone stealing that work and posting it online.

I was glad that the forum included two people who are actually involved in publishing and glad that one of them was from a non-OA journal.  It was interesting to hear from them about the actual costs of running a journal.  Even though OA is a great thing, it still costs money; however, we can do more to make that affordable.   When journals with the same overhead costs charge prices ranging from $150 to $40000, we can make changes.  I love the idea of libraries throwing money at researchers to publish their papers in an OA journal rather than throwing money at Elsevier.  Also cool to hear that no technical reviewers for Collabra have pocketed the money.

Anyway, I think we’re still a ways off from an actual, meaningful swing from our current model to an OA model, but I’m glad we’re on our way.  I think we need to do more to actually talk to tenured professors rather than just bright-eyed and bushy-tailed grad students or this will never go anywhere.  If we just talk about this with grad students who haven’t experienced professional academia and who have almost no leverage to make a change, we’re never going to get to where we want to be.  Hopefully we all remember what we’ve learned when we get to be professors.  If not, we’ll just have to wait till the incredible growth rate in the price of journals collapses the current market on its own.  I’d rather not wait though.

With just a little bit of Photoshop… (A post about ethics!)

When I hear the word photoshopping, I think of this:

For a less entertaining example of photoshopping, refer to the case of  Meredyth M. Forbes, who intentionally falsified/fabricated data for 5 papers and 6 presentations using photoshop:

Her reports include some 62 fluorescent image panels which she had falsified by using photoshop to add staining that didn’t appear during testing.  She also made up numbers to go along with them.  She faked the data to show “germ-cell development in zebrafish Dazap2 maternal-effect mutants” when no mutants were produced and to create data on “zebrafish embryogenesis and oocyte polarity” when data was not actually obtained from experiments.

The result was a “voluntary” exclusion agreement where she agreed to, for a period of 3 years, exclude herself from any contracting or subcontracting with any US government agency and her name can’t be used to apply for funds from the US government.  She also has to exclude herself from being on a PHS advisory committee, board, peer review, or consultant.

I guess it’s still amazing to me that people would actually so blatantly change/create/fake data.  I am not nearly so surprised by people who skew data through their analysis methods or biasing sampling because those are generally easier for people to rationalize away, but actually faking data is still amazing to me.  It does make me wonder how often data is faked and people aren’t caught.   I imagine some people do it out of desperation, but it seems like somebody always finds out and you end up in a worse spot.  But, the fact that this thing happens so often seems to suggest that plenty of other people do it and don’t get caught.  Which is depressing and a sad thought.  I guess I like to be an optimist about people and assume most people would rather we failed honestly than succeed dishonestly.  Especially in a profession that, at least in theory, is all about discovering truth, it seems that we should be even more rigorous in our approach to accurate testing, analysis, and reporting.

So I guess each of us needs to ask ourselves how far we’d be willing to go to get our next funding, paper, award, commendation, position, etc, because at some point in time, I think we all have to face opportunities where we feel tempted to alter how we are doing things to make our results appear more impactful or at least more inline with what we want them to show.  I hope when I come to a point like that, I can remember that my integrity is worth more than tenure or than a higher impact factor.  Or even then a bigger paycheck.  I think it’s a little unfortunate that we don’t have direct financial penalties for people who fake data or cheat on research.  We throw so much money at researchers that I feel like they have some obligation to give it back if they don’t use it to do what they were supposed to do.  Most of the punishments I saw on the ORI site were things about being under probation or having to have someone oversee our activites.  Between that and things like the exclusion agreement Meredith is under, academics do lose a lot of money because they lose grants and almost certainly lose sponsors.  But what about those who have already pocketed 1000s and 100,000s of dollars while faking research.  Do they/should they pay that back?  Of course they should.  I imagine, in absence of having to give the money back, actual fines might be good deterrent from unethical behavior.  But, in the end, I don’t think any amount of punishment will honestly stop unethical behavior.  Cheaters will always cheat and I think it’s up to each of us personally to make sure we are being honest in all we do and to make sure we hold others to that same standard.  That may be the most effective way to help our industry actual be a standard for honesty and truth.


What’s your point?

Okay. So the title was a terrible play on Grade POINT Average, but I thought, for a Monday, it wasn’t the worst pun possible.  Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to discuss the concept of GPA since we spent a good while discussing it a couple weeks ago.

What to do about GPA?  It’s a near-ubiquitous aspect of our school system that’s been used for a long time. With the exception of a few universities, every university graduate leaves college with a GPA that follows you for the rest of your career.  It’s an easy number to use in comparing a large number of applicants and, at least theoretically, may be an indication of how well someone did in school.  But is it worth the effort to make sure you get a good GPA in college and is it worth pushing a grading scale on students at all?

On the whole, I don’t have all that much of a beef with GPA.  I think that it makes sense to try to establish some sort of scale for evaluating performance in college.  For larger companies, head hunters and HR personnel are comparing large numbers of applicants for limited positions.  Especially for entry-level positions where applicants likely don’t have significant work experience, there may not be any way to quickly compare mass numbers of applicants besides GPA.  While I think setting a hard number for the GPA cutoff is dangerous, giving weight to GPA makes sense.  In my personal experience, people who work hard and apply themselves may not get As or even Bs, but do generally get better grades than those who don’t.  There are always people who work really hard and fail and those who don’t work at all and have great grades, but again, you’re looking at a tool which is being used on a screening level for recruiting.  I think that when we totally discount the utility of GPA, it’s often out of bitterness or just a desire to disagree with establishment concepts; however, I think we’re being dishonest if we try to say that GPA in no way reflects our actual success in college and our success later.  I worked for a company for 5 years that had 1000s of employees and GPA was a major factor in whether you got a job.  But it wasn’t the only factor.  A lot of times GPA got you the interview and the rest of your resume won you the job.  Obviously this whole thing is discipline-specific.  I work in engineering where you’re dealing with nuts and bolts and numbers.  I think, I personally, would rather the person designing my building did an A+ job instead of a D job.  Just saying.  But if we’re looking at business and communications or other “soft” science fields, GPA will likely mean a whole lot less than your ability to communicate and interact socially.  In that instance, maybe the kid who goofed off and got Ds will do better in his career than the one who avoided social events to get better grades.  Not hard to imagine that scenario.  Anyway, I guess the point is, I think GPA is a good thing, but not the end all, be all of determining success in college.

I thought it was interesting too to look at GPA and the high school to college transition.  If you are part of college admissions and you receive 1000s, if not 10000s, of applications, there is almost no way you can qualitatively sort applicants in any reasonable amount of time.  The ability to quickly sort applicants by GPA is an easy way to trim out students you don’t think would be successful.  Are you going to miss some students that would do great at your school?  Of course you will.  I think that there is honestly no surefire way to know how someone will do in college based on any facts you can assemble, but at least using GPA to screen out candidates is an efficient and somewhat logical method.  I actually found an article titled “Predicting Success in College: The Importance of Placement Tests and High School Transcripts” by Belfield and Crosta (2012) which showed that high school GPA is actually a pretty good predictor of college GPA and a good indicator of how fast students will accumulate credit in college, which I found interesting.  Students who do better in high school are also more likely to have higher credit loads in college.  So if high school GPA is a good predictor of college GPA, can we logically assume college GPA is an apt predictor of post-college success?  Probably not.  Turns out college is a lot more like high school than careers are like college.  But I think that if colleges police their GPA policies, than maybe GPA can be an indication of, at least, whether someone got what the university wanted them to out of their courses.

Anyway, this is a lot of rambling to say that we shouldn’t throw out GPA, but we also shouldn’t think that’s the most important thing we get out of college or the most important thing when looking for jobs.  Ironically, I think we stress a ton about GPAs while simultaneously complaining they are useless and don’t get looked at by potential employers.  If you honestly think they don’t matter, then don’t stress about it.  For me, I find they can be a good measure of my effort in a class and may indicate subjects or topics I need to work harder on.  Maybe in grad school, that’s the only utility they have but it’s good enough for me.  Anyway, social skills, initiative, work experience, and other factors are way more likely to be what gets you the job you want, but depending on where you work, you may need a GPA to get you the interview.

What are we paying for?

Thinking today about the cost of college and why in the world we pay it.  Well, not really, but why in the world we pay what we do for it.  I was skimming articles and saw one that was reminding students that it was time again to start thinking about financial aid for college and was bummed to see the approach the article took towards college prices and affording college.

I feel like we do potential college students a disservice, and maybe a disservice to ourselves, when we assume there is no other way to go to college than to take out student loans.  The article I read said something to the effect that students should keep an “open mind” about where they can attend college because, through a combination of aid from different sources, they may be able to afford a college they never thought they’d be able to attend.  I think the idea of keeping an open mind and even an OPTIMISTIC mind about your future options is awesome.  We should all aspire to be more than we are currently and to exceed expectations, but I don’t like the idea that we push on kids that they have to go to an expensive school or they won’t be able to get a job or get into grad school or the like.  Especially at the undergraduate level (and I’m sure there are fields where this is the exception and there is some minimal standard of schooling that needs to be met), the institution you attend for undergrad doesn’t make a whole ton of difference about the jobs you can get and grad schools you can get into.  I’m in what can arguably called one of the top 3 grad schools in the country (if not the world) for my field and we have people from a huge range of institutions ranging from small, state schools to expensive private schools.  I recently left a job (to come back to school) where I worked with people who spent time at community college and podunk schools I’d never heard of, and yet, they were fully employed and very successful at their jobs.

We shouldn’t be telling kids they should go into debt to afford more expensive schools when there are cheaper ways to reach the same endpoint.  I get annoyed when recent (or even not-so-recent students) complain about student loan debt, especially when it comes as a result of, of their own free will and choice, attending an expensive school.  I think it’s awesome when people push themselves to get scholarships and grants to attend the universities they’ve been dreaming of attending, especially when it means that someone who comes from a rough background socioeconomically is able to go somewhere that they wouldn’t normally be able to attend.  I think it’s great that we have people willing to fund students to do that.  I also think it’s awesome when students are able to work, save, and sometimes slave to pay their own way at these institutions.  What I think is unfair, and pretty dumb, is to push students to go into debt to pay exorbitant amounts for a degree they can get for less somewhere else.  Especially, when they pay that much and end up with a degree that doesn’t earn them enough to pay their debts.   There will always be circumstances where some level of debt can’t be avoided.  There are people who, due to circumstances beyond their control, have no other option.  However, I’m amazed at how often we jump to that conclusion when maybe we have better, cheaper options we haven’t explored.  Or when maybe we need to swallow our pride and get a job or look at cheaper options like community college for a couple of years.  I’ve been there too, and I’m hoping we can help others to not end up in the same place.

We need to grow up and accept the consequences of our decisions if we choose/chose to go into debt for school, but I think that looking forward, we  need to stop telling kids they need to go into debt to be successful in life.  Between community colleges, in-state colleges, summer and school-year employment, and other options, we have better ways.