Friday, 15 November 2013

Research & The Emperor's New Clothes

Key Thought
Academic institutions should be judged on whether their students are fit for purpose in the job market and not by their research ratings; the drive for research ratings leads to dishonesty in research.

The October issue of the RSC publication Chemistry In Britain has a disturbing article on research. One of my posts was about why researchers need not necessarily be good teachers. In that post, I deferred to their specialist expertise (knowing more and more) in their very specific field (about less and less) but, this particular article by Patrick Walter (Chemistry World Oct 2013 Vol 10 no.10, p.8-9) suggests that at times research may be faked, making researchers more game players rather than truly on an altruistic quest for scientific truth.

A paper in Organometallics on the synthesis of palladium and platinum complexes, allowed a bit of communication to slip through which proof-readers did not pick up. In it the authors said "insert NMR data here...make up  an elemental analysis...." Does this mean "please invent some data"?

[Very simply put, NMR analysis reveals information about the number and type of hydrogen/carbon atoms in a compound, and elemental analysis tells us about the percentages of elements in a compound, for example, 40% Carbon, 12% Hydrogen etc].

Is it possible that "Research" is now perceived as a lofty activity, proof of an exalted first class intellect, such that papers emanating from Research activity is an end that provides endorsement of that intellectual superiority? If so, Research then stops being an activity that flows from a real curiosity and love of Science of the Watson and Crick variety.

It should be noted that teachers are not allowed rights over their own intellectual property; the teaching materials belong to the Institution the teacher works for. Should that Institution wish, it can commandeer, alter, confiscate and re-allocate a teacher's lecture notes with impunity. Sometimes, the most successfully-run modules are redistributed to research-active staff, once the teacher has developed the module.

It is inevitable that three evils arise from this dichotomy of regard (may I call it double standards?); firstly, a University teacher's activity is deemed second-class and not worthy of recognized authorship; secondly (flowing from the first), a University researcher (and students) may despise teaching and teaching-only academics who are by definition, invisible in the publishing world; thirdly, researchers, motivated by self-interest, may do anything to get the paper to the journal, whether right or wrong, as revealed by the several examples cited in Patrick Walter's RSC Chemistry in Britain article.

I recall, how, at work, a regular update would be sent round by Admin, by group e-mail to the entire department announcing a new paper had been published by someone within the department and that paper was now up on the Publication Board, prominently displayed in the Departmental Foyer for all to see. Teaching activities never attracted any such recognition. Academic Institutions sometimes parachute new staff in, who are just about to publish, so that the paper will count towards the new Institution, rather than the old Institution that actually nurtured the Research. It's all very unsatisfactory. I suppose with some of these research publications, it takes a pair of innocent and honest eyes to perceive and cry out aloud, like the little boy in the story of the Emperor's New Clothes, "Why, mother, there is nothing there!!"

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