Killing Time(s Higher Education)

December 2, 2019

THE_logo Very often, discussions of research evaluation in the public sphere boil down to: “Counting things = bad. Letting academics decide what’s important = good!” A recent opinion piece in Times Higher Education definitely fell into this category, with the author arguing that bibliometrics was “killing” academic debate. Reading this article, it occurred to me that they seemed to have gotten the whole thing topsy-turvy, so I contacted Times Higher Education and asked if they were interested in a rebuttal of the arguments, which they were. But only in 800 words.

I struggled to get my arguments down to the required length, at times thinking this an impossible dream. Upon submission, it was immediately then cut down to 700 words.

I snorted coffee out my nose when I read the email from the features and opinions editor, Paul Jump, assuming that he must have brutally butchered my carefully-crafted article beyond comprehension. Reading the edited version, however, I came to appreciate how precise his surgery had been. He had spotted (and cut) several sentences where I had reiterated something I had already said earlier, and he had quite rightly gotten rid of all the conversational filler that I tend to cram into my writing that doesn’t actually convey any meaningful information to the reader.

Having a good editor is arguably more valuable than being a good writer.

You can read my article here, but only if you or your institution have a subscription to Times Higher Education. Sad face.

If I had been given a bit more space than 700 words, I would have mentioned that some of the problems raised in the original op-ed were in the process of being solved, and were by no means the showstoppers that the author argued them to be. The fact that citations can be positive (e.g. “… the exceptional work carried out by Bloggs et al …”), neutral (“… as was shown by Bloggs et al …”) or negative (“… this contradicts the results of Bloggs et al …”) does not mean that counting citations to a paper as a measure of scholarly influence is invalid. Even a retracted article such as the fraudulent and discredited work on the link between the MMR vaccine and autism was still “influential.” Getting more citations doesn’t automatically mean that you are a better scientist, it only means that you are having a bigger impact. That is why people in the know use neutral terms such as “influence” and “impact” when referring to citation counts rather than more value-laden terms like “excellence” or “quality.”

As with most things, our good buddy science may help us solve even this thorny problem. Several research groups are working on potential solutions, such as using sentiment analysis to automatically categorise a text-mined citation as ‘nice’ or ‘nasty’ based on the surrounding textual context.

And we already even have a name for these latter types of citation: “grimpact.”


On the importance of quotation marks

May 18, 2017

It was refreshing to see the word “spiritual” surrounded by quotation marks in this post from the British Psychological Society Research Digest on the effects of psychedelic drugs. As I have previously argued, there is a lot of nonsense written about drugs generating “spiritual” experiences, most of which can simply be explained by the pre-existing beliefs of the participants. If you experience a wild trip you are going to interpret it in religious terms, or not, based on whether you are religious, or not. What does this tell us? Probably not much.

The research used magneto-encephalography, which records magnetic fields at the brain’s surface. By Emma Young

via Neural changes after taking psychedelic drugs may reflect “heightened consciousness” — Research Digest


The Selfish Academic

May 15, 2017

On Friday, I published the results of a study that have been gestating for many, many years. I’ve wanted to look at this issue ever since I first read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene in an animal behaviour course back at the University of Stirling in the late nineties (pause to feel old). Briefly, Dawkins looked at the citation rates of key papers in the development of the gene-centric view of evolution that he himself championed. It was a neat study and the data he presented seemed to support the argument he was making but, somewhat frustratingly, this analysis was not updated in the third edition, released to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the the book in 2006.

At the time I remember wondering whether another 20 years of citation data might have changed Dawkins’ conclusions and when I heard about the upcoming release of the 40th anniversary edition, it reignited my interest. I waited to see whether the analysis had been updated with citation data from the subsequent three decades and was mildly pleased to see it still hadn’t, as it gave me something to write about!

I published the paper at the relatively new, gold open access journal Publications from open access publisher MDPI. The peer-review process was thorough and the reviewers clearly knew their field and after some revision the paper was accepted, at which point things went into warp-speed and the paper was available online within 48 hours, after a proof-read by myself.

Amazingly, almost immediately after it was published, I received an email from CrossRef saying that they had received notification that I had published something and would like to auto-update my ORCID record with information about it. This was a great example of cross-plaform integration in action, with the publisher including my ORCID alongside the traditional citation metadata. I wish more of my academic colleagues were more open to Open Access, but sadly they are still concerned only with publishing in traditional, closed-access journals because those are the journals with the highest impact factor (although everyone seems to agree that the impact factor is hogwash). This simply perpetuates the monopoly enjoyed by a few publishing houses on intellectual property that is generated by, reviewed by, edited by and used by academics that are largely working for free.

The internet is now several decades old and yet we are still no closer to consigning traditional subscription journals to the scrapheap of history. And it is largely the fault of game theory amongst us Selfish Academics.


Guest post for BPS Research Digest

November 20, 2015

I was recently invited to write a guest post for the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest. I chose to write about issues of trust between human and machine in automated systems. You can read the post here:

It might seem counter-intuitive, ridiculous even, to discuss matters of trust between human and machine; but a relationship of trust between people and the automated systems they use is often a critical factor in making these systems safe and efficient. By Craig Aaen-Stockdale

via In search of the optimum level of trust between human and machine — Research Digest


Martian Factors

October 30, 2015

This Autumn saw the release of Ridley Scott’s best film for a very, very, very long time. The Martian, based on the book of the same name by Andy Weir and possibly the hardest of hard-science ever put on film is very different from the pompous and nonsensical Prometheus and I loved both the film and the book. However, while following the media circus surrounding the film I have to admit that I was surprised at the almost universal, uncritical display of faith in NASA’s commitment to dashing heroics in times of crisis.

In his interview with the BBC’s Simon Mayo, Director Ridley Scott seemed to be unswervingly of the impression that, should an astronaut be left stranded on an alien world, NASA would surely leap into action at once with a cunningly-devised rescue mission and spare no expense to bring said astronaut home safely. The same “can-do” attitude displayed by NASA in the film is considered key to it’s success by writer Simon Ings in his New Scientist review.

As much as I loved Andy Weir’s book and Ridley Scott’s film, the problem with this aspect of both the book and the film is that NASA has an exceedingly patchy record in this respect.

We’re all familiar with the efforts expended by NASA bods to bring back the crew of Apollo 13 but despite employing some of the cleverest boffins in all boffindom, NASA’s management have, on two notable and well-documented occasions, ignored the advice of their boffins and adopted a la-la-la-everything-will-be-fine style of crisis management that involved nothing more complex than crossing their fingers and hoping for the best.

In the same way that they had been warned repeatedly of the potential for the accident that subsequently destroyed Challenger, NASA management were also warned of the possibility that Columbia might have been damaged on take-off. In the case of Columbia, rather than warn the crew, investigate the damage and prepare a daring orbital rescue of the crew on board, they took the decision to assume that everything was hunky-dory until the fireball streaking across the sky suggested that it wasn’t.

This glaring mismatch between NASA’s reputation as gaffer-tape-weilding improvisers extraordinaire (reinforced by films like Apollo 13 and The Martian) and the reality of their mishandling of genuine crises did not spoil my enjoyment of the book, nor the film, but it does reinforce to me one crucial thing about both: no matter how hard the science, they are both works of fiction.


What does chartership actually mean? (Part III)

December 11, 2014

CIEHF(Being a continuation of a rant begun in Parts One and Two…)

On 13th November 2014, The Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (IEHF) held an Extraordinary General Meeting (as if to rub it in) at my old alma mater and previous employer, the University of Nottingham and took what I can only argue was an extremely retrograde step. The business of the meeting was to vote on a single motion to adopt The Royal Charter, the Byelaws and the General Regulations as the Institute’s governance documents and to replace the current Memorandum of Association and Articles of Association. Those entitled to vote were Registered Members, Fellows, Honorary Fellows. For the motion to be passed, three quarters of those voting had to be in favour of the change.

Sadly, they were.

Now, I am a passionate believer in democracy (hence my problem with the Royal family and the apologists and sychophants that support them) but as a relatively new rank-and-file member of the Institute, I remained unaware and uninformed in the months leading up to this vote, as did the vast majority of other members. As mentioned previously, there has been an assumption in the IEHF’s communications that chartership is, by definition, a good thing and a bewildering absence of any concrete information regarding our progress down the path to chartership, a cost-benefit analysis of chartership or a discussion of the implications (financial and personal) of association with the Crown. In addition to the lack of information available about this fundamental change to the organisation, taking such a decision based on three quarters of members who could afford the cost and time associated with travelling to Nottingham for a single evening seems to me a dubious democratic mandate. This should have been opened up to all members as a referendum, but what’s done is done.

From Jan 1st the IEHF will have the even more unweildy title of: The Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF).

Over the last year, I have communicated to various members of the IEHF leadership that I would appreciate some clarification on these issues since they affect me both personally and professionally. I have long suspected that many other members of the Institute are confused by the concept of chartership and perhaps they would have appreciated some more information. Maybe that would have affected how they voted. We will never know.

Problem III: Lack of information

Almost a year ago, I contacted the head of the working group on chartership, but I received no response.

I contacted another senior member of the Institute and was told that I had “missed a lot of discussion of this” and that I “would of course be entitled to withdraw [my] membership if [I] felt that strongly – or become/remain a Registered Member without seeking Chartered status.”

Since it now looks like the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors is going to be renamed the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors I fail to see how I can avoid association with the Crown. Nor do I see how I can ensure that my membership fees do not go towards the financing of this arrangement, either directly or indirectly. Or indeed, what the financial arrangements even are.

I was told that material could be forwarded to me by way of background. But this material failed to materialise.

In another email I was told that “much of the documentation of the debate and discussion has long been put to bed.”

I was assured that the Institute would “try to make sure that our coverage of the implications of Chartership are full and informative.” This simply has not happened. The Institute’s publications have carried some updates saying how great it is that we are heading for chartered status. There has been no discussion of how all this has been (and will be) financed, which makes it impossible to ascertain whether chartered status represents value-for-money.

“Chartership”, I was finally told, “is widely regarded as representing the Gold Standard of professional institutes and practising professionals … It is this status that we are actively seeking for our members.”

So, that got me thinking: what other organisations possess this “Gold Standard” Royal seal of approval? Well amongst the universities and colleges that apparently don’t need a Royal Charter to operate, but thanks to some weird institutional-level peer pressure get one anyway, we find:

  • The Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers
  • The College of Chiropractors (i.e. quacks. See my earlier post regarding the Royal obsession with alternative medicine)
  • The Guides Association and the Scouts Association
  • The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge
  • The British and Foreign Bible Society
  • The Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital (yes, that’s right… yet more quacks)

and who could forget…

  • Marylebone Cricket Club

So by joining these … ahem … enlightened ranks does the IEHF gain any kind of inflated status beyond that which it already possesses (in spades)? Does chartership really represent a Gold Standard? Of anything? I’m not so sure. I think it is an anachronistic appeal to perceived authority, based on a misguided belief that association with the Crown means something in our largely secular, rational, democratic culture. A culture in which the monarchy are held increasingly in contempt. If the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors wants to associate itself with an undemocratic, privilaged menagerie of buffoons (I’m looking at you, Prince Phillip); who are sponsored by us, the taxpayer, whilst their own (no doubt extensive) private finances are kept a state secret; who use their power and position to privately lobby elected politicians for personal gain (I’m looking at you, Prince Charles); and who, frankly act as a brake on the British economy (no, they are not “good for tourism“)… then they are going to have to do it without me. I will not be renewing my membership to the IEHF for 2015, I will not (as I was intending to before this all blew up) be upgrading my membership, and I have instead become a Full Member of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

I wish you a very merry yuletide season!


What does chartership actually mean? (Part II)

November 11, 2014

Following on from my recent post regarding the impending chartered status of the Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (IEHF), which is likely to be ratified by a vote of registered members at an Extraordinary General Meeting on November 13th 2014, I would like to posit the next problem I have with the IEHF becoming associated with the Royal family:

Problem II: Science, or the lack of it.

ISO 6385 defines “ergonomics” and the “study of human factors” similarly, as the “scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.”

The International Ergonomics Association says: “Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.”

The crucial word here, and the one that raises most difficultly in any discussion of the British monarchy, is “scientific.”

As I have previously blogged for British republican lobby group Republic, Prince Charles likes nothing better than a bit of quackery and personally profits from selling ineffective alternative therapies. Like all the Royals it seems, he is a big fan of alternative medicine. Charles is a longtime supporter of alternative therapies and has worked hard to place them on a footing equal to conventional medicine. He established the Foundation for Integrated Health (later re-branded The College of Medicine in the wake of an accounting scandal) to lobby for the “acceptance” by the medical establishment of alternative medicines. The Foundation published leaflets, distributed to every British GP by (amazingly) the UK Department of Health, advocating alternative therapies and suggesting that they have benefits equal to or beyond those of conventional treatments. Alternative medicine debunkers Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst condemned the booklets as “propaganda” and pointed out in their book “Trick or Treatment” that the Foundation’s leaflets simply stated that alternative means were “used to treat” certain conditions, thereby avoiding any discussion over whether such treatments are actually effective. Charles has (ab)used his position to personally lobby the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) shortly before it relaxed the rules governing labelling of homoeopathic products. He has also personally lobbied Andy Burnham, the then Secretary of Health, on the subject of making alternative medicines (such as those sold by his Duchy, I presume) available on the NHS.

But it’s not just the future king of England that’s the problem. Sir John Weir, then royal physician, used the funeral of George V to prescribe homeopathic “remedies” to three kings and four queens, and the Royals fell for it hook line and sinker. The Queen’s dad, George VI, facilitated the inclusion of homeopathic hospitals within the newly created NHS. He named one of his racehorses Hypericum after a homeopathic remedy for depression. The Queen herself bestows immense respectability on homeopathy. When travelling abroad she is said to lug a case full of sixty vials of homeopathic remedies (i.e. water) around with her. In 2005, the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (RLHH), of which the Queen is patron, was refurbished at a cost of £20 million to the taxpayer. It costs us £3 million a year to run, and receives further funding from Primary Care Trusts that refer patients.

To all of which, depending on your gullibility index, you might respond: So what? Nobody ever died from taking a herbal remedy, did they?. Really? Tell that to the thirty-odd people who died in the 90’s from the form of kidney failure that became known as “Chinese Herb nephropathy.” Tell that to the people who have died from stokes after visiting their chiropractor. Tell that to the people who have had vital organs and tissues punctured by acupunture needles.

Ergonomics is the application of scientific knowledge to the improvement of people’s working lives – yet the future king of England (and probably the current monarch) holds some of the most unscientific, and in some cases downright anti-scientific, prejudices ever expressed (or diplomatically not expressed).

Alternative medicine shennanigens aside, the Royal family claim a divine right to rule, and this also sits uneasily with my rationalist view of the world. I am an atheist and a secularist and disturbed by the continuation of the fantasy that Britain is a Christian country, which is partly reinforced by the fact that the head of state is also the head of the Church of England.

I have now corresponded with several members of the IEHF leadership and there seems to be an assumption that chartership is, by definition, a good thing. However, from what I can tell chartership seems to be a very lengthy, laborious, archaic and potentially expensive undertaking that will forever associate the Institute with a dynasty of quacks and loons. I can see very little sign of discussion of its merits or otherwise in the IEHF’s publications, or even a clear explanation of what it means for the membership.

Sadly, the closer we get to being the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors, the further away I get from renewing my membership.

[To be continued…]


What does chartership actually mean? (Part I)

June 6, 2014

The professional organisation of which I am a member, the Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (IEHF) an organisation with which I have had nary a qualm, has for some time been applying for a Royal Charter, or “chartered status.” On 29th May 2014 it was announced to members of the IEHF that “following a meeting of the Privy Council in Buckingham Palace on 27th May, Her Majesty The Queen has approved an Order granting a Charter to the Institute.” This announcement got me seriously thinking about the process of chartership about which nobody, apart from those who have been labouriously pursuing it, seems to know anything. In what will almost certainly turn into a series of blog posts, I will attempt to demystify the process and outline some of the arguments I have with it. In this first post I will address the question of what a Royal Charter actually is. In future posts I will turn to issues of why is it considered important and whether it is a good use of an organisation’s time, funds and effort to obtain one. A royal charter is basically a formal document on fancy paper with twiddly calligraphy and a wax seal. That sort of thing. It is issued by the monarch, through the Privy Council, and grants rights or powers to an individual or an organisation. In the UK there are approximately 750 organisations with Royal Charters. Most of these are cities. A Royal Charter is the mechanism by which a British town is raised to the status of city. Most recently Chelmsford in Essex was granted a Royal Charter in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Inverness, Brighton & Hove and Wolverhampton were given their charters to celebrate the Millennium, and Preston, Stirling, Newport, Lisburn and Newry to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Elizabeth II in 2002. The Bank of England, the BBC, theatres and opera houses, universities (at least, those founded before 1993), professional institutions and charities can (but not all do) derive their authority from a Royal Charter. Most British universities operate under Royal Charters, which gives them the authority to award degrees. However, the most recent generation of UK universities were granted the power to award degrees by the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 instead of by Royal Charter, while some other universities operate under Acts of Parliament. All of which goes to show that a Royal Charter is by no means necessary for the vast majority of institutions to operate. Almost without exception, the longstanding learned societies, such as the Royal Society, the Royal Institution and the Royal Society of Literature, have Royal Charters. You can tell by the name.

Problem I: Power

So we encounter my first problem with chartership. I am a republican and as such I do not accept that it is the monarch’s right to bestow rights or powers on anybody. Power should originate with we, the people, not trickle down from an individual placed in a superior station by an accident of birth. The Royal Society (as far as I am concerned) derives its authority from being one the longest-surviving collection of the most brilliant and talented individuals this world has produced. The fact that their ranks are sullied by the presence of what are referred to as “Royal Fellows” – The Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince of Wales, The Duke of Kent, the Princess Royal, and The Duke of Cambridge – should be seen as an insult and nothing less. Professional organisations should derive their authority from their membership. To make a facetious example: The Institute of Badger-Fanciers should be seen as the leading authority on all matters with regards the fancying of badgers as long as a large enough number of the most eminent badger-fanciers remain active members, not because it is The Royal Institute of Badger-Fanciers. If the leadership of the organisation takes what is considered a backwards step and begins advocating badger-baiting or train-spotting, then the membership should by all rights abandon, and condemn it. Following a career change I am a relatively new and enthusiastic member of the Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors. I am also, however, a republican and I take any potential association with the Crown, especially a professional one, very seriously indeed. Echoing the badger-fancying example just given, the IEHF should be (and is) seen as the leading authority on all matters with regards ergonomics and Human Factors. It is so solely because a large enough number of the most eminent ergonomists in the UK and abroad are active members. We do not need a Royal Charter to give us any authority. We, the ergonomists, already possess it. [To be continued in Part Two…]


Publish (a list of your publications) or perish

March 17, 2014

I probably should have done it a lot earlier, but life in the private sector goes a mile-a-minute and I simply haven’t had time in between the seven – count them – trips to south-east Asia that I’ve made in the last 18 months. Anyway, here it is: I’ve finally got around to collecting together a list of my publications, replete with links, and you can find it here.


My first book chapter!

September 27, 2012

A few months ago I wrote my first book chapter along with the very talented Ben Thompson, one of my ex-colleagues from McGill. Writing a book chapter is worlds away from writing a journal article. Your average academic journal articles, especially regarding anything halfway controversial can end up as a pretty dry, compromised effort after the obstacle-course of peer-review has been navigated. A book chapter, on the other hand, allows you to survey your field from a reasonable height and be a bit more opinionated (anyone who knows me even a little bit will realise my attraction of this aspect of the process!). There is also room for that rarity in scientific publishing, humour.

InTech is an open access publisher of scientific books and journals and the book in question, Visual Cortex: Current Status and Perspectives is available FOR FREE in it’s entirety. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and I am very pleased with the resulting chapter Visual Motion: From Cortex to Percepts.

Open access books? Quick-buck-making enterprise or future of scientific publishing? Since I had such fun writing it, I’m not sure I care right now!


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