Tag Archives: Kostas Kostarelos

Science publishing, ‘high impact’, reliability, and the practice of science

Konstantin Kakaes has written a provocative and astute article (Feb. 27, 2014 on Slate) about science and publishing, in particular about ‘high impact’ journals.

In 2005, a group of MIT graduate students decided to goof off in a very MIT graduate student way: They created a program called SCIgen that randomly generated fake scientific papers. Thanks to SCIgen, for the last several years, computer-written gobbledygook has been routinely published in scientific journals and conference proceedings. [emphasis mine]

Apparently some well known science publishers have been caught (from the Kakaes article; Note: A link has been removed),

According to Nature News, Cyril Labbé, a French computer scientist, recently informed Springer and the IEEE, two major scientific publishers, that between them, they had published more than 120 algorithmically-generated articles. In 2012, Labbé had told the IEEE of another batch of 85 fake articles. He’s been playing with SCIgen for a few years—in 2010 a fake researcher he created, Ike Antkare, briefly became the 21st most highly cited scientist in Google Scholar’s database.

Kakaes goes on to explain at least in part why this problem has arisen,

Over the course of the second half of the 20th century, two things took place. First, academic publishing became an enormously lucrative business. And second, because administrators erroneously believed it to be a means of objective measurement, the advancement of academic careers became conditional on contributions to the business of academic publishing.

As Peter Higgs said after he won last year’s Nobel Prize in physics, “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough.” Jens Skou, a 1997 Nobel Laureate, put it this way in his Nobel biographical statement: today’s system puts pressure on scientists for, “too fast publication, and to publish too short papers, and the evaluation process use[s] a lot of manpower. It does not give time to become absorbed in a problem as the previous system [did].”

Today, the most critical measure of an academic article’s importance is the “impact factor” of the journal it is published in. The impact factor, which was created by a librarian named Eugene Garfield in the early 1950s, measures how often articles published in a journal are cited. Creating the impact factor helped make Garfield a multimillionaire—not a normal occurrence for librarians.

The concern about ‘impact factors’ high or low with regard to science publishing is a discussion I first stumbled across and mentioned in an April 22, 2010 posting where I noted the concern with metrics extends beyond an individual career or university’s reputation but also affects national reputations. Kostas Kostarelos in a Jan. 24, 2014 posting on the Guardian science blogs notes this in his discussion of how China’s policies could affect the practice of science (Note: Links have been removed),

…  For example, if a Chinese colleague publishes an article in a highly regarded scientific journal they will be financially rewarded by the government – yes, a bonus! – on the basis of an official academic reward structure. Publication in one of the highest impact journals is currently rewarded with bonuses in excess of $30,000 – which is surely more than the annual salary of a starting staff member in any lab in China.

Such practices are disfiguring the fundamental principles of ethical integrity in scientific reporting and publishing, agreed and accepted by the scientific community worldwide. They introduce motives that have the potential to seriously corrupt the triangular relationship between scientist or clinician, publisher or editor and the public (taxpayer) funding agency. They exacerbate the damage caused by journal quality rankings based on “impact factor”, which is already recognised by the scientific community in the west as problematic.

Such measures also do nothing to help Chinese journals gain recognition by the rest of the world, as has been described by two colleagues from Zhejiang University in an article entitled “The outflow of academic articles from China: why is it happening and can it be stemmed?”.

At this point we have a system that rewards (with jobs, bonuses, etc.) prolific publication of one’s science achieved either by the sweat of one’s brow (and/or possibly beleaguered students’ brows) or from a clever algorithm. It’s a system that encourages cheating and distorts any picture we might have of scientific achievement on a planetary, national, regional, university, or individual basis.

Clearly we need to do something differently. Kakaes mentions an initiative designed for that purpose, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). Please do let me know in the Comments section if there are any other such efforts.

The UK’s Guardian newspaper science blogs go nano and experiment with editorial/advertorial

Small World, a nanotechnology blog, was launched today (Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2013)  on the UK’s Guardian newspaper science blogs network. Here’s more from the Introductory page,

Small World is a blog about new developments in nanotechnology funded by Nanopinion, a European Commission project. All the posts are commissioned by the Guardian, which has complete editorial control over the blog’s contents. The views expressed are those of the authors and not the EC

Essentially, Nanopinion is paying for this ‘space’ in much the same way one would pay for advertising but the posts will be written in an editorial style. In practice, this is usually called an ‘advertorial’. The difference between this blog and the usual advertorial is that the buyer (Nanopinion) is not producing or editing the content. By implication, this means that Nanopinion is not controlling the content. Getting back to practice, I would imagine that the Guardian editors are conscious that is an ethically complicated situation. It would be interesting to see what will happen to this paid-for-blog if ‘too many’ posts are negative or if their readership should decide this setup is so ethically questionable that they no longer trust or read the newspaper and/or its blogs.

The first posting on this blog by Kostas Kostarelos, professor of nanomedicine at University College London, on Apr. 23, 2013 is thoughtful (Note: Links have been removed),

There is beauty in exploring the nanoscale. But the idea gets more tainted the more we learn about it, like a young love affair full of expectation of the endless possibilities, which gradually becomes a dysfunctional relationship the more the partners learn about each other. One day we read about wonderful nanomaterials with exotic names such as zinc oxide nanowires, say, or silver nanocubes used to make ultra-efficient solar panels, and the next we read about shoebox bomb attacks against labs and researchers by anti-nanotechnology terrorist groups. It makes me wonder: is there a particular problem with nanotechnology?

As with all human relationships, we run the risk of raising expectations too high, too soon.

He goes on to discuss the dualistic nanotechnology discourse (good vs bad) and expresses his hope that the discourse will not degenerate into a ceaseless battle and says this,

… We should not allow vigilance, critical thinking and scientific rigor to transmute into polemic.

As someone who lives and breathes exploration on the nanoscale – which aims to create tools for doctors and other health professionals against some of our most debilitating diseases – I hope that this blog will offer an everyday insight into this journey and its great promises, flaws, highs and lows. We want to offer you a transparent and honest view of nanotechnology’s superhuman feats and its very human limitations.

I have mentioned Kostarelos in past postings, most recently in a Jan. 16, 2013 posting with regard to his involvement in a study on carbon nanotubes and toxicity.

As for Nanopinion, it put me in mind of another European Commission project, Nanochannels, mentioned in my Jan. 27, 2011 posting,

From the Jan. 17, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

Nanotechnology issues are about to hit the mass media in a big way. The new EC-funded NANOCHANNELS project was launched last week with a two-day kick-off meeting that led to the planning of a dynamic programme of communication, dialogue, and engagement in issues of nanotechnology aimed at European citizens.

Here’s how they describe Nanopinion (from the About Nanopinion page),

Nanopinion is an EC-funded project bringing together 17 partners from 11 countries with the aim of monitoring public opinion on what we hope for from innovation with nanotechnologies. The project is aimed citizens with a special focus on hard-to-reach target groups, which are people who do not normally encounter and give their opinion nanotechnologies at first hand.

Dialogue is facilitated online and in outreach events in 30 countries presenting different participatory formats.

To promote an informed debate, we also run a strong press & social media campaign and offer a repository with more than 150 resources.

Finally, nanOpinion offers an innovative educational programme for schools.

There are differences but they do have a very strong emphasis on communication, dialogue, and outreach both for the public and for schools. Although how a blog in the Guardian science blogs network will help Nanopinion contact ‘hard-to-reach’ target groups is a bit of a mystery to me but perhaps the blog is intended to somehow help them ‘monitor public opinion’? In any event, they sure seem to have a lot of these ‘nano’ dialogues in Europe.

The title of this new Guardian science blog (Small World) reminded me of an old Disney tune, ‘It’s a small world.’ I refuse to embed it here but if you are feeling curious or nostalgic, here’s the link: http://youtu.be/nxvlKp-76io.

The yin and the yang of carbon nanotubes and toxicity

 

Illustration courtesy of the University College of London (UCL). Downloaded from http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0113/130115-chemistry-resolves-toxic-concerns-about-carbon-nanotubes

Illustration courtesy of the University College of London (UCL). Downloaded from http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0113/130115-chemistry-resolves-toxic-concerns-about-carbon-nanotubes

Researchers at the University College of London (UCL), France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), and Italy’s University of Trieste have determined that carbon nanotube toxicity issues can be addressed be reducing their length and treating them chemically. From the Jan. 15,2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

In a new study, published January 15 [2013] in the journal Angewandte Chemie, evidence is provided that the asbestos-like reactivity and pathogenicity reported for long, pristine nanotubes can be completely alleviated if their surface is modified and their effective length is reduced as a result of chemical treatment.

First atomically described in the 1990s, carbon nanotubes are sheets of carbon atoms rolled up into hollow tubes just a few nanometres in diameter. Engineered carbon nanotubes can be chemically modified, with the addition of chemotherapeutic drugs, fluorescent tags or nucleic acids — opening up applications in cancer and gene therapy.

Furthermore, these chemically modified carbon nanotubes can pierce the cell membrane, acting as a kind of ‘nano-needle’, allowing the possibility of efficient transport of therapeutic and diagnostic agents directly into the cytoplasm of cells.

Among their downsides however, have been concerns about their safety profile. One of the most serious concerns, highlighted in 2008, involves the carcinogenic risk from the exposure and persistence of such fibres in the body. Some studies indicate that when long untreated carbon nanotubes are injected to the abdominal cavity of mice they can induce unwanted responses resembling those associated with exposure to certain asbestos fibres.

In this paper, the authors describe two different reactions which ask if any chemical modification can render the nanotubes non-toxic. They conclude that not all chemical treatments alleviate the toxicity risks associated with the material. Only those reactions that are able to render carbon nanotubes short and stably suspended in biological fluids without aggregation are able to result in safe, risk-free material.

Here’s a citation and link for this latest  research, from the ScienceDaily news item where you can also read the lead researcher’s comments about carbon nanotubes, safety, and unreasonable proposals to halt production,

Hanene Ali-Boucetta, Antonio Nunes, Raquel Sainz, M. Antonia Herrero, Bowen Tian, Maurizio Prato, Alberto Bianco, Kostas Kostarelos. Asbestos-like Pathogenicity of Long Carbon Nanotubes Alleviated by Chemical Functionalization. Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 2013; DOI: 10.1002/anie.201207664

The article is behind a paywall. I have mentioned long carbon nanotubes and their resemblance to asbestos fibres in several posts. The  Oct. 26, 2009 posting [scroll down about 1/3 of the way] highlights research which took place after the study where mice had carbon nanotubes injected into their bellies; in this second piece of research they inhaled the nanotubes.

ETA Jan. 21, 2013: Dexter Johnson gives context and commentary about this latest research into long multiwalled nanotubes (MWNTs) which he sums up as the answer to this question “What if you kept the MWNTs short?”  in a Jan. 18, 2013 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website)

Guardian hosts live streaming convo on nanotechnology and health in an aging population

In one week, Jan. 31, 2012, the Guardian newspaper in the UK is inviting people (I previewed the process for participating and it is not limited to citizens of the UK) to take part in a live debate with the UK’s Minister of Science and Technology and an assortment of nanotechnology and nanomedicine researchers titled, How nanotechnology is prolonging life. From the Guardian’s nanotechnology event announcement page,

According to government figures, there are currently about 10 million people over the age of 65 in the UK and by 2050, that figure will have almost doubled to 19 million.

This changing demographic will place an unprecedented strain on health and social services. Fortunately more and more people are taking steps to ensure their old age is spent in good health and new medical advances that rely on nanotechnology are coming to the fore, which allow for better treatments, diagnosis and prevention of diseases associated with old age.

But what are the challenges and wider implications of using nanotechnology to prolong life and support a healthier, more independent ageing population?

The debate is being moderated by Alok Jha, science correspondent for the Guardian, and guests expected to participate include,

David Willetts, MP, minister for universities and science
Dr Mark Miodownik, head of the Materials Research Group, Kings College London
Professor Shervanthi Homer-Vanniasinkam, consultant vascular surgeon, Leeds General Infirmary
Dr Leonard Fass, director academic relations, GE Healthcare
Professor Peter Dobson, director for Oxford Begbroke and chief strategic adviser to Research Councils UK for nanotechnology
Professor Kostas Kostarelos, chair of nanomedicine, Centre for Drug Delivery Research, School of Pharmacy, University of London
Dr Donald Bruce, managing director, Edinethics

This is not the Guardian’s first nanotechnology debate, the paper hosted an online debate (a Q&A session with a nanotechnology expert [Dr. Mark Miodownik]) in mid-December 2011 (mentioned in my Dec. 16, 2011 posting).  So, it’s a bit strange they don’t do more than give the starting time for the debate, 3 pm GMT but no ending time since that information was given for the Dec. 2011 debate.

For those of us on the west coast of North America, this means a 7 am start. I believe you have to register to attend the session. Well, I don’t particularly want to register but I did try out the system.

I could choose my country but was much amused to note how they list the timezones. If I wanted to specify my timezone (PST), I’d have to choose either San Francisco or Tijuana. The Canadian choices included, Saskatchewan, Halifax, and Newfoundland (no mention of Labrador).

Good on Saskatchewan, Halifax, and Newfoundland but why were those three locations chosen in particular? These are very unusual choices and the equivalent of ignoring London (UK) while allowing people to choose Cornwall, Leicester, or Northunberland (pretending for a moment that they are in different timezones). No disrespect is meant to any region but it is unusual to see Ottawa, Toronto, and/or Montréal left out.