HIV/AIDS Skepticism

Pointing to evidence that HIV is not the necessary and sufficient cause of AIDS

Posts Tagged ‘commercial corruption of science’

Scientific publications are vanity publications

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2010/10/01

Here’s how it used to be:

Universities were in the business of educating.
Research universities were in the business of doing research, which qualified them to educate graduate students as well as undergraduates.
Being a research university meant having the wherewithal to support faculty doing research and graduate students doing research. That wherewithal came from governments wishing to have research universities in their state or country, or from private sources that wished for various reasons to support non-governmental research universities.

Here’s how it is now:

The onus is entirely on individual professors to find the wherewithal for their research and for the support of graduate students and their dissertation research.

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This dramatic and consequential change took place over the space of a few decades in the second half of the 20th century. The degree to which this has corrupted scientific activity is not widely enough appreciated. Here are a few aspects of the corruption:

→   Graduate students do not choose their research projects. They fit as cogs into the mentor’s research program, which means that they do not have the full experience of what is involved in doing research: they are “pairs of hands”, technicians, not apprentices learning to become independent researchers.
→    The same is true to an increasing extent of postdoctoral fellows.
→    Faculty cannot have a successful career without getting funds from government or private sources — huge amounts of funds. Successful researchers are increasingly wheeler-dealers, spending less and less time on what purportedly they are good at, namely, science, and spending more and more time on finding possible funding sources and doing whatever it takes to ingratiate themselves to those sources.
→    Increasingly the research agendas are set by those who have the money, not those who have the ideas and insight that might best bring scientific progress.
→    There is by now quite an archive of horror stories about how commercial funding of academic research has made the whole system unreliable: research results that displease the sponsor don’t get published, for example, and thereby the public may be exposed to unsafe materials — drugs, pesticides, you name it.

The latest aspect of today’s “money is everything” circumstances is the burgeoning of publications that pretend to be scientific periodicals but that are actually vanity presses.
“Vanity presses” was the term for book publishers who made their living by having the authors pay the costs of publication. Although the occasional vanity-press book was successful in terms of sales, in the overwhelming majority of cases the author’s only satisfaction was to see the physical book with the author’s name on it, and to be able to distribute copies to friends and relatives and others. It served the author’s self-esteem. Books that provided welcome entertainment or useful information to the general public came from trade publishers, who made their living by producing what the public was willing to pay for. Books that added to the stock of humankind’s understanding without having much popular appeal came from academic presses, sponsored and subsidized primarily by universities.
Scientific periodicals made their living by publishing material essential for researchers and being therefore necessary purchases by academic libraries and research institutions.

After World War II, the amount of research and development, and its costs, and the numbers of people involved and aspiring to be involved increased to the stage that libraries could not afford to keep up with all the new books and new periodicals and their ever-growing costs. Research universities could not keep up with increased costs of researchers and the needed facilities, and relied increasingly on the funds brought in by entrepreneurial faculty; a few decades ago, we had to show on grant applications how our parent university was “cost sharing” in the research — for some time now, grants have been cash cows for the parent university which benefits from “indirect costs” while providing less and less in the way of supporting facilities.

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This jeremiad of mine has been brewing for a while, stimulated in part by the increasingly common invitation to start a new journal that would pay for itself from payments by authors or the announcement of some new scientific journal in which the authors are expected to pay what used to be called “page charges” but are increasingly being euphemized as “processing fees” or the like.
Page charges came first in periodicals published by professional societies, which wished to keep subscriptions low for the benefit of their members but which could not cope with the increasing costs of paper, printing, postage. But paying those page charges was not a criterion for getting an article accepted. One was asked to pay those charges only after the evaluation process was over, and if one could not pay then the article would still be published — albeit with the rather embarrassing annotation (in journals published by the American Chemical Society) that costs of  publication had been borne by the Society.
Nowadays, if you can’t pay you don’t get published.
Entrepreneurial publishers are putting out online journals — trivial in cost compared to paper-and-ink productions — but still requiring significant payments from authors. For instance, on 30 September I received an invitation from the Royal Society of Medicine to publish in their new journal, JRSM Short Reports:
“Provided that your research paper or case report is of interest to colleagues in your specialty and does not have any major methodological flaws it stands an excellent chance of publication. . . . Papers are peer-reviewed and accepted papers are published online. There is a processing fee for each accepted article of £350. . . . The processing fee also ensures that your article is freely available to all immediately on publication, in accordance with best practice in open-access publishing. This author-pays open-access publishing model is now well-established and widely accepted as an improvement on the traditional model of journal publishing.”

If indeed this is now well-established and widely accepted, then vanity publishing has become the norm. Here’s another example:
“submitting to Clinical Therapeutics, an Elsevier journal, I was offered rapid review and publication were I to pay $500 per page of my manuscript, with an estimated 25 pages of publication, totalling $12,500 USD. Undoubtedly, this would have resulted in a successful submission” (Reviewer 3)

So “scientific” publication is increasingly a matter of having the wherewithal to support vanity publishing. And that’s far from all. The education and training in research of graduate students is severely compromised. In the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley (and most likely elsewhere too, of course) students can choose as mentors only those entrepreneurial faculty whose wheeling and dealing assures them of available funds of  $175,000 – $250,000 per graduate student.

The competition for research grants from the National Institutes of Health is so fierce that in 2007, the average age at which budding researchers received their first grants was 42. That’s a decade older than in the 1950s and 1960s. Beginning a career at age 42 . . . . (Jocelyn Kaiser, “Zerhouni’s parting message: make room for young scientists”, Science, 322 [2008] 834-5).

Already 30 years ago, the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech had a rather simple formula for tenure and promotion: $100,000 brought in annually for tenure, $300,000 annually for promotion to full professor.

The love of money is the root of all evil.

The circumstances of research
that evolved over the last half century or so
have become evil
because they require scientists of all faiths
to worship money above all else

Posted in Funds for HIV/AIDS, prejudice | Tagged: | 7 Comments »

Institutionalizing conflicts of interest

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2008/12/02

A fellow scientist of my generation likes to describe us as “dinosaurs”, and periodically accuses me of naivety if I slip into suggesting that facts win out in the end or that scientific ideals and traditional ethics have not been completely abandoned.

I guess it’s true that I’ve written and continue to write as though there are people out there who share my disbelief at, for example, the brushing aside of conflicts of interest as only “apparent” (see “Consequences of misconduct in science”).  And there ARE people who share my attitude, call them naïve and unrealistic if you wish: there’s Sheldon Krimsky, Science in the Private Interest: Has the Lure of Profits Corrupted Biomedical Research? (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003); there’s Andrew Stark, Conflict of Interest in American Public Life (Harvard, 2000); there are Centers for Ethics, and periodicals devoted to ethics in research. Plenty of academics are aware of the sad fact that science and medicine, both research and patient care, have been pervasively infiltrated in a way that might even be called corrupting.

Researchers and administrators of research, however, seem oblivious. Well into the 1970s and even the 1980s, universities were at least trying to apply some brakes. We had to make formal application if we consulted more than half a day per week, and if our remuneration exceeded some modest amount. We were not permitted to run a business that was in any way connected with our academic responsibilities. We took for granted the burden of offering our professional advice as to the publishability of manuscripts or the qualifications of candidates for jobs or promotions. When we traveled to present invited seminars or to advise academic institutions, we didn’t expect honoraria in addition to having our expenses covered — and we felt unusually appreciated when we received honoraria equivalent to a few hours of our annual salary. We regarded it as exceptional perks — comparing ourselves to so many other people- — that our university salaries were paid on a 9-month or 10-month basis, permitting us to teach r do research for an extra 20% or so of annual remuneration. I recall being shocked, in the early 1980s, when professors of English were asking remuneration for reading book manuscripts of candidates for tenure.

What a different world it is, just a couple of decades later. A misguided Director of the National Institutes of Health dropped certain restrictions on outside income, with predictably disgusting consequences (David Willman, Los Angeles Times, 7 December 2003: “Stealth merger: Drug companies and government medical research”, p. A1; “Richard C. Eastman: A federal researcher who defended a client’s lethal drug”, p. A32; “John I. Gallin: A clinic chief’s desire to ‘learn about industry’”, p. A33; “Ronald N. Germain: A federal lab leader who made $1.4 million on the side”, p. A34; “Jeffrey M. Trent: A government accolade from a paid consultant”, p. A35; “Jeffrey Schlom: A cancer expert who aided studies using a drug wanted by a client”, p. A35.)

Just as with political lobbying, we Americans seem able to euphemize, ignore, and even defend practices that in other lands we would be quick to recognize as plain corruption. What set off this tirade was a news item in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 June 2008, p. 13: “To lure top scientists, NIH raises pay for some peer reviewers”, by Jeffrey Brainard. Here are a few extracts:

“The National Institutes of Health plans a major increase in the money to provides to long-serving peer reviewers . . . . Some will receive $250,000 for six years . . . . Under the current terms of $200 per day, such scientists would net only about $6000 after six years”.
[Peanuts! Coffee money! But, after all, this is in addition to their salaries wherever they happen to be working, their pay isn’t cut just because they’re away from the office or the lab. And that $200 per day is in addition to expenses, of course, for travel, food, and accommodation; expenses that can be and are often padded a little.]

“But the largesse . . . . would benefit only a few hundred of the several thousand scientists who help evaluate grants of the institutes. . . . Traditionally, many scientists have willingly reviewed applications, though the fees they have been paid fell well short of the value of the time commitment required: at the NIH, 40 to 80 hours of preparation for each day-and-a-half meeting” — Right. I’ve known quite a few people who have served in this way. (Serving as  an academic dean teaches quite a lot about human nature.) Those who spent anything like that amount of preparatory time did it because of their sense of responsibility and don’t need extra money, while those who expect the money and will not otherwise serve will also not spend that amount of time on it.

“’In the end, peer review is only as good as the quality of the people doing it,’ said Elias A. Zerhouni, the NIH’s director”.
Yes, indeed. We need honest, conscientious people who do these things because their profession is a vocation, a calling, not just a way to earn a living, and certainly not a way to acquire wealth.
[Zerhouni continued,] “I think you get what you pay for”.
And there you have it.
— Want medical care? The more you pay, the better care you’ll get. But didn’t we used to think that was a dreadful situation, when behind the Iron Curtain one had to give bribes and tips to get proper care?
— Want education for yourself or your children? The more you can pay, the better education they will get. But isn’t there some sort of consensus still that every American child should get every educational opportunity they can benefit from?
— Want honest evaluation of research? You’d better pay for it, especially to people who don’t need the money because they earn so much already.
It reminds me of the philosopher, I don’t recall whether it was Mort Sahl or Bob Newhart or Tom Lehrer, certainly one of their ilk, about responding to question from students: “And, of course, if you raise my pay, I’ll even give them correct answers”.

But it’s not all gravy, we’re told. “The $250,000 compensation [lovely choice of word] will be awarded as an ‘administrative supplement’ to existing research grants”, so the recipients can use it at will: “They will keep only some of the money, as salary — the underlying grants also typically finance research equipment and laboratory assistants”.

And of course this administrative supplement is in addition to the $200 daily honoraria.

“NIH leaders rejected, though, a controversial proposal by a peer-review task force that would have capped at five the number of research grants that any one scientist could hold, in order to spread dollars among more grant applicants, including younger ones”.
[An earlier piece in the Chronicle had mentioned that scientists are on average 42 years of age before they get their first NIH grant. Got to keep those young Turks in their place, kowtowing as “postdoctoral fellows” to us experienced gurus; otherwise, who could we get to actually do the work in our labs?]

Robert Merton, founding sociologist of science, long ago identified the “Matthew Effect”:

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.
—Matthew 25:29, King James Version.

It’s not new, in science, it’s just become as egregious as Credit Default Swaps and other scams. I usually resist the notion that there exists a self-interested, self-serving Establishment, be it in government or in education or in research. But facts are stubborn things, as they say, and sometimes my naivety bows to them. Dr. Zerhouni and the other “NIH leaders” have certainly provided us with some very stubborn, unpalatable facts.

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