University and scientific research

The race for publication and the scientific scam

An intellectual is someone who always has something to say when he begins to speak or write!

While we expect to see this noble definition more suitable in higher scientific levels, it was precisely during my initial immersion in this environment that I discovered the first challenges. By carrying out what is commonly called “Bibliographic research” for my PhD thesis, during the year 1979/80, I am surprised and disappointed to learn that big names, including my own supervisor, are engaged in not very commendable, if not deplorable, practice of repeating the same work, contenting itself with a few variations in form, in order to publish it several times.

If, like a lecture, the same lecture can be presented in different dates and places, an international scientific publication is supposed to always offer something new.

Even if the story of the intellectual sham is older, the fierce modern battle of publications and the making of resumes was just beginning. And after the many “innovations” of the following decades, this shy practice is no longer embarrassing and no longer shaves the walls; and nowadays, it can even be considered a pledge of integrity.

All means are good to get the sesame

In his famous speech “The balance sheet of intelligence” in 1935 (1), Paul Valéry already complained about the perverse effects of the diploma on the quest for knowledge:  “The diploma is bad by its effects on the mind. Bad by the stratagems and subterfuges he suggests. The goal of education is no longer the training of the mind, but the acquisition of the diploma, it is the minimum requirement that becomes the objective of studies. It is no longer a question of learning and acquiring, but of borrowing to obtain the diploma. “

Promotions, competition, juicy contracts, CVs, publications, the internet, instant downloads, all these are as many opportunities as they are breaches, and they are as much authentic motivations induced as they are ploys and suggested subterfuges. Contemporary digital borrowing is no longer the prehistoric attempts at copying during an exam, but rather the falsification of data, the plagiarism of articles or theses, as well as the bartering of publications in the flourishing digital newspaper business. paid, or magazines created and tailored.

The damage is all the more devastating as the vigilance of those responsible is relaxed, and more so if the imposture has reached and pierced the spheres of this responsibility and its decision-making centers.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the focus on medical research

Whether provoked or accidental, disease is now to the pharmaceutical industry what war is to the arms industry. I am one of those who only understood this late, the hard way, thanks to Covid-19.

We will probably not finish counting all the revelations of the health crisis caused by the Coronavirus pandemic soon. The lessons go beyond the medical profession and the latter does not have to be ashamed of its setbacks, because at the same time it has been able to highlight all the virtuous heights that the different components of its staff can reach.

Let’s start with the prestigious Lancet magazine, through which the recent LancetGate scandal happened. Its editor-in-chief, Richard Horton, expressed in 2015 (2) his “distress at seeing science turn into obscurity because of conflicts  of interest. “

Other former bosses of renowned scientific journals unfortunately only confess belatedly and retrospectively, like politicians who, once retired, try to polish their image by writing their selective memoirs.

This is how Arnold Relman, Harvard professor and former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine bitterly recognized in 2003 (3) that “The medical profession is bought by the pharmaceutical industry, both in terms of medical practice than in terms of teaching and research. “

Former British Medical Journal editor Richard Smith admitted in 2013 (4) that “Most scientific studies are wrong because their authors are more interested in funding and careers than to the truth. »

If the medical profession is on the front line, and voices continue to rise with dignity to denounce the excesses, the current health crisis has also shown the extent of lobbying networks in the media and among the political class, that the giants of the pharmaceutical industry have been able to buy and weave.

The intellectual sham is general and no area is spared, including mine, technology, where the immoral manipulation of results is well known. In fact, only pure mathematics seems to be immune to the scourge, and that is why, moreover, publications are rarer and more precious.

Evil is general and the “soft sciences” are the target of choice

The specificity of the human sciences known as “soft sciences” gives them a pronounced, and sometimes crude, vulnerability.

Inspired by the article “Higher superstition” published in 1994, asserting that certain journals of the human sciences are ready to publish anything, provided that leftist thoughts are conveyed there, Alan Sokal, professor of Physics in New York and London , decides to set a trap for a postmodernist review “Social Text” (5). Three weeks after the publication of his article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in 1996, in which he combines quotes from postmodern writers with absolutely bizarre physical statements, he publishes another paper to reveal the hoax . He questions the intellectual idleness of the editors, and asserts that because of the conclusion that suited them, they endorsed his article without taking care to analyze the quality of the evidence provided.  The  old catchphrase of hard sciences to soft sciences. “

Three years later, Sokal published with another physicist, Jean Bricmont, a book “Intellectual Impostures”, tearing apart the rhetorical bluff long practiced by certain famous figs (6).

Noting that certain thinkers and philosophers borrow improperly from mathematics and physics concepts which they do not master, the authors decided to carry out an operation of “intellectual cleanliness” to castigate those who try to “pass off as profound a banal assertion by dressing it with scientific terminology. “

How much pompous and insignificant intellectual fraud aimed at impressing readers is thus stigmatized. The ridiculous always ends up taking revenge on those who try to display qualities they do not have.

The main target is Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), a controversial psychoanalyst. Possessing only vague ideas on mathematics, Lacan claims to rely on analogies with psychoanalysis, to display a superficial erudition based on meaningless assertions. The famous Noam Chomsky describes him as “A charlatan aware of being, and playing with the Parisian intellectual milieu to see how far he could lead him in absurdity” (7)

Under false names, the Americans Peter Boghossian, philosopher, and Jamie Lindsay, mathematician, mounted a more daring and more humiliating hoax in 2017 (8). Their grotesque article is rejected by the first prestigious journal targeted, but is accepted by the “Journal of  Cogent Social Sciences”. The paper argues that the male sexual organ is not in fact an organ, but that it is a “social construction that can be responsible for global warming! “

In what will be called “Hoax Sokal squared” (9), these two scientists repeat in 2018, with a third accomplice, to offer in ten months twenty odd articles full of absurdities. Much of it will be published, including a particularly acclaimed article, before the rose pot is discovered.

The higher the usurpation, the harder the fall

So-and-so weighs so many publications! The unrestrained race behind notoriety by publications has distorted and dangerously deviated from ethics and pedagogy, a good number of scientists and academicians, authors and publishers of articles combined.

Scientific fame can be worthily acquired, fortuitously obtained, or indecently usurped, but only genuine merit allows one to keep humbly feet on the ground. An undeserved reputation is strewn with shame and disappointment; and the race behind too high notoriety exposes perilous falls. Sustainable and respectable fame is that which is careful not to ambition beyond merit.

The journals and publishers involved are very similar to our media, which compete in the promotion of intellectual sham. By inviting the excellent ex-specialist in astronomy, Bonatiro, and encouraging decay through extravagance, we ended up making him go back in time to the day of his birth. Quacky emulators will not fail to appear in the future to offer remedies as original as they are designed without any test, before complaining about the little credit given to their findings, and then ridiculing themselves until tripping.

Those who confiscate and arrogate to themselves undeserved status pay it sooner or later, and like bad students, they will not hesitate to cry scandal and make themselves more ridiculous, once flushed out.

Review the weight of the number of publications and the quality of the edition

Scientific promotion by the sheer number of publications is a trap that must be defused. A typical characteristic of usurpers is that very often they can only cheat and scam away from their bases. And the undeserved glare perceived from afar is generally paid for by a well deserved local contempt. Any attempt at recovery should be inspired by this observation. The scale and merit of a teacher or a researcher, it is especially with his professional entourage, his students, his colleagues, that we must evaluate them.

As for oversized journals, the entire publishing policy must be revised. Too much demanded, the great scientists tend more and more to decline this activity which takes a lot of their time. We can only re-mobilize them by compensating their efforts with dignity. This left the field open to many amateurs and opportunists who hastened to accept all the proposals, precisely, no doubt, to treat their miserable CVs.

Contribution – Abdelhamid Charif is Professor of Civil Engineering

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SAKHRI Mohamed

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