A 3-parts system for scientific credibility

In Nature appeared the article “Plagiarism exposed in Romanian grant applications”  by Alison Abbott. This comes after previous articles “Romanian prime minister accused of plagiarism” by Quirin Schiermeier and “Romanian scientists fight plagiarism” by Alison Abbott.

UPDATE: See   the review of integru.org   concerning  the Romanian Minister of Education Ecaterina Andronescu. (and my short comment here).

As a researcher I am concerned about this subject, see the post “On plagiarism scandals in Romania, an easy test“.

Let me explain my views about this subject and, after that, propose a solution for the real problem which lurks beneath, which is the one of scientific credibility.

Here are several aspects about the problem of credibility of Romanian research.

1. In an ideal world, there should be no such thing as Romanian research, there are only individuals, freely communicating across the world via the internet. However, in the real world things are far more complex.

2. Romanian researchers come in several blends. You have mathematicians and hard sciences alike, which communicate their research in a “universal language” (and mostly in some dialect of broken English), let’s call them the “LOUD researchers”.

You also have researchers in the humanities, which may feel cornered by the specific of the language and regional subjects. However, branches of engineers, for example, or medical sciences, which are far more “discrete” about spreading their research results freely on the net, fall in the second category of “DISCRETE researchers”.

3. When it comes to plagiarism and other bad practices, the bad news for the bad guys is that it is now rather easy to detect bad behaviours, simply by using search engines and by communicating with other fellow researchers. Because the net is a new thing (historically speaking), we have to take into consideration the age of the researchers (or a kind of a “virtual age”), splitting the previous 2 classes in pairs: “YOUNG” for those who use the net to cite, to search, to communicate their research, “OLD” for those who think that paper publication is everything and a lawyer is a good replacement for moral, even if they don’t mind to search a bit on the net for fishing new ideas.

So we have:

A – YOUNG LOUD  researcher

B- YOUNG DISCRETE  researcher

C- OLD LOUD  researcher

D- OLD DISCRETE researcher

4. The age is important because in Romania, being a more traditionalistic society, the managers, the bosses, tend to be old. So power is biased towards the old guys.

5. Also by tradition, the humanities and the “practical” (i.e. medical, engineering, …) have a much more stronger cultural influence, which means that in the Romanian culture, power is biased towards the DISCRETE.

In conclusion, “discrete”, i.e. B and D categories are more prone, very vaguely speaking (and not pointing to individuals), to contain abusers, but they are also more likely to have more power in the Romanian research system.

This is supported by the fact that the plagiarism scandals, up to now, at least, were so obvious and so easy to expose. This shows, in my opinion that it always was about OLD DISCRETE guys (according to the definition of “old” I consider here), which have power.

There is, now, the beginning of a power struggle between, the DISCRETE and the LOUD faction. Indeed, the YOUNG  DISCRETE guys are scared of being exposed as not as worthy as their more international YOUNG LOUD fellows, therefore there is not a fight between YOUNG and OLD categories.

Moreover, the situation is aggravated by the fact that, in the last 15 years, say, a lot of people got positions and diplomas which do not reflect their level. The fault, in my opinion, is entirely on the power side, be it the Ministry of Education, various commissions and organisms, the managers of universities, etc.  This produced a significant inflation of the DISCRETE class, be them  old scientific mediocrities (with political talents instead) or their young opportunistic clones.

That is my clinical diagnostic.

If you are not too bored until now, then maybe you shall find some interest in the solution (or “a solution”) which I propose. The purpose is to expose the DISCRETE class to the level of the LOUD class.

The solution it is not to force researchers to do anything, neither to form a scientific police. The solution is to NOT rely on authority arguments, but instead, to look for CREDIBILITY and COLLABORATION.

I propose a 3-parts system:

– the researcher, willing to get credibility, has a web page with his results, in a international language, offering freely his papers or links to open access repositories of its papers and other achievements,

– institutions, be them universities, associations of scientists, ministries of education, academies, smart IT guys offering a platform for communication, which are willing to give credibility AOC  STAMPS,  list the criteria they use on their respective web sites, in an international language,

– the public, that is anybody willing to learn if the researcher is good of anything, can make their opinion by comparing the page of the researcher with the list of criteria of the institution, independently of both previous parts.

The advantages are the following:

– if an institution has stupid, or corrupt, of otherwise not good criteria, then they loose credibility, by exposure to public, as well as the researchers which pride themselves with AOC stamps from the said institution,

– the results (articles, etc) of researchers can be more easily subjected to scrutiny for plagiarism or other bad practices. (There are many other bad practices, among them the selective citations. In “Boring mathematics, artistes pompiers and impressionists” I propose a Google Scholar Maffia tool which could group researchers in the same subject  into small “churches”, citing one another but not the ones outside the “church”.)

– the system is international, which is always a good thing in research,

– there is no reliance on authority. Indeed, suppose that a Romanian power institution issues its AOC stamps based on unreasonable criteria, then the stamps may become a bad mark, hurting both the institution and the researchers which satisfy them

– there is no one-for-all measure. Maybe some researchers desire to be less internationally exposed, but to have more time for teaching. They will take AOC stamps from institutions which price teaching more than research, and so on.

– being dispersed, the system is less prone to manipulation by a small group of individuals. (It is more sensible to “popularity contests” behaviours though.)

There are already efforts towards a net based collaboration against plagiarism, like the site integru.org. There is much more to be done, but my advice for the international “public” is, for the moment, to consider the credibility criterion of having its research papers freely available in open access repositories.

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