Scientific misconduct: What is the link between cured sausage and dishonest authorship practices?

Salami, especially homemade, is one of my favourite cold cuts. I enjoy eating this type of cured sausage for lunch every once in a while. Some people say the taste of salami is different depending on the thickness of the slices. Salami is also a word used to describe papers in which the authors present very little original content since these papers are mostly a duplication of work already published by the authors. These are called salami publications. Instead of presenting the complete story of the research they conducted in the first article they wrote, the authors may have withheld some details to be able to write a second, third, fourth paper, etc. on essentially the same topic, or the authors may publish multiple papers employing similar methodologies to answer similar research questions. The authors are salami slicing or diluting the presentation of their research work to obtain more publications out of it. Regardless of whether the slicing is thin or thick, this is an example of a dishonest authorship practice that the class discussed in “CHEE 687: Research Skills and Ethics.”

We also talked about other improper authorship practices, such as:

  • manipulating data and/or images so that they look better but misrepresent what was found;
  • stretching the truth about research progress;
  • collecting or reporting data in a sloppy manner that leads to the presentation of inaccurate results;
  • sharing others’ ideas or data that you learned about in a confidential setting;
  • plagiarizing, whether including ideas or text from another’s work or your own previous work without properly citing it;
  • publishing the same work in different journals;
  • having another individual write the paper for you while you take credit for being the author; and
  • listing individuals as co-authors of a paper solely due to their reputations or authoritative ranks, even though they did not make a significant contribution to the research.keyword exposure

Just as you would do on a witness stand in the courtroom, behaving ethically as an author means reporting “the truth [i.e., the real data], the whole truth [making no changes to the real data], and nothing but the truth [not including additional information that is not based on the real data].”

Scientific misconduct encompasses all of the improper authorship practices described above since it includes engaging in any activities that are dishonest or involve lying in the data collection and reporting stages, like fabricating and falsifying data or results. The consequences for misconduct can be disastrous to a person’s career (e.g., student expelled, researcher fired, funding lost).

This is the fourth in a series of weekly posts about topics relating to research skills and ethics. Stay tuned for the next post in the series, which will be about best practices for recording and storing laboratory data.

Image from the Laugh-Out-Loud Cats cartoon strip by Adam “Ape Lad” Koford (creative commons license)

When the Hourglass is Half-Full and Half-Empty

Wooden_hourglass_3How does one become a successful engineering student? By studying, I suppose, in order to get good grades in school, and joining clubs, and attending events and workshops. As well, thinking about the future, and making sure everything productive you do can be written into a cover letter or recommendation letter. Then there is learning to network and socialise, and present, and give elevator pitches. And, well, it doesn’t hurt to give good handshakes and own a blazer. Phew. Look at that list. You’ll need at least 72 hours in a day to get through all that.

There is a joke that people make a lot coming into university. “Sleep, social life, good grades. Welcome to university: pick two.” I’ll say this now: there is no guaranteed time-management routine that will help you do everything you want and have to do. There are literally not enough hours in a day. When I look at my agenda today, there are stars next to items that should have already been done. But when I try to set out a schedule that would involve omitting meals, washroom breaks, and sleeping, there are still not enough hours in a day.

So what can you do? You probably didn’t start reading this post to find out there’s no hope left for you. So here’s what I do. I write down all the tasks that I think of but not because I want to do them all. I just don’t want to have to use the brainpower and time I won’t have in order to recall them later. As well, I try to plan every hour of my day so I don’t have to make decisions at a time where I’m running short on energy. But this is not really one-size-fits-all advice.

Instead, I find that the most useful advice to everyone is to be adaptable. Whether that means just accepting that you’ve completely forgotten about an assignment due tomorrow, and you have to start now or else you lose 10% of your grade. Whether that means realising that if you keep up with your perfect routine, you’ll never have time for friends or hobbies or sleeping in. For now, just accept it and do what you think you have to do. If you’re struggling to complete everything, you haven’t necessarily messed up. It probably means you’ve been doing things that you want to do–that is, things that make you happy. And that’s not too bad a trade-off in the grand scheme of things.

Images from Wikimedia Commons (creative commons license)

Peer review process: Confidential or not?

The peer review process is a method of assessing the quality of an individual (in the case of a grant application, for example) or evaluating the quality of a scholarly work (for instance, in the case of a journal article manuscript). It needs impartial reviewers who are experts in the research area for the process to work properly.

I used to think tanonymoushat the journal peer review process was always double-blinded, i.e., the authors did not know who the reviewers of their manuscripts were and the reviewers, in turn, did not know who the authors were. I learned that some journals have a double-blinded peer review process while others have one-sided blinding, i.e., the authors do not know the names of their reviewers but the reviewers know who the authors are. Blinding on one side should not be a problem if the reviewers perform their task objectively and critically.

What are the responsibilities of a peer reviewer and author towards each other? This was a topic discussed in a “CHEE 687: Research Skills and Ethics” class, the content of which is summarized below.

The peer reviewer should:

  • keep the contents of the grant application or manuscript confidential by not sharing it with others;
  • submit his/her comments to the funding agency or journal editor within the allotted time;
  • refuse the assignment if there are any conflicts of interest that can bias his/her assessment of the work;
  • not use any ideas or methods contained in the document (if relevant to his/her own research) until after the reviewed researcher’s work is published; and
  • conscientiously apply any evaluation criteria (supplied by the funding agency or journal editor) to the work being reviewed.

After receiving comments from the reviewers and being invited to resubmit the manuscript, the authors should:

  • respond to each of the comments made by the reviewers with diplomacy and respect;
  • do some further work if additional experiments are requested, since just altering the text in the manuscript will not be enough in most of these cases;
  • be prepared to rewrite sentences or entire sections if the reviewers did not understand the purpose of the research; and
  • consider the reviewers’ comments as an opportunity to improve the manuscript and make it the best it can be.

The peer review process is not infallible (see Nature article about peer review frauds as an example). However, when it is conducted correctly, I believe that peer review improves the quality of the submitted work before it is published.

This is the third in a series of weekly posts about topics relating to research skills and ethics. Stay tuned for the next post in the series, which will be about scientific misconduct and questionable authorship practices.

Image from the Laugh-Out-Loud Cats cartoon strip by Adam “Ape Lad” Koford (creative commons license)

Another puzzle completed

Sometimes we just need a little amusing distraction. We have a Puzzle Corner in the library to help individuals take a break from their work. It is located on the main floor of the Schulich Library of Science & Engineering, walk past the elevators and turn to your left. Below is the 1,000 piece puzzle that was just completed (minus a few pieces that went missing and which I will have fun recreating).

boat puzzleA new puzzle was set out today and is waiting to be assembled. Enjoy!

Being responsible for research work: Who should be a co-author?

I often see multiple individuals listed as authors for a single journal article in the sciences and engineering. While teamwork is expected in these fields, I wonder who did what for the research discussed in the article when the list of authors is long, e.g., exceeds five. Perhaps, some names were included on the paper for political reasons rather than intellectual contribution to the work. In the “CHEE 687 Research Skills and Ethics” graduate course that I am attending this semester, the class discussed criteria or guidelines to consider when determining who should be a co-author on a paper.

meet the authorsCo-authorship is not automatic; it is earned. An individual would be offered co-authorship on a journal article or would ask to be a co-author. To be a co-author, a person should have done the following:
1) made a significant intellectual contribution to the work by participating in the creation of the research question and plan, the data collection, and/or the analysis and interpretation of the results;
2) agree to be accountable for the entire content in the article (not just for his/her contribution), which means that all authors must communicate with each other so that everyone understands exactly what was done and said in the article;
3) participate in drafting the article; and
4) critically evaluate and double check the content of the final draft.

If someone does not do all of the above, one could successfully argue that the person should not be a co-author but, rather, can be listed in the acknowledgements section if he/she helped in some way. Just communicating ideas to the lead author, providing feedback, editing, or helping with a task does not automatically make a person a co-author.

thought experimentThis is the second in a series of weekly posts about topics relating to research skills and ethics. Stay tuned for the next post in the series, which will be about the peer-review process.

Images from the Laugh-Out-Loud Cats cartoon strip by Adam “Ape Lad” Koford (creative commons license)

Reading and writing research: What makes a good scientific paper?

I am fortunate this semester to be able to participate in a new graduate Chemical Engineering course called “CHEE 687 Research Skills and Ethics,” taught by Professor Nathalie Tufenkji. This course covers a wide range of topics dealing with how to conduct research as a graduate student and professional, such as best practices for keeping a lab notebook, how to recognize and manage conflicts of interest, what elements to include when writing a scientific paper, how to determine who should be a co-author on a paper, etc. I find the classes very engaging and practical, thereby inspiring me to write about some of the topics presented with the belief that it might be of interest to readers doing their own research.

The first topic I would like to discuss is about scientific writing. We may have a sense when we are reading a research article that it is difficult to read or that there is something quite not right with the article, but we may not always be able to articulate the reasons why.

middle of nowhereWhat are the characteristics of a good scientific paper? What should we look for when reading a paper and what elements should we consider including when writing one? We tackled this topic in class by discussing what should be in each section of a research article, which is summarized in the points below:

  • Introduction/Background section: Publishing a journal article is a method of communicating research findings and helps build a researcher’s professional reputation. However, Professor Tufenkji also reminded us that one of the purposes of a research article is to educate readers. Imagine that one of the article’s readers is a beginning graduate student in this area. Therefore, the introduction/background section of the article is where the authors should explain the context of the research by summarizing and citing previous work in the area, describing how this study builds on previous publications or is different from them, stating the motivation of the study (the “why”), and presenting the research question/hypothesis (the “what”). This section usually starts from the general (the summary of previous work) and moves to the specific (the research question/hypothesis).
  • Methods section: Includes a detailed description of the steps the authors took to conduct the experiment/study (the “how”) so that readers can reproduce the study if they wish. The more details the authors can provide to help the reader understand and replicate what was done, the better (e.g., state the pH of a sample, the volume of the sample, how or where it was obtained, etc.).
  • Results section: Simply describes what was found. The results section should be presented in the same order as the methods section to make it easier for readers to follow. For example, if the authors conducted two experiments and described the steps for Experiment 1 first in the methods section, then the reader would also expect the results for Experiment 1 to appear first in the results section.
  • Discussion & conclusion sections: Interpret the results by explaining to the reader what the data means and comparing this data to previous published literature on the topic. This is also where the authors use the data to make appropriate and logical conclusions (without generalizing or over interpreting the results) and describe directions for future research.

The authors should write the paper in a way that makes the greatest impact on its readers, such as writing an article title that describes the major finding of the article and writing the article in a language that is as clear as possible (see a list of wordy phrases to avoid using when writing a manuscript).

lol titleRemember that while the article is written in the order that the authors went about conducting the experiment/study (i.e., Introduction/Background – Methods – Results – Discussion/Conclusion), this does not mean that you need to read the article in this order. I frequently skim a research article in the following order to quickly extract the main points: after reading the abstract, I jump to the discussion and conclusion sections to find out what the research all means, then back track to the introduction/background to get the context for the research, look at the results for more details of what was found, paying attention to any figures or tables that summarize the main findings of the article, and finally examine the details in the methods section. If the article is relevant for my own research or impacts my professional practice, I will read it thoroughly, otherwise I will put it aside.

This is the first in a series of weekly posts about topics relating to research skills and ethics. Stay tuned for the next post in the series, which will be about determining authorship for a scientific paper.

Images from the Laugh-Out-Loud Cats cartoon strip by Adam “Ape Lad” Koford (creative commons license)

CmapTools in the Cloud (yay!)

Have I been waiting for this to happen…I’ve been using the freely available desktop version of CmapTools for years, extolling the virtues of this classic concept mapping tool, and now the good folks at the Florida Institute of Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC) have unveiled Cmap Cloud.

Concept maps are graphical representations of knowledge – think brainstorming or mind mapping but a little more structured. They usually start with a focus question and run hierarchically, demonstrating the relationships between concepts. One of the great things about CmapTools is that when you connect two concepts together you are prompted to add a linking phrase to define the relationship. Rather than just typing [pie]–[cherry], you might specify [pie]-can be-[cherry]. It turns out that this is not the easiest thing to do. We can write reams of text on a topic but at the same time get rather stuck mapping it out. In this way, concept maps demonstrate our knowledge of a subject area and reveal misconceptions. When we add new information to maps, we build connections to what we already know and meaningful learning can occur. Concept maps can also be used in groups to reach a shared understanding of the tasks at hand, with the added bonus that concepts in CmapTools can have resources attached to them. If you haven’t yet taken the time to explore the software, I invite you to try today and get in touch with me if you have questions.

Back to the Cloud. The desktop version allows you to save concept maps on a public server and create a website for sharing – amazing – but with the advent of the Cmap Cloud, you can also save your maps there and edit them online. I have been using it for a couple of days now and it can be a little slow at times, but many of the features are there. The nice part is that you can make friends with other Cmappers and share folders to work on projects together.

IHMC also have a new CmapTools for iPad. It is free to download but there is an in-app purchase to be able to export maps and sync them with the Cmap Cloud. I’ll be spending some time with it so look for my review on our new mobile apps blog.

Welcome Aleiah!

aleiah closeup picture

I would like to introduce a new student blogger to the Turret. Her name is Aleiah and she is a student in “CCOM 206 – Communication in Engineering” at McGill this semester. The course gives students an opportunity to develop their writing skills through various types of writing including a research paper, a cover letter, and a business proposal. She is a 3rd year student in Mechanical Engineering who is interested in aerospace and wants to works in aircraft design. She is originally from Winnipeg. Welcome to the Turret Aleiah! We look forward to having your perspective as a McGill engineering student added to the blog!

3-Day Dissertation Writing Retreat

Nov 10, 11, and 12; 9am-4pm

Need to carve out dedicated time to stay on track with your dissertation?  Struggling with writing blocks?  Think you might benefit from consults with writing tutors, librarians and others to help you reflect on and strengthen your work?  Apply now for a 3-day dissertation writing retreat.  Limited spaces available!

Raspberry Pi’s and Arduinos come to Schulich

Launch of Raspberry Pi and Arduino lending program at Schulich - 21 Sept 2015We had a lot of fun this morning at Schulich launching our new Raspberry Pi and Arduino lending programme! These devices are two types of credit-card sized computer which are developing a rapidly growing following due to the ways they can be incorporated into a wide range of projects.

IMG_2108Schulich will start lending these items out later this week, for a loan period of two weeks, and will be monitoring the service over the next few weeks – the kits will be available on a first-come, first-served basis like all other library materials.  We’ll also be lending out a robotics unit and a wearable computing device.  Please come to the Schulich loans desk if you’d like to borrow a kit.

We’d love to hear about the creative ways these are used by the McGill community!  If you take out a kit, please spare us two minutes to give us your feedback using this form, and consider sending pictures of your project.