Academic publishing and scholarly communications: Good reads, April 2018

Academic publishing and scholarly communications: Good reads, April 2018

Do you know what the scholarly community was talking about this month? Here's a curated list of the some thought-provoking posts that got the scholarly publishing talking in the month of April. In addition to trending discussions on “zombie” papers, depression among researchers, fake acceptance letters from journals, and how competition and “Nobel lust” affects researchers’ choices, there were several interesting opinion exchanges among the academics.  

1. Zombie papers and how to slay them for good: If you are a fan of Zombie movies, you'd know that zombies are neither alive nor dead. Did you know that the zombie concept has also made its way into academia? "Zombie research papers" are those that researchers begin working on but which never make it to completion or publication. In this interesting post, Dr. Jonathan Downie, a practicing conference interpreter, takes up this interesting phenomenon and tries to understand why zombie papers exist in the first place -- sometimes researchers get distracted, they give up a specific approach because another angle could increase their chances of acceptance, they find it difficult to convert an 80,000 word thesis into an 8000 word research paper, and so on. The bigger problem, however, is that researchers unwittingly allow these unfinished papers to "go zombie" and reduce the likelihood of critical scientific breakthroughs being made. Dr. Downnie goes on to share some useful tips for researchers to help them ensure that they complete what they started out with and avoid letting their papers go zombie.

2. What reviewers should look out for in a paper: According to Stuart Cantrill, Chief Editor at Nature Chemistry; Rob Eagling, Editor-in-Chief of Chem; Fiona Hutton, Publisher at Cambridge University Press; and Robert Baker, Assistant Professor in inorganic and materials chemistry at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, and associate editor at RSC Advances, there are certain aspects that reviewers should be aware of or look out for when assessing a manuscript, such as plagiarism and data fabrication. Despite the availability of tools to detect these unethical practices, they feel that human intervention plays an important role. This is because several situations demand a judgment call by the reviewers and journal editor to identify whether or not authors have indeed committed misconduct. They also advise reviewers against sharing manuscripts under review with anyone. "Many professors use peer review to train postdocs and grad students," but this should be avoided and the journal editor should always be informed if sharing an unpublished paper is required for any reason. Finally, the authors of this post believe that reviewers have a crucial role to play in maintaining the credibility of science and should play their part to ensure that all published literature is free of flaws.

3. What should researchers do when they are depressed? In this post, researcher Arnav Chhabra talks about some difficult times he faced during his PhD, which led him to enter a depressed mental state. After struggling with serious academic and personal problems, Chhabra finally decided to consult a therapist but not without doubts of how successful this approach would be. The therapy helped him cope with his situation and improved his self-confidence. Chhabra talks about how it is difficult being a researcher and how it is even more difficult for a researcher to identify the signs of depression and seek out help. Chhabra makes a strong case: "Studies have shown that 40% of Ph.D. students are depressed. But if it weren’t for my own experiences, I would not be aware of this—and therein lies the problem. Academics tend to be averse to discussing mental health openly...." By sharing a personal experience Chhabra hopes to encourage other PhD students to follow suit and seek out help when they need it most.

4. Are you sure the acceptance letter you received is authentic? Angela Cochran, Associate Publisher and Journals Director for the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), says the ASCE has uncovered a new scam wherein unscrupulous organizations and individuals are corresponding with authors and sending them fake acceptance letters on behalf of ASCE journals. She mentions seven incidents that involved authors being sent an acceptance letter, or being promised publication in a particular month, and even being duped by someone who claimed to be the editor's friend and would help the paper get published in exchange for money. Two of the authors who fell prey to this scam were from Iran while the rest were from China. Cochran suspects more such cases and believes that probably authors from non-English speaking countries place more trust in people who claim to help them wade through the complex journal publishing process. She feels the need to create more awareness both among journals and authors about these malpractices.

5. Competition in science and the “Nobel lust”: This is an interesting article by Rob Cowen that talks about Brian Keating's recently published book "Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Honor." Brian Keating, a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, and a Fellow of the American Physical Society, was part of the team that announced the groundbreaking discovery about the detection of gravitational waves. In the book, Keating takes the reader through his journey from making the announcement about these findings to them turning out to be inaccurate. He draws from his personal experience and speaks of how "Nobel lust" and the fear of being scooped affected their team's choices and how they affects researchers in general. Highlighting the loopholes in the Nobel Prize, Keating says the prize prevents researchers from thinking out of the box and does not recognize the changing research landscape. 

6. Researcher's trials involving children suspended indefinitely for suspected malpractice: The work of Mani Pavuluri--an accomplished psychiatrist famous for her work on potential treatments for bipolar disorderat the University of Illinois at Chicago and founder of a clinic that helps treat children with bipolar disorder--has come under close scrutiny following allegations of violation of clinical trial best practices. During the course of her research, Pavuluri’s allegedly placed some of the children that were part of her clinical trials at serious risk. According to this report, "She violated research rules by testing the powerful drug lithium on children younger than 13 although she was told not to, failed to properly alert parents of the study’s risks and falsified data to cover up the misconduct, records show." Among other violations, 86% of the 103 subjects enrolled in her study did not meet the eligibility criteria. Ideally, these violations could have been identified at an early stage, but the university’s institutional review board conducted an "insufficient" assessment of the trial's proposal. This case has also been discussed at length in The Retraction Watch.

If you like these recommendations, you might also like our previously published Scholarly Communications Good Reads collections.

And if you’d like to stay tuned to important happenings in the journal publishing industry, visit our Industry News section.

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